Private Control of Foreign Policy

Who “Owns” Foreign Policy?

In recent times there has been much talk about the power of lobbies or special interest groups to influence foreign policy.  For instance, did the oil lobby or the weapon’s manufacturers  play a role in George W. Bush Jr.’s decision to go to war in Iraq?  What sort of hold does the Cuban American groups have over the Washington’s Cuba policy? And, an increasingly asked question, what is the role of American Zionist organizations in shaping U.S. policy in the Middle East?  Actually, this problem of private sector influence has been noted before.  In 1977 George Kennan, the long lived American diplomat who authored the “containment” policy of the Cold War,  made the following observation,  “our actions in the field of foreign affairs are the convulsive reactions of politicians to an internal political life dominated by vocal minorities.”[1]  Today, the role of “vocal minorities” may be so strong in certain important areas of U.S. foreign policy as to call into question the very concept of national interest.

To address this issue of special interests coming to “own” aspects of American foreign policy, and thereby substitute their parochial interests for the country’s national interests, I have written a new book entitled  Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing American National Interests (University Press of Kentucky, 2009).  In this Logos essay I would like to explore some of the issues laid out in greater detail in the book and thus call attention to a problem that impacts us all.

Some Recent Political Background

When Barrack Obama was campaigning for the democratic presidential nomination and, a little later, when he ran for the presidency against John McCain, he used the slogan “change you can believe in.”  As with most campaign slogans it was an open ended assertion that easily fit into the imaginations of a broad set of voters.  This was appropriate because at that point Mr. Obama’s constituency was just about the entire U.S. voting population.  It had been ascertained by Obama’s campaign staff that significant change was what a majority of the voting  public wanted: a change in administration leading to changes in policies both domestic and foreign.  In the case of the latter, the demand fora swift end to the Iraq war was central.  There was also a growing sentiment that a new policy approach was needed to end the chronic Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  The popular desire for change led to the campaign assertion that Mr. Obama was to be seen as the personification of “believable” change.

At that point Barrack Obama  was literally “the people’s man” in the sense that the people had leverage over the candidate, could make or break him, and thus public opinion had to be taken very seriously.  Under these circumstances no one went out to work for Barrack Obama with more fervor than American progressives.  They were, perhaps, the most energetic of those desiring “change you can believe in” and so made up a good part of Obama’s foot soldiers seeking to move  an army of voters in the direction of Democratic Party victory.   That army in all its divisions had to be Obama’s primary constituency if he was to be elected.  And it was–  from the beginning of the campaign up until the very moment the voting process gave him victory–and not one moment more.

Almost immediately after his victory Mr. Obama’s rhetoric changed.  The “change you can believe in” slogan melted away, if you will, with the change of political seasons and was replaced by a decidedly more centrist demeanor.  It was not that  the newly elected  president turned his back on the voting public. He did continue to address them in order to demonstrate action in the face of a continuing economic downturn.  But it was clear that they could no longer demand that he follow the lead of public opinion. While this might be regrettable it was in fact logical given the nature of the American political system.  The voters’  part in the political cycle was ended and they would not come back into political play until the next set of national elections.  What now moved the president was not an electoral campaign but rather the quickly commenced appointment process.  The message put forth by this process was not open ended.  It was not designed to fit neatly into the imaginations of a broad set of the population.  And it certainly did not speak to American progressives.

The president elect’s appointment process addressed a new constituency that was a much narrower element of the population.  What criteria defined this new element?  Well, as the ability to vote defined the pre-election constituency, the ability to directly influence policy formulation as well as the decisions of Congressmen and Senators now defined the post-election constituency. And, how was this influence manifested?  It was, and is,  manifested through the assiduous handing over of money to campaign coffers and party treasuries.  It is manifested by the organized pestering of specific special interests who not only tell politicians what their parochial groups want, but implicitly (perhaps sometimes explicitly) blackmail them by threatening to withhold both money and endorsements if the politicians do not accede to their demands.  These interest groups are our now the elected president’s (and, for that matter, any sitting  president’s) post-election constituency.

Foreign Policy and the Post-Election Constituency

A reasonable question to ask is why the voting population as a whole is not seen as a viable post-election interest group?  The answer lay with the inherent, indeed natural,  local orientation of the vast majority of people.  Under normal circumstances voters are not interested in issues and conditions beyond their local sphere unless those broader issues (such as foreign relations) actually or apparently touch their lives.   Thus, in the last 60 years, it has only been at tense and threatening times that an increased number of Americans show any consistent interest in the world abroad.[2]   When such periods of apparent threat subside, or at least seem to, foreign relations become just that–foreign to the mind of the average citizen–and domestic issues reassert their dominance.  For instance, Gallop polls taken every presidential election year since 1976 show that, with the exception of 2004 (the first post 9/11 election year),  foreign affairs was of little concern to most American citizens.[3]  As to the how and the why of foreign policy formulation, it is safe to conclude that the great majority of Americans do not know how foreign policy is made, and probably do not really care.

