It was a called a crushing defeat for AIPAC on Capitol Hill.
A full year AIPAC toiled to block the sale of AWACS to Saudi Arabia. AIPAC had a “4-D” strategy to “debate, delay, delink (from the sale of weapons to Israel) and, if all else failed, defeat.” The sale was vetoed 301-111 on October 14, 1981 in the House of Representatives, but it still had to go to the Senate.
While the AWACS aircraft with its massive radar dome was a very high-profile defensive weapon, it wasn’t the real target of that 1981-82 legislative campaign. The F-15 aircraft and air-to-air missiles were certainly more lethal. But more important than all, after the fall of the pro-American (and locally unpopular) Shah of Iran in 1979, the Reagan Administration sought to pivot and establish Saudi Arabia as the “pillar” of American policy in the Middle East. The AWACS, really meant originally for Iran, was the bow on top of a pile of American goodies like F-15s, refueling planes, a new navy, airbases, and more. Selling to the oil rich kingdom meant that the Defense Department could amortize its own purchases of the high-cost gizmos and weapons systems. And Saudi oil revenue would be sent back and spent in the United States.
The sale represented a new American policy. Saudi Arabia – not Khomeini’s Iran, and certainly not Israel – was to be the darling of American policy-makers. The case for Saudi Arabia and the AWACS sale was actually made in the previous administration. Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served in the previous term as Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor, had argued that Israel was not a strategic ally of the United States, and AIPAC had to make the case that the autocratic, corrupt and corrupting Saudi Arabia wasn’t either. Saudi Prince Bandar, a racquetball partner of Colin Powell, was provided an office on Capitol Hill by one of the Republican Senate leaders so that he could make the rounds of offices with ease. One Saudi lobbyist, a long-time Washington veteran who once served in the Kennedy White House, coined the slogan “Reagan or [Menachem] Begin,” attempting to challenge the patriotism of anyone who opposed the sale.
|Saudi AWACs craft|
AIPAC testified in Congress that the sale – and the pro-Saudi shift in policy – was bad for America and bad for the Middle East. On occasion, AIPAC didn’t even raise the argument that the sale would also endanger Israel.
|Prince Bandar and President|
Reagan in Oval Office
Yes, the AWACS sale to Saudi Arabia was perceived as a major AIPAC loss. The senior staff at AIPAC certainly felt like it was that day when we dragged ourselves back to the office after the Senate vote and shared a cry in a side office.
Today, looking back at that sale in 1981, at events since and at the recent Senate confirmation of Chuck Hagel, neither the AWACS sale nor the Hagel appointment should be placed in AIPAC’s loss column.
Just days after the AWACS vote, the State Department’s legislative office called AIPAC’s lobbyists to request their assistance in gathering support for passage of the Foreign Aid Bill in which many countries and foreign programs were included. It has been an axiom on Capitol Hill for decades that “Israel is the engine that pulls the Foreign Aid bill through Congress” and that AIPAC is an important ally for Administrations.
After the bruising AWACS fight, it was years before an Administration attempted such an unjustifiable sale again. Saudi Arabia never became the pillar of U.S. policy, and by 2001 the U.S. Administration had to work overtime to shield the kingdom from embarrassing facts about the 9/11 attacks.
I doubt AIPAC’s leadership ever sat down and wrote out rules that it learned from the AWACS battle. But 30 years later these lessons were internalized, at least by me:
• Washington campaigns should be about policies, not personalities.
• Congress represents the American public’s sentiment, and that sentiment is strongly pro-Israel.
• Administrations, and their “realist” advisors, often worry more about “interests.” I cannot think of one president who has not clashed with Israel or its American supporters over his perception of American “interests.” Those interests include oil, American arms sales, Israeli arms sales, territories, etc.
Si Kenen (left) and the author (1970s)
• AIPAC’s founder, Si Kenen, once told me decades ago, “Administrations come and go; Congress is constant.” He also reflected on the election cycle and cautioned, “In Washington, even-numbered years (run-ups to U.S. elections) are pro-Israel; odd-numbered years (after an election, such as 2013) are pro-Arab.
• Pyrrhic victories for one side – which the Hagel’s nomination will turn out to be – does not always translate to a loss for the other side.One writer who I admire recently wrote AIPAC lost the battle “to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons.” Well, despite the calumnies of the Washington Elders of Anti-Zion that he mentions (Baker, Brzezinski, Gates, et al), AIPAC possesses no ICBMs, squadrons of F-15s or submarines which can destroy Iranian nuclear facilities. But it can, does and has pushed in Congress for stronger sanctions and for larger Israeli military aid packages, often against Administration preferences.
As AIPAC convenes in Washington with tens of thousands of pro-Israel Americans of all ages, religions, colors, and political affiliations it is wrong to view it as a winner or a loser. Citizen activists at the AIPAC meeting will meet with virtually every member of Congress. AIPAC plays predominately in the congressional arena, the arena that belongs to the American public, the political activists and the voters. It’s the arena where all who play and compete are winners.
The author worked for AIPAC in Washington and Jerusalem from 1972-1997. He was in charge of the public relations campaign during the AWACS debate. Sphere: Related Content