Monday, May 23, 2011

AIPAC Fact Check

At this morning's AIPAC 2011 Policy Conference plenary, Executive Director Howard Kohr gave a speech outlining AIPAC's understanding of Israel's major foreign policy challenges. While the majority of the policy positions he outlined were both well-reasoned and legitimate, the evidence behind a number of them was partial, incomplete, or misrepresented. When issues of Israel's security play such an important role in its survival, understanding them accurately is critical. Given AIPAC's 10,000 person-strong audience, as well as its sway in Washington politics, a few factual inaccuracies from the speech are worth noting:

"Democracies do not attack other democracies."

This Sparknotes assertion masquerading as academic expertise merits an academic response: The more accurate statement is "dyadic pairs of democracies, depending how exactly you define democracy, are less likely to go to war with each other than other regime dyads." Democratic Peace Theory is popular in International Relations literature, but has also faced significant challenges.

"Dictators in the region have spent decades destroying any of the mediating structures that could pose a threat to their power – the people-to-people organizations that owe nothing to the State, and are the building blocks of democracy."

Firstly, this was obviously not the case in Tunisia and Egypt, where the military was the mediating structure. Secondly the link between civil society and democracy is not inherent, as Kohr implies in his speech.

"Should the new Egyptian Government renounce the peace treaty with Israel – the inconceivable becomes possible."

This one is true internally, but misrepresents the importance of the point as a security challenge to Israel. The likelihood that Egypt, which receives $1.3 billion in US aid annually as a result of the 1979 Camp David Accords, would be capable of forgoing this aid by renouncing the peace treaty is extremely low. Israel's biggest security challenge from Egypt is terrorist groups operating in the Sinai, not an abrogation of the peace treaty. Kohr did not discuss these groups in his remarks.

"The fact is the best-organized political force in Egypt today is the Muslim Brotherhood."

This claim is questionable. Certainly before Mubarak's ouster, the National Democratic Party had better organization and a strong grassroots organization. Now that the NDP is in "transition" the Muslim Brotherhood might have the most intact grassroots network of any pre-ouster party. However, the movement is ideologically disorganized with regards to its actual policy. Most likely, the best-organized political force in Egypt today is the Egyptian military.

"A true Egyptian commitment to peace means a continuation of the blockade of Gaza."

Actually it would mean continued and specific efforts to prevent weapons trafficking which occurs mostly through tunnels which circumvent the blockade in the first place. The Egyptian continuation of the Gaza blockade exacerbates frustration from the Arab world and Egyptian public due to the conditions it imposes on Palestinian civilians. This frustration foments a lack of trust in government. This lack of trust undermines peace because it constrains the Egyptian government's ability to engage positively with Israel.

"...It means no rapprochement with Iran"

Iran and Egypt are not likely to seriously expand ties given that they compete for influence in the region, and also that Egypt is mostly Sunni and Iran is mostly Shia. Egypt-Iran ties may improve but again, given deep dependence on US aid, Egypt is not about to "jump ship" in the region. Again, internally consistent but a misrepresentation of the likelihood it will happen.

"And it means maintaining the integrity of the Suez Canal."

Here Kohr is referring to Iranian ships which Egypt granted passage through the Suez canal on February 22, 2011. Iran sent the ships through because it could. There has been no significant follow up on this action. The link between this action and Egypt's broader foreign policy posture towards Israel is small.

"Just this past week, we saw an attack by hostile Syrian residents who swarmed to breach Israel’s border."

This is true, but just to be totally transparent: According to accounts on the ground, they were actually Palestinian refugees who were bussed from refugee camps. Palestinian refugees in Syria generally do not have Syrian citizenship, although they live in Syria and could reasonably be considered residents.

"Iran sees this moment as a chance to project its power – its radical agenda -- into regimes across the region."

Iran actually sees the uprisings as a sign of success of the Islamic Revolution. Furthermore, it is exercising caution with regards to its engagement with post-revolution states. More importantly though, Iran's power is not the same as its radical agenda. Its power is its military, its regional influence, the strength of its religious institutions in Qoms and elsewhere, and its ability to stand up to the West. Some of Iran's clerics do in fact have a radical agenda, but this should not be conflated with Iran's offense and defense capabilities.

Kohr's efforts to educate and mobilize his audience are as admirable as they were effective. However, a responsible command of the facts is always the best mobilizer, whether it be for constituents, lobbyists, or policymakers.

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