None of this is unusual,  particularly in a relatively isolated country like the United States.  Under normal conditions, most people will naturally focus on their local environment.  On a day to day basis,  it is our immediate environment that is most important to all of us.  The local environment supplies the vast majority with their arena of work and sustenance, and is where one finds friends, peer groups and one’s immediate family circle.  To use a Darwinian formula, it is the local environment that supplies the majority with knowledge necessary to make useful predictions,  and thus a concentration on this arena has survival value.  Therefore, even in this day and age of international travel, satellite dishes, and economic globalization we are still, as individuals and in our daily practice, village oriented.

Nonetheless, while there are rational reasons for the citizenry to concentrate their interest and knowledge on their immediate environment, there are also dangers inherent in this provincialism.  “Tuning out the rest of the globe,”

[4] as Alkman Granitsas puts it, and concentrating on one’s locality means that most of us live in ignorance about what is going on beyond the proverbial next hill.  This can result in a false sense of security right up till the moment of crisis when, suddenly, something threatening looms on the horizon.  At that point the increased numbers of citizens suddenly drawn to pay attention to foreign affairs discover their own ignorance and, of necessity, turn for information to others who, it is assumed, know what is going on abroad. These others, government officials,  news “pundits,” and other “reliable experts”  may or may not have vested interests that lead them to present a biased picture of events from afar.  In either case,  it is this limited category of “opinion makers” that are almost automatically sought out by the mainstream media to produce the interpretations upon which citizens rely in order to make sense of foreign events.  Thus a general ignorance of outside events leads to the public’s dependence on media edited news and  “establishment” experts.[5]

Powerless Individuals and Engaged Interest Groups

To this state of general ignorance of and indifference to the world abroad, we can add the average citizen’s sense of political impotence.  After all, most ordinary people feel powerless to influence government policy beyond their local sphere.  That is one reason why so many of them do not bother to vote in elections.[6]    And, this alienation only further confirms most citizens in their localism and deepens their dependence on the media and its “experts” for news.   Once more, this feeling of political powerlessness is not unusual in a country with a large and complex political system where there is little or no room for votes of no confidence, third parties, and doable recall efforts.  To take advantage of the structures of power one most be motivated to master the bureaucratic maze and myriad rules of the system.

Over time the minority of Americans motivated to activism and understanding the power inherent in the political system have developed ways around the problem of the powerless citizen.  In doing so they have transformed our society (at least beyond the very local scale) from a democracy of individual citizens into a democracy of competing interest groups.  Motivated individuals with similar interests and goals come together and form an interest group that pools their financial resources and voting numbers.  Then, as lobbies, they use these resources to influence politicians and government officials to shape legislation and policy to their liking.

These groups are the president’s , and other politicians, post-election constituency.

This situation plays itself out all the time on the domestic political scene.  It also happens when it comes to foreign policy.  In both cases, it should be noted, the propaganda and rationalizations of the lobby quickly defines the world for its members, and equates the group’s future well being with the lobby’s ability to exercise influence over government policy. In the case of foreign policy formulation, the effectiveness of special interests is helped along by the normal indifference the general public shows in events abroad.  Simply put, the interest group nature or our politics combined with popular indifference, maximizes the influence over foreign policy formulation of those lobbies (remember Kennan’s “vocal minorities”) that do have interests abroad.  It is in this way that foreign policy becomes privatized.

Consequences for Foreign Relations

A. The doubtful Status of National Interests

The active role of interest groups in foreign policy formulation makes the notion of national interest problematic.   American citizens assume that such a thing as national interest exists and, in some formal way, guides the government in formulating the nation’s foreign policies.   Also,  just about three quarters of citizens seem to believe that “moral principles”  play a “guiding” role in the pursuit national interests.[7]   However, can these assumptions be true in an environment where foreign policy is often the product of the desires of dominant lobbies pursuing parochial interests?

