In 1985, a political science professor at UCLA named Steven Spiegel published a book called “The Other Arab-Israeli Conflict: Making America’s Middle East Policy from Truman to Reagan.” As the title and subtitle imply, Spiegel was interested in how the interaction of different interest groups contributed to the development of U.S. foreign policy. Groups that support Israel, partisans of the Palestinians and Arab countries, and Cold Warriors who argued that one side or the other in the Arab-Israeli conflict was a better partner in advancing American goals in the Middle East fought it out in Washington with great intensity. “The battle” among these groups, Spiegel told his readers, “is for Washington’s favor.”
A similar struggle is underway today, but it has nothing to do with Israel and its neighbors. Rather it pits Qatar against a coalition comprised of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt and a number of other countries. As the effort to isolate the Qataris enters its seventh week, the Beltway lobbying has kicked into high gear. Various Saudi, Emirati and Qatari officials have made their way to Washington recently to convince American officials of the righteousness of their cause.
Parallel to these government-to-government meetings, officials from these countries and their paid representatives are working hard to sway the views of what can be described as the “policy community” — the wonks, former officials and journalists who help drive the debate in Washington. It is a small part of the game that makes this town, in the words of journalist Mark Leibovich, “This Town.”
The Qataris, who have been outclassed diplomatically for the better part of the last decade, have been particularly active playing catch-up, but almost every country involved has joined the fray. This “messaging,” for lack of a better term, comes in a variety of forms. There is the innocuous coffee with senior officials at the Four Seasons, the Mandarin Oriental, the Ritz or the Willard hotels in between meetings at the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon. There is, of course, a lot of spinning going on, but these encounters can also be informative if participants can push whatever minister beyond their prepared answers. Then there are the decidedly uncool offers to fly “thought leaders” to a given country so they can “gain a better understanding of … the situation.” One consultancy went so far as to offer to organize a meeting on the conflict and help find someone to pay for the event. This, to quote the dominant language of the region, is strictly haram, though it is reasonable to believe that some people have taken up the offer.
Well-fed lobbyists and think tank experts do battle over catered lunches—but it’s not as sleazy as it sounds.
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