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How Reagan Snatched Victory from the Jaws of Defeat On AWACS

by Mitchell Bard


There has been a great deal written about interest groups, but relatively little attention has been given to the degree of influence they are capable of exerting. In the case of foreign policy, this pattern of neglect has generally been excused by the common acknowledgment that interest groups are incapable of influencing foreign affairs. One notable exception is the Israeli lobby which is frequently asserted to possess a veto over U.S. Middle East policy. In this paper, the limitation to Israeli lobby influence is examined in the context of the Reagan Administration’s decision to supply AWACS to Saudi Arabia. The analysis suggests that lobby influence is partially a function of the balance of lobbying power that exists between competing interests. In addition, the President’s ability to overcome lobby opposition is a function not only of the outcome of the balance of lobbying power but the strength of the President in terms of his political capital and the effectiveness of his legislative liaison.

In general, interest groups are not thought to have much influence on foreign policy largely because they lack access to the decision-making process. While this is true for some foreign policy decisions, it is not true for all, particularly those that require congressional approval. If one looks, for example, at Middle East policy decisions it is possible to find several cases where the Israeli lobby exerted an observable degree of influence over the outcome. The most notable examples are the Jackson­Vanik amendment, the anti-boycott bill, and foreign aid appropriations to Israel in the last decade.

The success of the Israeli lobby is partly a function of the balance of lobbying power. This balance shifts according to the relative access, resources, cohesion, size, social status, and leadership of competing groups. In addition, lobbies have informal components made up of public opinion and voting behavior. Interest groups may also shift the balance by building coalitions. The group that enjoys the advantage of the balance of lobbying power is more likely to have its interests pursued by decision-makers.

In the case of Middle East policy, the Israeli lobby has clearly enjoyed the balance of lobbying power over its competitor, the Arab lobby, for nearly 40 years. As in the international balance of power, the group with the advantage will make every effort to maintain its advantage while the group that is at a disadvantage will attempt to augment its power. The Arab lobby has tried to redress the imbalance primarily by using foreign agents and public relations.

The only two “victories” for the Arab lobby have been the sale of F-15s and AWACS to Saudi Arabia. In the latter case in particular, the Israeli lobby appeared to have lined up enough support to defeat the sale right up to the day of the vote yet still lost. Given the Arab lobby’s relative weakness, what determined the outcome of the AWACS sale? This paper will suggest that the outcome had less to do with the shift in the balance of lobbying power than with the weight the President can add to the balance and the overall balance of domestic political power.

Changing Circumstances

To persuade Congress to accept the sale of F-15s to Saudi Arabia in 1978, the Carter Administration had to offer the compromise that the package would not include bomb racks or missiles. This was deeply resented by the Saudis who had persistently asked for the additional equipment. In January 1980, Zbigniew Brzezinski reportedly told the Saudis that the Carter Administration would be sympathetic to a new arms request. When these reports reached Congress, 68 senators and 178 representatives (mobilized by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee­ – AIPAC) sent the President a letter reminding him of the assurances he had given two years earlier and expressing opposition to any new arms sales. Since it was a presidential election year, it was not surprising that Congress would have expressed such strong opposition to the rumored sale and that Carter would subsequently drop the proposal.

After a brief review, President Reagan in the first months of his first Administration decided to sell Saudi Arabia the enhancement equipment withheld in the 1978 F-15 sale. On March 6, the State Department explained that it was reneging on the Carter Administration’s earlier commitment because circumstances in the region had changed. “The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the turmoil of the Iranian revolution, the Iran-Iraq war, and the Soviet presence in South Yemen and Ethiopia underscore the instability in the region and the dangers of Soviet penetration.”1

In order to forestall opposition, Reagan agreed to drop the sale of bomb racks and offer Israel an additional $600 million in credits and the opportunity to buy 15 more F-15s. Export restrictions on Israel’s Kfir planes were also relaxed.2 This mollified Israeli officials who were not anxious to pick a fight, especially one they were likely to lose, with a President considered to be a close friend. The Israeli lobby, in a demonstration of independence, immediately challenged the idea of selling additional weapons to Saudi Arabia on the grounds that it would be “harmful to American interests, dangerous to the cause of Middle East peace, and threatening to our country’s friend and fellow democracy, Israel.”3