Of course, in the abstract one can always come up with a list of ends that should constitute national interests –for instance, maintaining a military posture adequate to national defense, or assuring access to sufficient energy resources.  But who has the policy-shaping influence to sway politicians on such questions as what is adequate and sufficient?  Who helps decide the parameters and policies that shape the pursuit of these ends?  Given its record of indifference to foreign policy and dependence on the media for information,  it cannot be the informed opinions of the public at large.  And, if the public is not interested or engaged in a discussion of what the nation’s interests or guiding moral principles are, how can we assume that the foreign policy formulation process references such things at all?

B. The Triumph of Parochialism

How does foreign policy formulation actually take place?  In theory foreign policy is made by the Executive branch of government with financing and, in terms of treaties, “advice and consent” coming from Congress.  The president receives the assistance and guidance of the State Department, the National Security Council, and various intelligence agencies.  He and they are supposedly guided by national interests.  Yet in practice the president and the members of Congress are politicians.  They, and their appointed staff,  are “informed by their political ambitions” and their fates are tied to the electoral process.[8]  Politicians work within a system in which powerful interest groups supply a good bit of the  money that makes campaigning possible and/or help rally the votes that make elections successful.  Under these circumstances, how are politicians, confronted by influential lobbies with vested interests abroad,  likely to define “national interest”?  The answer to this question is that, more often than not, national interest becomes what suits the interests and ambitions of the nation’s political leaders and their most influential supporters.  If this is the case, will elected officials and their political appointees listen to the professional advice of the diplomatic corp if it conflicts with the interests of their influential supporters?

The lobby groups with vested interests in foreign policy may be economic (oil interests, arms manufactures, producers of agricultural exports and imports, large construction concerns, investor groups, etc.) or they may be ethnic or religious (anti-Castro Cubans or more recently more moderate Cuban-American lobby groups;  right-wing Zionist Jews or more recently more “peace oriented” Jewish-American lobbies;  the ever anti-peace fundamentalist Christian Zionists;  and the inchoate presence of Arab-American and Muslim-American lobbies).[9]  As this list indicates there can be competing groups that struggle for control over particular policies.  No matter what the group(s), if they are sufficiently well organized and financed,  and know how to play for political influence,  it will ultimately be their parochial interests that will dominate policy and not some ideal national interest.

The more sophisticated interest groups often make an effort to solidify public opinion behind their position by framing their parochial interests as national ones.  Not only does this make it easier to gain the help of the Congress and political parties, but it also helps obstruct any challenge that might be launched by competing interest groups.  Thus we often find various lobbies taking the “What is good for General Motors is good for America” propaganda approach.  On the foreign policy level, the oft repeated assertion that Zionist interests in Israel somehow reflect an American national interest, is an example of this gambit.  Such rationalizations are however, exercises in obfuscation. By their very nature, interest groups are bound to promote the “special” interests of their membership.  They do not exist to sacrifice those interests to some amorphous greater good.

Creating a “Closed Information Environment”

The United States takes great pride in its free press and media.  So, we can ask, can our information institutions be relied upon to supply objective information that will allow Americans to see through the trick of presenting special interests as national interests?  The answer, most of the time, turns out to be no.  As suggested above, media that automatically relies on government officials and non-objective  “experts”  is also often a skewed media.  It must also be kept in mind that the components of  the American media are for-profit businesses owned by individuals and corporations supportive of (or at least responsive to) the very same interest groups that seek to maintain the privatized status of aspects of American foreign policy.[10] And, almost all of news outlets have financial reasons not to frighten off advertisers by becoming associated with positions that challenge the status quo.  Thus, America’s mainstream media outlets are not ones that will usually give the public all sides of a story.

Therefore, unless a citizen takes the trouble to look for a small number of publications known for their skeptical analysis of government policy and special interest influence, or go to the Web to search out similarly skeptical blogs, or read foreign news sources, one is condemned to a “closed information environment.”  However, it is yet another aspect of the provincial nature of the citizenry that most, even when confronted with important events, will feel no need to go searching for alternative sources of information.  Most will feel comfortable with their traditional sources–local newspapers, the better known news magazines,  radio talk shows,  and especially television.[11]

A major consequence of this information dependency is that it becomes relatively easy to, as Chomsky and Herman put it, “manufacture consent”[12] by creating pictures of events and situations that may be biased to favor particular interests.  This can be done by consistently presenting and  interpreting the news in a certain biased way or by simply leaving out important information judged by editors, owners, and financial backers to be undesirable.  As a consequence of the creation of a closed information environment the American people,  already uninterested in foreign affairs, simply do not know what their  government is really doing abroad.  No where is this more evident than in the Middle East.

