The boundaries of what is and isn’t possible change constantly in politics. We like to think that in a democracy, citizens are empowered sufficiently to partake in the process of political change; we even believe that this is a unique characteristic of our progressive society where politicians listen to the electorate, and then enact laws and policies on the basis of facts in pursuit of the national interest and human rights. Such a belief if misguided.
Nevertheless, it has been a key feature of our society: slavery, once socially acceptable and legal is universally prohibited; racial and sexual discrimination is no longer tolerated; colonisation and occupation of another country is prohibited; the denial of a people’s self-determination has become an offence. The shift also occurs in the opposite direction towards the curtailment of freedoms and the weakening of equality and human dignity. The negative shift is often more subtle.
Under the guise of “austerity measures”, policies unthinkable a decade ago are now inevitable; under the guise of “security”, practices normally associated with police states have been adopted by western democracies; under the guise of the war on terror, negative views about Islam and Muslims have reached new heights, where political victories can be won or lost on the basis of the degree of hostility displayed towards the faith of 1.6 billion people.
In policy jargon, the shifting boundaries of political possibilities is known as the Overton window. Named after Joseph Overton, this is the range of ideas and policies that are accepted by the public on any given issue. It is also known as the window of discourse that shifts between what is and isn’t acceptable on any given topic. The sweet spot, in order to be a successful government, is to device policy that corresponds with public opinion and the dominant attitude.
It’s a neat and simple concept but, as with every simplification, it misses key elements. The link between the policy-making process and public attitudes are far more complex. Take the Iraq war, for example. Can anyone honestly say that, in 2003, despite the war on terror launched after 9/11, the window had moved sufficiently to justify the invasion of a country that posed no threat to the US or Britain? Iraq, according to the views of experts and public alike, was contained and, more importantly, had nothing whatsoever to do with the attacks on New York and Washington.
Any doubt that the invasion of Iraq and eventual overthrow of Saddam Hussain was deemed to be both acceptable and fit for purpose was put to rest by the largest public protest in British history; millions more rallied in capitals across Europe. It was a clear indication that the window had not shifted adequately for the public to accept regime change in Iraq. Bush and Blair’s failure to build a broad coalition for the project was another indication of the weak case for going to war against Baghdad.
The massive show of public opposition was to no avail, and the rest is now history. Bush and Blair became pariah figures, at least in the eyes of ordinary people. Incredibly, the campaign to impeach Blair has not faltered since its launch in 2004. With the publication of the long-delayed Chilcot Inquiry Report in July and the support of a group of cross-party MPs in Westminster, there is a faint possibility that the former prime minister will face prosecution for his role in the run up to the Iraq War. Although this is a welcome move, it will not bring us closer to knowing why America and Britain were dragged into an aggressive war against a foreign regime that posed no threat to either country; indeed, which had been armed by both countries.
Whatever merits Chilcot holds, it will not shed light on the key question. Nonetheless, it may help to end this saga. We can, at the very least, expect the findings to be highly critical of Blair, particularly given the nature of the evidence provided by the likes of Lady Eliza Manningham-Buller. The former head of MI5 (Britain’s internal security service) provided one of the most devastating of testimonies to Chilcot. “Our involvement in Iraq radicalised a few among a generation of young people who saw [it] as an attack upon Islam,” she said, memorably. If that wasn’t incriminating enough, Lady Manningham-Buller added: “It was the US and Britain who, by invading Iraq, gave Osama bin Laden the Iraqi jihad.” In the most devastating condemnation of the decision to go to war in 2003, she added: “The Joint Intelligence Committee assessments warned ministers that an invasion would increase the threat to Britain. If they read them, they would have been in no doubt.” Chilcot will have to take particular note of these scathing remarks to avoid accusations of an Establishment whitewash.
However, we need to look beyond Chilcot for answers. In this respect it is worth mentioning an unlikely source: Lorna Fitzsimons, the ex-Labour MP and former head of BICOM – the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre —told a conference in Israel in 2010: “Public opinion does not influence foreign policy in Britain. Foreign policy is an elite issue.” Few would be surprised by this admission.