In February, a number of congressmen wrote to the President expressing their concern over the possible sale and some said that they considered any modification of the Saudi F-15s to be a “direct violation” of the understanding reached with the previous Administration.4 William Safire, meanwhile, blasted the sale as the Administration’s “most misguided decision to date.”5

Although the opposition to the sale of F-15 enhancements had begun to manifest itself, it was relatively muted until the Administration decided to add Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) radar planes to the deal. That decision was made at a National Security Council meeting on April 2 while Reagan was recovering from wounds suffered in an assassination attempt. General David C. Jones, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had apparently pushed the decision for economic as well as strategic reasons: “a sack of cash from the Saudis for the AWACS would hold down the cost of producing the radar planes for the U.S. Air Force.”6 A few days later, after press leaks revealed the new proposal, over 100 congressmen made speeches opposing the sale and an Associated Press poll found only 20 senators in favor of the sale of AWACS to Saudi Arabia and 65 opposed or leaning against the sale.7

The State Department tried to allay congressional fears in a statement claiming that AWACS would not threaten Israel because they would be used primarily to protect Saudi oil fields and would have various restrictions placed on their use,8 but it was hard for the Israeli lobby to accept the argument that the AWACS, which had not even been sold to the United States’ NATO allies, were not a threat to Israel.

In addition to the military threat posed by the potential sale of AWACS, the Israeli lobby feared the precedent of providing the Arabs with a weapons system superior to anything provided to Israel.9 The Israeli government, which had been effectively bought off by the promise of additional weapons and credits in exchange for their quiescence to the sale of F-15 enhancements, vocally opposed the sale after the AWACS were added.

One of the most vocal opponents of the sale was a Republican, Senator Roger Jepsen of Iowa. Jepsen had a small Jewish constituency and was also in his first term so he seemed to be far less subject to influence from the Israeli lobby than from the President; nevertheless, he told the Anti-Defamation League: “We have begun to give a sworn enemy of our friend Israel the capability to limit the superiority of the Israeli armed forces. . . . To abandon a proven friend to gain a dubious advantage with a government that may not last long is a poor policy.”10 Jepsen addressed the annual policy conference of AIPAC in Mid-May and explained that he supported Israel because it “upholds the values of a democratic and open society,” is “a secure haven for persecuted Jews” and because he believes, as a Christian, that God promised Israel to the Jews. “In the final analysis,” he said, “the proposed Saudi arms sale would cost us dearly by unnecessarily risking the security of our highest technology weapons. Moreover, it will unnecessarily harm the security of our only stable and trusted ally in the Middle East – Israel.”11 The day before the AWACS vote, in the turning point of the debate, Jepsen reversed his position.

With the prospect of an all-out fight over the sale looming, the new Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) advised the President to postpone the sale until after the President’s economic package was passed. This was given the highest priority by the President with Senator Baker, White House Chief of Staff James A. Baker, III, Deputy Chief of Staff, Michael Deaver, Presidential Counsellor Edwin Meese III,– and Director of Legislative Liaison, Max Friedersdorf, ably assisted by Kenneth M. Duberstein. Together they composed a most effective team in securing national and Congressional support for the Reagan priority measures: defense build-up and tax reduction. Necessary as was the deferment of the AWACS sale proposal, it provided the Arab and Israeli lobbies time to mobilize their supporters.

Lobbying Fervor

In 1980, Ronald Reagan got the highest percentage of the Jewish vote of any Republican presidential candidate since Herbert Hoover. He received this support for several reasons: disenchantment with the policies of Jimmy Carter, belief in Reagan’s economic policies, and confidence in Reagan’s friendship toward Israel. Although it was probably the disaffection felt toward Carter that was most responsible for the scale of the defections from the traditional levels of Jewish support for Democrats, Ronald Reagan’s support for Israel no doubt played a role.

