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
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
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
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
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.