While the British public are obsessed with the decision-making that led to the overthrow of Saddam, the underlying reason for invading Iraq remains shrouded in mystery. Richard Hass, a senior figure in the Bush administration, even said that he would go to his grave “not knowing the answer.” These displays of rueful ignorance may be an attempt to discredit the efforts of others who are courageous enough to say what Establishment figures dare not mention.
As far as Iraq is concerned, I suggest that the elephant in the room is the pro-Israel Lobby. This is backed up by Professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. Without the efforts of the Lobby, they note in their riveting expose “The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy”, as well as “a group of neo-Conservative policy makers and pundits”, there would have been no invasion of Iraq.
Though the Lobby was not the only factor, they argue that it was a “critical” element. “The pro-war faction believed removing Saddam would improve America’s and Israel’s strategic position… Israeli officials and leaders supported these efforts because they were eager to see the United States topple one of their main regional adversaries — and the man who had launched Scud missiles at Israel in 1991.”
In fact, the Iraq War exposed the power and influence of the Lobby fully. Since then, its impact has come under sharp focus in other areas of foreign policy. A recent report published by Spinwatch regarding the pro-Israel Lobby and the European Union, shows that there has been a massive proliferation of pro-Israel groups within Europe since 2005. This surge followed the landmark decision by the International Court of Justice on the “separation wall” which inspired the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. According to the authors, “The lobby’s growth coincided not only with the tightening of Israel’s grip on the West Bank… but also with the surge in Palestine solidarity activism.”
The Lobby groups, according to the report, are not a collection of isolated institutions but instead form part of a broader “transatlantic and transnational Zionist group”. It is a broad church that includes various Christian Zionist organisations as well as groups that not only support the state but also extreme pro-settler organisations in Israel. They are largely funded by wealthy private individuals and institutions based primarily in the US. According to the report, Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire supporter of Benjamin Netanyahu, gave $32 million to just one lobby group.
Most disconcerting of all, donations to some of these groups come from the most hawkish and Islamophobic groups, such as the Clarion Project, which produced the movie Obsession. This is a propaganda film that depicts “radical Islam’s war against the West”. Other funding sources are connected to extremely right-wing political parties and Israeli settler movements. Some have strong ties to the Israeli military and double as lobbyists for the government and lucrative arms industry. Many of the stated goals and objectives of the lobby groups are at odds with the official policy of the EU and the broader international consensus on the resolution of the Palestine-Israel conflict.
The legions of lobby groups also ensure that Israel’s trade links with Europe, worth over $30 billion, are not put at risk. Their effectiveness was displayed clearly when the EU adopted a policy paper in 2014 on ceasing all co-operation with trading partners based in Israel’s illegal settlements (all of such settlements are illegal under international law). Although this was a reiteration of EU policy, the union’s embassy in Tel Aviv felt obliged to draw up a “frequently asked questions” page which — astonishingly — provided advice to such companies on how to circumvent the guidelines.
This latest report provides a good answer to what many feel is the paralysis of the Palestine-Israel discourse. There has been a long-standing international consensus on the creation of a Palestinian state on the pre-1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital, and a “just resolution to the refugee question”. Despite this, Europe and the US have failed to budge Israel. On the contrary, the latter continues to undermine efforts — to the extent of mocking the US president — which even hint at a halt to settlement construction.
Democratic institutions by their nature are susceptible to lobby groups. However, that doesn’t mean that individual states and institutions like the EU should allow their foreign policy to be hijacked. The only way to challenge this is through greater transparency; in free societies, “sunshine is the best disinfectant”. The people should demand full disclosure of the funding of lobby groups. At the very least, organisations which receive funds from individuals and companies that are working actively to undermine official policy, breach international law and promote racism and violence, should be denied access to those in power whose opinions and decisions are susceptible to the influence of the lobbyists.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.