Image from Flickr user Ben Wikler.

Washington is a city that runs on special interests. Each year, billions of dollars are spent by lobbying firms and organizations, a fact that’s becoming more and more of a national focus. But while the rates at which corporations are writing checks has become a flashpoint in the 2016 presidential primary, the role of lobbying in foreign policy receives far less attention, despite its role in defense policy, the oil industry, and trade. The lack of attention also masks a wide gap between the moneyed interests that influence Congress, and those who try to oppose them.

Spending by groups dedicated to foreign policy makes up a very small percentage of the $1.6 billion spent every year by lobbyists. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a bipartisan non-profit that tracks special interest spending on the Hill, 2014 saw around $6 million spent by what they call “Foreign and Defense Policy” groups, and as of their latest report 2015 has seen around $3 million.

But not all foreign policy lobbying groups are created equal. While the CRP reports that for 2014, the Council for a Livable World topped the list of political contributors in 2014 with $611,382 and the American Task Force Argentina was the highest spending lobbying group at $1.49 million, the numbers don’t tell the whole story. The site has a separate category just for pro-Israel groups, and a look at the amount of money flowing into politics from these groups shows why. In 2014, pro-Israel groups spent just under $4 million on lobbying, with over $3 million of that coming from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Political contributions from the J Street PAC were over $1.8 million, making them the highest contributor for the 2013-2014 fiscal cycle by just under $1 million.

Although their focus is domestic, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee points to the moneyed power of AIPAC when it comes to the power imbalance in special interests.

“We try to stay away from foreign policy,” ADC President Samer Khalaf says, citing their focus on domestic issues facing Arab-Americans and prospective immigrants. But they make an exception for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Palestine-Israel has a unique place in US policy in general…That issue we deal with.”

And when it comes to that debate, AIPAC is the biggest name on the Hill. Along with the huge campaign contributions and manpower AIPAC can throw at debates comes a level of political support that opponents can’t compete with.

“Netanyahu came and spoke to Congress,” Khalaf says. “That says it all.”

“We lose by default,” he says of the disparity in exposure. “We hear it all the time, ‘We never hear from your side, never hear your point of view.’ A lot has to do with funding. We have to focus on certain people, certain issues.”

What does it take for those “good guys” to win, especially when faced with widespread public opposition or lack of information?

But while the strength of AIPAC’s money in politics was once a forgone conclusion, the successful passing of the Iran Deal could signal a shift. The National Iranian American Council, which represents Iranian-Americans and advocates for engagement with Iran, has gone head-to-head with pro-Israel groups before, most recently when Congress was voting on the Iran Deal.

The hard-won agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear capabilities in exchange for sanctions relief took years of negotiation between the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1), and Iran. But US involvement–along with the sanctions relief the deal hinges on and the Iranian people desperately need to boost their economy–was threatened by a significant block of Republicans and some Democrats who vowed to oppose it. With thirty years of animosity and mistrust between the US and Iran, the deal’s passage wasn’t a foregone conclusion. A great deal of political capital and money has been spent by both politicians and lobbying groups, such as AIPAC, to keep the status quo on Iran-US Policy. But supporters of the deal, including the majority of Democrats in Congress, were able to get the deal safely passed.

According to NIAC Policy Director Jamal Abdi, the Iran Deal passing is “like the NRA losing on gun control,” a previously unimaginable win for the underdog.

“The Iran Deal is an example of powerful, moneyed groups being thwarted by grassroots organizations with nowhere near [the same level of] influence,” Abdi says. “I hope that this example can be replicated, and demonstrates that even with the climate and rules so rigged, it’s still possible for the good guys to win.”

But as Abdi points out, this kind of success isn’t the norm. For this particular case, the fact that the president himself was invested heavily in reaching a workable agreement with Iran helped immensely. It gave NIAC and their partners a foot in the door that otherwise may be difficult to get, allowing for more efficient coordination and the White House as an ally on a high profile cause. More often, though, organizations are working against the grain, battling both ingrained Congressional positions and public misinformation or apathy.

What does it take for those “good guys” to win, especially when faced with widespread public opposition or lack of information? In polls running up to voting on the Iran Deal, the public responded differently depending on how they were asked about their support, showing a continued opposition to Iran even as they supported the specifics of the deal.

“…A very large percentage of Americans doesn’t know much about the Iran deal,” Greg Sargent wrote about the polling results at Washington Post. “Thus, in the polls that don’t describe it and only offer a binary choice, the answers reflect dislike of Iran. By contrast, the polls that hint at the possibility of actual success in limiting Iran’s nuclear program—and only offer a binary choice—register more public support. In the first batch, people are saying, “we distrust Iran.” In the second batch, people are choosing “the thing that seems to make a nuclear Iran less likely.””

For the American public, foreign policy ranks low on the list of electoral priorities.

