Monday morning marks the formal opening of the annual three-day policy conference of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) which, according to AIPAC’s press announcement of the event, is “consistently ranked as the most influential foreign policy lobbying organization on Capitol Hill.” You can expect a strong focus on Iran and a very hawkish line towards same. The press release makes the point that “ALL three remaining Presidential candidates, ALL four leaders of Congress… AS WELL AS Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will address the conference. (Emphasis in the original.) So much for the argument that AIPAC really isn’t as powerful as its critics, like Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, claim.As Lobe notes, following the conference more than 5,000 AIPAC delegates will head to Capitol Hill to lobby their members of Congress -- and direct negotiations with Iran isn't likely to be one of their goals. That detail brings to mind the last AIPAC conference in March, 2007, which just so happened to coincide with the Democratic Congress' first funding bill for the war in Iraq.
At the time, AIPAC lobbied heavily against one provision initially included in the Democratic war funding bill that would have barred the president from launching an attack on Iran without the explicit consent of Congress. Asked why the measure was removed, Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX) told one of my colleagues at the time that "our friends at AIPAC" had bombarded members of Congress with phone calls expressing opposition to measure. That opposition was due to the belief, as Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-NV) told the Associated Press, that the measure "would take away perhaps the most important negotiating tool that the U.S. has when it comes to Iran."
Interestingly, when I interviewed Berkley about the measure a few days later, she downplayed AIPAC's role in getting it removed, claiming to me that the group only instructed its members to lobby against the provision after the Democratic leadership had already removed it. Sensing that the move was generally unpopular with the Democratic base, she repeatedly tried to shift the conversation to the failures of the Bush administration, rather than her support for an aggressive stance toward Iran. Of course, her claim that AIPAC played no role in getting the Iran provision removed was cast in doubt not only by Cuellar's comments (an account others, such as Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA), confirmed to me), but by the fact that Berkley was wearing an Israeli/U.S. flag lapel pin at the time of the interview (she will also be "making the case for Israel" at this week's AIPAC convention).
All of this back history is important not only because AIPAC is back in town, but because, as the Capitol Hill publication CQ noted last year:
On March 13, the same day House Appropriations Chairman David R. Obey, D-Wis., said he had removed the Iran provision from the draft war spending measure, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., quietly promised Appropriations Committee Democrats that she would soon bring the measure up as a stand-alone bill, said James P. Moran, D-Va., who attended the meeting in Pelosi’s suite.Pelosi's promise to hold a stand-alone vote on the Iran measure was confirmed to me by several members of Congress, all of whom cited it as a reason not to get too upset about its removal from the war funding bill. Of course, like the Democrats' pledge in 2006 to end the war in Iraq once they took over Congress, this promise too has gone down the memory hole. Congress has had ample time to rename post offices and congratulate college sports teams, but apparently not a moment has been free to address this crucial issue of war and piece.
Meanwhile, Pelosi has had plenty of time to travel to Israel, where she recently asserted that "all options", including military action (naturally), need to remain on the table when dealing with Iran. Yet to my knowledge no one has called Pelosi out for this broken promise -- if she weren't a respected, powerful politician, some might even venture to call it a "lie" -- and none of the Democratic lawmakers I spoke to have threatened to withdraw support for her Speakership.
When it comes down to it, party loyalty and winning votes -- which means not upsetting the most hawkish elements of the Israeli lobby, especially ahead of the November presidential election -- is more important than taking concrete steps to prevent what would be a clear violation of international law. It would be naive to think that this isn't -- and always has been -- the case with politicians, but that doesn't make it any more comforting.
Lysander Spooner is looking more prescient every day...