A Defeat for All-Powerful Aipac?

Jeffrey Goldberg is a columnist for Bloomberg View writing about the Middle East, U.S. foreign policy and national affairs. He is a national correspondent for the Atlantic, the author of "Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror" and a winner of the National Magazine Award for reporting. He has also covered the Middle East as a staff writer for the New Yorker.
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The Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald recently asked on Twitter: "Would a House vote against a Syria strike be AIPAC's biggest defeat in Congress in at least a decade?"

Greenwald has, for many years, advertised his profound distaste for Israel, so it's reasonable to assume that he's rooting for the weakening of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the main pro-Israel lobbying organization in Washington.

But his loaded question is a good one, and worth answering. The answer is yes, with one large caveat.

The pre-caveat reason that the answer is yes is obvious: Being on the losing side of any political campaign can't help but diminish a lobbying group's reputation, especially when there are so many people -- I'm looking at you, Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer -- ready to argue that an Aipac defeat would mean something profound about the future of U.S.-Israel relations.

If I believed in conspiracies, I'd be tempted to think that President Barack Obama -- whose dislike for Aipac nearly matches Greenwald's dislike for Israel -- dragged the group into what at the moment looks like a losing battle to get Congress to approve an intervention in Syria just to tarnish Aipac's reputation as all-knowing and all-powerful.

But since I don't believe in conspiracies, it seems obvious that the president's national-security team sincerely believed the hype about Aipac -- that it could move members of Congress to do things they otherwise wouldn't do -- and therefore drafted the group, along with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu , to aid in the Sisyphean task before them.

An admission: Last week, I thought the same way. I believed that there was only a small chance the president could lose once he began making the argument that Israeli security was at risk if he didn't bomb Syria, and once he got Aipac to make that argument for him. But I forgot the golden rule of lobbying: The most successful lobbying groups are those that advocate for issues that are already popular with the American people, and therefore with their representatives in Congress. No group -- not Aipac, not anyone else -- can overcome the broad public aversion to military engagement in Syria. Members of Congress listen to lobbyists, of course, but mainly what they listen to are voters. (By the way: Aipac, understanding the second golden rule of lobbying, knew that it was exposing itself when it agreed to campaign on behalf of the president, but it really had no choice. When the White House calls, it is best to answer.)

Now, the large caveat. Aipac has two main missions. The first is at the absolute core of its existence: advocating for continued U.S. aid and political support to Israel as a way of buttressing the two countries' close ties. The second is to work, in whatever way possible, to convince the U.S. to be tough on Iran .

Neither of these missions will be unduly affected if Congress fails to support Obama's call for action in Syria , for the simple reason that support for Israel is strong across the U.S., and because Iran, unlike Syria, is understood by large numbers of Americans to pose a national-security threat. If American support for Israel wanes, then Aipac is in trouble. If Americans shift their opinions on Iran or become comprehensively isolationist, then Aipac will have difficulty with that portfolio, too. But there are few signs that either shift is happening now. (Although if Israel and Aipac aren't worried about an eventual diminution in American public support, they're not paying attention.)

For now, though, both Israel and Aipac should survive this uproar intact.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jeffrey Goldberg at goldberg.atlantic@gmail.com