Interest Group Foreign Policy

Capitol Hill was recently roiled by an issue of no obvious concern to America: the World War I genocide committed by the Ottoman Empire against its Armenian population. But the tendency of Washington policymakers to concoct foreign policy to satisfy influential interest groups has become quite common, from Haiti to Israel to Eastern Europe to Turkey.

Consider the emotional controversy over the Armenian genocide resolution. What conceivable relevance did this issue have to the U.S. government?

The genocide was begun almost a century ago by a nation that no longer exists. Everyone who planned the murders and most likely everyone who participated in the killings are dead. The successor state of Turkey is unlikely to stage a repeat performance. Most congressmen know little enough about U.S. history, let alone the circumstances of the Ottoman Empire during World War I.

Yet if our esteemed solons feel competent to judge the Ottomans, why stop there? Should Congress denounce Italy because the Romans destroyed the city of Carthage and sowed the ground with salt? Or chastise Mongolia because Attila the Hun spread death and desolation throughout Eurasia? Perhaps Britain deserves chastisement for botching the partition of India and Pakistan.

Surely the murderous expulsion of ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia, Poland, and other states after World War II warrants attention. Italy’s conquest of Ethiopia should not be ignored. But also deserving mention is Ethiopia’s brutal depredations against Eritrean secessionists. And who can forget the horrors committed by alleged republicans during the French Revolution?

Of course, the Armenian genocide resolution was introduced to bash Turkey, not to teach history. The Armenian lobby hoped to use the U.S. Congress as its club. In seeking to advance its agenda, the lobby exhibited an almost frivolous disregard for the impact on U.S. foreign policy. Only when the magnitude of the threat to U.S.-Turkish relations become too obvious for even a hermit to miss did the House Democratic leadership sideline the resolution. Whether Congress should have yielded to Turkish pressure after making the measure a priority is an open question. But on its merits the resolution should never have come up.

Similarly, America’s trade embargo on Cuba reflects the worst sort of interest group politics. Although the consensus within Florida’s sizable Cuban-American community in favor of the embargo is breaking, fear of losing votes continues to paralyze American presidents and presidential candidates.

Whatever sense an embargo might have made during the Cold War, when Cuba was allied with the Soviet Union, that justification disappeared years ago. The embargo has been repeatedly tested and has repeatedly failed. Fidel Castro has outlasted eight – perhaps soon to be nine – presidents and outlived five of them. While Europeans invest in and trade with Cuba, Washington fulminates futilely, having turned Castro into an international symbol of resistance to Yankee imperialism.

Eliminating the embargo wouldn’t guarantee the end of communist rule in Cuba, but it would introduce an important force for destabilization. And lifting the embargo would prevent Castro and his cronies from blaming America for their own disastrous decisions.

American policy towards Ukraine has been significantly influenced by Ukrainian emigres in the U.S. Support for the so-called Orange Revolution was pressed by Ukrainian-Americans who tended to hail from the more nationalistic, Ukrainian-speaking sections of the country. Of course, advocates of Viktor Yushchenko claimed that he would move his nation closer to America than Russia, but his differences with Viktor Yanukovich always seemed smaller in practice than in theory. Both candidates represented economic oligarchs; both advocated membership in the European Union and friendship with Moscow.

The tortured course of the Yushchenko government reinforces this judgment. Well-publicized U.S. involvement has generated few benefits for America. Yet even now some analysts talk about bringing Ukraine into NATO. How would that benefit Washington? The U.S. won the Cold War while Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union. Attempting to turn Ukraine into an American ally would further entangle the U.S. in Ukraine’s volatile internal conflicts as well as in that nation’s complicated relationship with Moscow. How Washington would defend Ukraine, absent the use of nuclear weapons, also is unclear.

Similarly, the support of the Eastern European ethnic diaspora in the U.S. accelerated NATO’s rapid expansion eastward after the fall of the Berlin Wall, which increased Washington’s military commitments but not military strengths. Polish-Americans, Baltic emigres, Hungarian refugees, and others strongly lobbied for quick inclusion of their homelands in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Doing so was in the interest of the prospective members, not America.

The likelihood of a revived Russian threat was and remains minimal. Moreover, the U.S. has nothing at stake which warrants going to war on behalf of new nations which spent decades as part of the Soviet empire, whether as constituent republics or nominally independent satellites. Put bluntly, if the U.S. could survive then as a free nation with Estonia a part of and Poland dominated by the Soviet Union, the U.S. could survive now as a free nation with Estonia and Poland intimidated by Russia. The desire of Eastern Europeans to be protected is understandable but irrelevant. The central and eastern European members of NATO are security black holes. America defends them but they do not defend America.