Over The Next Hill is Israel and the Middle East

If there is a national interest in the Middle East which should ideally determine US foreign policy it is the continuous trade based access to energy resources.  Policies adopted by the government which unnecessarily complicate or endanger this access would seem illogical or, at the very least, ill advised.  Yet, given the nature of our competitive interest group democracy, there is no guarantee that what is best for the nation as a whole will actually shape policy.  And, indeed,  for over 60 years the United States has pursued policies in the Middle East that have systematically alienated nearly the entire Muslim and most of the Christian population of the region.[13]

Among these policies are not only a consistent support for Zionism, but also Washington’s cultivation and support of cooperative Middle Eastern dictatorships.  Such support (which identifies the US with anti-democratic and oppressive regimes) traded weapons, monetary and military aid and other “assistance” for economic, political and military cooperation. American administrations have seen this policy approach as a way of maintaining “stability” in the region, while simultaneously getting the energy resources the country needs and being able to back Israel.  This policy required our regional “allies,” such as the Mubarak dictatorship in Egypt, the monarchy in Jordan, and the Shah in pre-1979 Iran to, among other things, cooperate with Israel and disregard their own citizens’ views on the horrid fate of the Palestinians.  Most Americans are simply unaware of this situation.

Yet, aware or not, the American people would inevitably be impacted by a real American policy that has been so short sighted that it has contributed to a predictable build up of discontent not only with the dictators but their American supporters. As a consequence there has been a steady rise of anti-American sentiment and, along the way, anti-American violence culminating in the September 11, 2001 terror attacks.   However, this growing anti-Americanism was not a consideration for the lobbies that influenced US Middle East policy.  From their perspective  everything was just fine as long as policy reflected the special interest of an already powerful American Zionist lobby and its allies.  Since 1948 an entire coterie of interest groups  have come into existence to secure the interests of the state of Israel as if that foreign entity was the 51st state of the Union.[14]  These allied lobbies represent more than just an organized and influential element of the American Jewish population.  They also represent a powerful Christian fundamentalist element that supports Israel for “biblical” reasons.[15]

This privatizing of Middle East policy has reduced national interest to parochial interest. Along the way it has also reduced some the government’s “national interest” cover stories to mere nonsense.  For instance, take  George W. Bush Jr.’s persistent talk, while president,  about the spread of democracy to the Middle East as a strategic goal of the United States.  Unless he was completely out of touch with reality (which was always a possibility with this president) he had to be merely spouting propaganda for an American audience.[16]  Thanks to 60 plus years of America’s special interest driven policies, if you give any nation in the Middle East real democracy, the people will almost certainly give you back an anti-American government.  Some of those democratic governments (if they ever do come into existence), being truly responsive to, or at least acting in concurrence with, the opinions of their citizens, could develop the backbone to use their energy resources as a political lever to pressure for a change in America’s support for Israel and its imperialist approach to the Middle East in general.  And, of course, most Americans would be mystified if genuinely democratic governments in this region acted in such an anti-American way.

Despite increasing levels of international terrorism,  American policy has held firm to the position that support for Israel is a vital national interest.  Shortly after winning the Democratic Party nomination for president Barrack Obama made his obligatory appearance before AIPAC, the most powerful of American Zionist lobbies, and pledged support for Israel.  Obama knew he was addressing one of his most powerful post- election constituencies and that there was an unspoken assumption that this lobby’s  parochial interest should be equated with the national interest–at least until the time that counter lobbies evolve enough influence to demand a reassessment of policy.[17]

Conclusion: The Promise of Disaster

The fact that important aspects of our foreign policy have essentially been privatized, and this has led the United States to pursue increasingly disastrous policies reflecting parochial interests, must be called to public attention.  Indeed, it should be made the subject of a national debate.  How is foreign policy presently constructed?  Whose interests does the process presently serve?  What should “national interest” really mean?  Is there some obligation that it be tied to “national values”?  What are our “national values”?  Are they reflected in or contradicted by the influential special interests that now shape much of foreign policy? The list of questions that need answers goes on and on.

Unfortunately, for such a debate to take place the population must leave off its natural inclination both to localism and to reliance on mass media sources of news.  However, even in the recent past, when George W. Bush jr.’s policies had produced rampant cynicism,  most of the traditional information outlets seemed uninterested in any systematic examination of our foreign policy dilemmas and the role special interests play in them.  Nor does the average citizen yet look beyond his or her traditional sources of information.

