Despite Turkey being one of America’s closest allies in the Middle East and beyond, the US Congress still raises the rather thorny issue of the Armenian genocide perpetrated by the Turks during the First World War. Leaving aside the (lack of) historical and scholarly propensity and activism of the House of Representatives, why would Congress deliberately bring up such a controversial issue, knowing that it would be incurring the ire of a country providing invaluable help in stabilising multiple American interests in Syria, Egypt, Iran and Israel?
The answer lies in the Armenian lobby — and lobbies in general — that play an integral role in tweaking American foreign and domestic policy this way or that. There are enough influential Armenian-Americans that coax and cajole American congressmen to take up the issue in the House or in the Senate, in exchange for campaign donations, business contracts and the like.
The Israel lobby has already become fabled in American political circles (it was already in Pakistan) with regard to its influence over the executive and legislative branches of the American government. And for good reason. Israel receives gargantuan amounts of military and non-military aid despite an allegedly rocky relationship between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And in Israel’s case as well, it can be argued — and has been by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer in their book The Israel Lobby — that this aid is against American strategic interests in the region.
This shows that American foreign policy can be tweaked to such an extent that in favouring special interest groups, of which Armenians and Israelis are but examples, America can even undermine its own strategic interests.
Which brings us to the matter at hand: Arif Rafiq quite excellently pointed out in his article “Power and popularity” (June 22) the disadvantages of Pakistan’s negative image in the public perception and political sphere of the US. Not only has it translated into unfavourable policy (read Dana Rohrabacher’s activism regarding Balochistan), but also public apathy as witnessed during the floods of 2010 and 2011. The purpose of a lobby is to try and cajole the US into adopting favourable policies precisely to avoid these kinds of political and social pitfalls. And they can do this by promoting certain policies in the legislature, while launching public relations campaigns simultaneously.
Unfortunately, the Pakistan lobby in the US has not been very effective. The websites that I have visited haven’t been updated for years and the Pakistani embassy has terminated the services of professional lobbying groups citing a lack of funds. In such a case, Pakistani-Americans that have a vested interest in healthy ties between the two countries should act. Pakistani-Americans are a 300,000-strong, relatively wealthy and integrated community, whose members occupy prominent positions as doctors, scientists and businessmen. While the Association of Physicians of Pakistani Descent in North America has done a lot of work in terms of a favourable health policy towards Pakistan, this needs to be expanded. It is unfortunate that the notable Pakistani-American personalities of late have been Syed Ghulam Nabi Fai and Mansoor Ijaz. Furthermore, the Islamic Circle of North America, a primarily Pakistani organisation, has also been detrimental to better relations as it called for a global Islamic empire and endorsed terror attacks in India, as the Investigative Project on Terrorism uncovered.
Yet, there is reason for optimism. For those who might contest that America’s abject relationship with Pakistan is an obstacle, I say that favourable policies towards a particular party can be decoupled from public perception. The US has always had a great relationship with Saudi Arabia, despite the Arab monarchy having a fairly negative public image. Conversely, with countries like Cuba, the US has a terrible political relationship but strong people-to-people contacts, despite the travel ban. The state of a political relationship has rarely been a factor in lobby groups getting what they want from Congress. In fact, that is what they set out to change.
The lobbying culture in the US is not exactly democratic as it involves copious amounts of money that is more or less exchanged under the table; glorified backscratching if you will. But for the sake of Pakistan’s — and in this case, America’s — interests, it is a culture that should be taken full advantage of.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 4th, 2012.
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