U.S. policy towards Serbia also has been driven in part by the diaspora of its adversaries. For instance, Croatian-Americans were vocal when Croatia launched a vicious attack against the minority Serb population in Krajina. Washington refused even to acknowledge as ethnic cleansing one of the region’s largest examples of ethnic cleansing.

The Albanian-American lobby was even more active in demanding intervention in the ugly but nondescript Serbo-Kosovar civil war. Some of them openly expressed their lack of concern for victims of violence elsewhere, such as in Sierra Leone, where a quarter of a million people were being murdered and thousands more were being maimed – with no discussion of American or NATO intervention. Albanian-Americans cared about Albanians, not foreigners or, frankly, Americans, let alone abstract U.S. foreign policy.

Washington’s policy towards Haiti also has been infected by interest group politics. Over the last century the U.S. has routinely intervened and meddled in Haiti, without much effect, or at least positive effect. In 1994 the Clinton administration gave in to sustained pressure from African-American legislators to invade.

There was no policy reason to occupy the poor nation. Haiti was a humanitarian tragedy, not a security threat. It had been misgoverned since it won independence two centuries before. The “legitimate” leader supported by black Democrats was Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a violent demagogue who proved to be such an impediment to progress that the U.S. intervened a decade later to oust him from power and the country.

Of course, the 800-pound gorilla of interest-group directed foreign policy is Israel. There’s an obvious affinity between the U.S. and Israel, and that is reflected by strong support from many Jews and some Christians. The interest of the former is understandable and obvious. The latter tend to reflect a strained and minority eschatological vision – which basically assumes that Jews must be gathered together in Israel and slaughtered before Jesus Christ can return. For Jews, Israel is an end. For this group of Christians, Israel is a means. But the two groups’s policy prescriptions often overlap.

There is no good foreign policy reason for America’s enduring support for Israel. That is, the U.S. gets no geopolitical benefit in return for its extensive financial aid, military sales, and diplomatic backing. Styled an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” for America, Israel has never acted as such in any international conflict or crisis.

To the contrary, during the Cold War Richard Nixon risked nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union, by raising America’s military alert levels, to protect Israel during the Yom Kippur war. Israel was not a military asset during Gulf Wars I and II. To the contrary, Washington pressured Israel to keep out of the conflict. Had Israel responded to Saddam Hussein’s Scud attacks in 1991, the Arab anti-Iraq coalition might have collapsed.

Moreover, U.S. support for Israel, particularly indirect financing of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories – understandably seen throughout the Muslim world as an aggressive attempt at colonization that threatens to dispossess millions of Palestinians of their homes – has become a significant grievance for terrorists and others hostile to America. In sum, Israel is a security negative for America. That says nothing about other connections between the two nations. But the normal foreign policy basis for such strong relationship are absent.

There’s nothing illegitimate in any of these groups showing up in Washington to ask politicians to advance their special interests. That describes most domestic policy debates. Much if not most of what legislators and executive branch regulators do is act on behalf of one or another interest group to mulct other interest groups, as well as the public. So it is with the minimum wage, labor law, universal health care, energy subsidies, and welfare programs. Similar are the fights over international economic issues, such as free trade agreements and agricultural subsidies.

And so it is with core foreign policy disputes. Although debate participants usually present their arguments as matters of abstract national interest, many proposals for foreign aid, diplomatic support, alliance relationships, and even war are primarily, and sometimes purely, self-interested. That doesn’t mean the arguments are illegitimate. But it does mean that the public should be more skeptical of those making such arguments.

Moreover, questioning the motives of advocates is perfectly legitimate. The point is not to suggest “dual loyalty” on the part of American citizens. Rather, it is to highlight the fact that many measures, foreign and domestic alike, would sacrifice the national and public interest for the narrow demands by one group or another. That is, some people are pushing policies that primarily serve interests other than that of the U.S.

For instance, farmers want money even if it means ripping off taxpayers. It is the same with many of the groups pushing foreign policy initiatives. The problem is not limited to U.S.-Israel relations. Ethnic Armenians recently demonstrated their desire to embarrass Turkey irrespective of the impact on U.S. Mideast policy. The public should challenge advocates in all of these cases.

The conduct of U.S. foreign policy seems remote to most Americans. But when the government acts it effectively commits the entire nation in a collective and coercive endeavor. So acting should be reserved for cases in which all Americans, and not just a few Americans, have something significant at stake. Foreign policy should be more than just another arena of interest group politics.