But conditions might change so as to allow a successful demand for a broad review of foreign policy or, more likely, the rapid growth of counter-lobbies challenging the position of those that are presently dominant.  Unfortunately, that means conditions changing for the worse (for instance, despite a change in leadership, the country finding itself bogged down in yet more war, say in Afghanistan or with Iran, leading to public discontent over the rapid increase in American casualties),  for it seems to be one of the tragedies of the human condition that only stark failure or disaster produces serious questioning of governments by the general population.  And, even if things deteriorate in this fashion,  the special interest lobbies which now have such a negative influence on policy can be expected to defend their vested interests with misinformation and obfuscation.  Within a“closed information environment such tactics have worked well for them and may continue to do so.

It also should be noted that there are quite possible disasters that might act to further an authoritarian trend in government, rather than call for a reform of traditional policies.  For instance, the longer present policies are adhered to the more likely it is that the US will suffer another 9/11 style attack.   That is the sort of disaster that will certainly magnify present anti-Islamic paranoia and encourage whoever occupies the White House to shut down all criticism as if it were high treason, while simultaneously mobilizing the nation for further war in the Middle East.

Whatever the near future has in store, natural localism and a closed information environment will serve as high barriers to reforming the way most of our foreign policies are now formulated.  Nonetheless, in a globalized world affected by transnational terrorism, the costs of adhering to parochially driven policies that do not serve the national interest are growing and dire.  In the present situation ignorance is anything but bliss.  It is rather a posture that can only lead us, repeatedly, over a cliff.


[1]. George Kennan, The Cloud of Danger: Current Realities of American Foreign Policy (Boston: Little, Brown, 1977), 4ff.

[2]. See James M. Lindsay, “On Foreign Policy, Red and Blue Voters are Worlds Apart: Commentary on the National Council/Pew Poll.”  Council on Foreign Relations,

[3]. See Alkman Granitsas, “Americans are Tuning Out the World” in Yale Global On Line, November 24, 2005.  Http://  For a more optimistic assessment of American attitudes toward foreign affairs see the Public Opinion and Foreign Policy Studies sponsored by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations.  Available on the Web at

[4]. Loc. cit.

[5]. See Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988), p. 2.

[6]. In the hotly contested 2004 presidential election 59.6% of eligible voters turned out at the polls. Historically, this was a relatively high percentage for Americans.  The country ranks 139th out of 172 democratic countries in voter turnout according to the Federal Election Commission.  Winning politicians tend not to bother too much about the percentages of eligible voters voting. As Tom Stoppard once put it, “its not voting that’s democracy,  it’s the counting.”

[7].James M. Lindsay, ibid.

[8].See Peter Trubowitz, “Domestic Politics are Gaining Ground in Presidential Foreign Policy Decisions” in Public Affairs Report, University of California, Berkeley (Vol. 41, No. 3, May 2000).

[9]. See Tony Smith, Foreign Attachments: The Power of Ethnic Groups in the Making of American Foreign Policy (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2000).

[10]. See “Who Owns The Media?” at The most notorious example is the extensive media and publishing empire of Keith Rupert Murdoch.  His News Corporation owns newspapers on three continents and all of them uniformly support the Israeli and neo-conservative interpretation of events in the Middle East.

[11]. See the 2004 Pew Research Center study of where people get their news in election years.  The vast majority rely on TV, news magazines, and a daily newspaper. Http://

[12]. See footnote 5 above.

[13]. See the Zogby International poll report, “How Arabs View America” (June 2004).

[14].  See Richard Curtiss, Stealth Pacs: How Israel’s American Lobby Took Control of US Middle East Policy (Washington, D.C.: American Educational Trust, 1990).

[15]. See Irvine H. Anderson, Biblical Interpretation and Middle East Policy: The Promised Land, America, and Israel, 1917-2002 (Gainesville, Fl: University Press of Florida, 2005).

 [16].  Part of the Zogby poll cited in footnote 13 shows that a majority of the Arabs do not believe that the US government is really seeking democracy in their region.  They also feel that, since the United States invaded Iraq, the Middle East has become less democratic rather than more so.

[17]. The University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes conducted an poll in early 2008 that found the vast majority of people across the globe favored a neutral stance for their governments when it came to the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis.  This included 71% of the U.S. public opinion.  Yet this significant majority opinion has had no real impact on the policy positions of the U.S. government.  Why is this the case?  It has to be kept in mind that the opinions expressed by the voting public in a poll must be strong enough to be seen by politicians as a voting issue for their constituency if it is to impact the office holder’s policy decisions.  This is particularly true if public opinion runs counter to influential lobby demands.  If opinion on a particular issue is not seen as shaping the choices of voters it will be trumped by lobby influence in the post-electoral period.


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