“For a long time, we were the extreme position,” Abdi says of NIAC’s support for engagement with Iran. Along with pro-Israel groups, Iran policy has been shaped by money from the Mujahadeen e-Khalq, an exiled political movement that was able to sway legislators to both support their claim to power in Iran and get them off the government’s list of terrorist organizations in 2012.

Abdi points at a few factors that led Congress to approve the Iran Deal. The administration’s investment in its victory helped a great deal, adding political capital that was needed to get a high level of exposure to the pro-deal side of the debate. But when it came to actually backing the deal, the grassroots nature of groups like NIAC shined. “There was a coalition of organizations working closely,” Abdi says. “No one as big as AIPAC, but we worked together.”

That spirit of collaboration was echoed by Khalef in how the ADC tackles issues, although he acknowledges that the nature of their work tends to draw less fierce debate early on. “No one is going to be opposed to you when you’re arguing for civil rights,” Khalef says. The opposition comes when the details of a plan emerge and legislation is up for debate. As the only grassroots national Arab American civil rights organization, they are on the board of the Leadership Conference on Human Rights. With over 200 member organizations, their combined power leaves them with “no real opponents,” according to Khalef.

But he did cite one significant mistake that the organization is working on fixing: engaging in local politics rather than going straight to the biggest centers of power. “By the time they are congresspeople and senators, it’s too late to change their mind,” he says. “When we try to get involved on issues, we go directly to the top. A lot of time we’re too late, and they’ve already formed opinions.”

The Iran Deal wasn’t the only recent reversal of long-standing policy norms, though. The normalization of relations with Cuba also saw a major shift, as well. According to Michael Maisel, Engage Cuba’s Policy and Communications Associate, the trick was convincing Congress of that support.

“It seems from issue to issue, Congress is last to get the memo,” he says. But as advocates for normalized relations have found, public support doesn’t always translate to policy reforms. “We know that just because the American people support a policy, it doesn’t guarantee that Congress will act.”

Along with a coalition of other organizations supporting normalization, Engage Cuba was on the forefront of efforts to reopen embassies and continue to work to end the embargo. But although most Americans favor normalized relations, they still confront a similar issue that the ADC and NIAC face: A lack of public understanding about foreign countries.

For the American public, foreign policy ranks low on the list of electoral priorities. In May, a Gallup poll found that 28 percent of Americans consider foreign affairs “extremely important” in the 2016 election, while a CNN poll from July has foreign policy as the most important issue to just 10 percent of respondents.

A lack of information was cited by everyone as a hurdle. Without public support, putting pressure on politicians becomes considerably more difficult, especially when coupled with competition from big-money opposition.

As Maisel, Abdi, and Khalef spoke to, the political system might not keep up with public opinion.

“A lack of information about the Cuban reality and the impact of US policy has been an obstacle to reforming US-Cuba policy for decades,” Maisel says. “ Ironically, most of the hardline supporters of the status quo in Washington are people who have never been to Cuba or haven’t been in over fifty years.”

The NIAC faces similar misunderstanding, as does the ADC. “Not many people know a lot about Iran,” Abdi says, citing a fear that an Iran with normalized standing in the world is seen by many as a threat to regional stability. “It doesn’t have to be to the detriment of US interests.”

Changing that perception will be necessary for what Abdi calls a “paradigm shift”, as more people gain an understanding of the Iranian people, providing nuance to the negative image associated with the country’s government.

With the growth of social media and the ease of access to information about other countries, including first-hand interaction via Twitter, it’s arguable that the United States could see a shift in understanding that levels the playing field in coming years. But as Maisel, Abdi, and Khalef spoke to, the political system might not keep up with public opinion. “I have fears that [the Iran Deal] is…not institutionalized,” Abdi says. “Once Obama leaves [office], we could be back to the status quo.”

Cuba is arguably an example of what happens when that shift in public opinion comes, while Congress remains dubious at best. Despite over half of Americans supporting the lifting of the current travel ban and ending the embargo on Cuba, opposition still exists on the Hill, even if it looks more and more like things are moving towards full normalization.

“We are now in a phase where we are debating not if, but when we lift the embargo in Congress,” Maisel says. “A bipartisan consensus has emerged to change this 54-year-old failed policy. At best, our opponents who support the status quo are working to slow the down inevitable.”

Between the Iran Deal and Cuba, a roadmap out of stagnant policy based on grassroots engagement and education, not lobbying groups backed by big money, could be forming. As more opportunities to learn about long-demonized countries in a nuanced way, be it through social media users like the recently globetrotting Humans of New York or more in-depth traditional reporting, grassroots organizations are in place to rally and give voice to public discontent with international policy. While the moneyed lobbying groups continue to hold sway on the Hill, their days of near-absolute influence could be numbered.

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