Reagan had a long record of support for Israel and was particularly outspoken after the Iranian revolution when he wrote in The Washington Post:

The fall of Iran has increased Israel’s value as perhaps the only remaining strategic asset in the region on which the United States can truly rely Only by full appreciation of the critical role the State of Israel plays in our strategic calculus can we build the foundation for thwarting Moscow’s designs on territories and resources vital to our security and our national well-being.12

Reagan reiterated this view after the AWACS sale, calling Israel “a major strategic asset” and a “staunch ally” whose military strength “stands as a deterrent to Soviet aggression in the Middle East.” “When our country enhances Israel’s security with military assistance, economic aid, and diplomatic support,” the President added, “we will advance our strategic interest and contribution to the preservation of peace and stability in the region.”13

Relations between Israel and the United States were tense throughout the summer, however, because of Israel’s retaliatory strikes against the PLO in Lebanon, the most serious being the bombing of Beirut which left 300 people dead. In addition, in June, Israel bombed a nuclear reactor being built in Iraq because it was believed to be a potential source of nuclear weapons to be used against Israel. American dissatisfaction with these actions led to the unprecedented suspension of the delivery of F-16s and F-15s to Israel. The embargo was ended on August 17 following the negotiation of a cease-fire in Lebanon, but relations remained cool.14

The situation deteriorated further after Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s first meeting with Reagan in September. According to Spiegel:

Begin’s pensive emotionalism did not match well with Reagan’s more relaxed style, and a major misunderstanding over AWACS embittered the President. Reagan thought he had a commitment from Begin to state his opposition to the AWACS sale only when asked. Yet when Begin was questioned by the congressional foreign relations committees about his opinion of the sale, he spoke definitively against the President’s proposal. Reports that reached the furious Reagan gave the impression that Begin had lobbied widely against the sale. Haig investigated and discovered that this was not true; Begin had indeed kept his promise. Reagan was not mollified.15

Despite the deterioration of U.S.-Israel relations, AIPAC succeeded in collecting signatures from 54 senators and 224 representatives by August, majorities in both Houses, opposing the AWACS sale.

Proponents of the sale were equally active. In an exhaustive investigation of the AWACS debate, former Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer Steven Emerson concluded:

The Saudi lobbying campaign resulted in one of the most successful manipulations of American business and American foreign policy ever attempted by a foreign power. Saudi Arabia demanded and received the aggressive support of the most powerful corporations in America. Scores of other business interests joined the campaign in order to protect existing petrodollar contracts or to obtain new ones. Still, thousands of others were indirectly induced to join by pressure from their own domestic suppliers, purchasers, or business partners. And many others with no commercial stake in the sale, or even in Saudi Arabia, jumped into the lobbying fray because they were prevailed upon to believe that not upsetting the Saudis was vital to the U.S. economy.16

The leader of the Arab lobby offensive was American-educated Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the son of the kingdom’s Defense Minister and the nephew of the King. Bandar had access to the Administration not only as a diplomat but also as the tennis partner of George Shultz and racquetball opponent of General David Jones. Senator Baker provided the Prince with a Senate office to coordinate Arab lobby activities on Capitol Hill which included arranging meetings with 40 senators.17

The lobbyists for the Saudis were Frederick Dutton, Crawford Cook, and Stephen Conner who were collectively paid over $1 million for their services in 1981.18 In early August, Dutton sent a sixteen-page booklet, Why Saudi Arabia Needs AWACS, to every congressman. He also arranged for Saudi officials to appear on news shows and brief the press.19 The most significant contribution made by Dutton was his transformation of the debate on AWACS from substantive issues to a personal one; that is, he was able to frame the issue as a fight between the President of the United States and the Prime Minister of Israel. As he told The New York Times, senators who op­ posed the sale would have to explain “how they will run foreign policy now that they have chosen Begin over Reagan.’’20 When the media began to play up the “Reagan vs. Begin” angle, Dutton realized he had struck a responsive chord with the public. “If I had my way,” he told The Washington Post, “I’d have bumper stickers plastered all over town that say, ‘Reagan or Begin.’”21

On September 19, Conner arranged for a meeting in Palm Springs between Prince Bandar and former President Gerald Ford. The following month Ford began to lobby for the sale. In addition, at the request of President Reagan, both Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon joined the lobbying effort. Nixon, in particular, may have hurt the lobbying campaign by his intemperate remarks about “parts of the American Jewish community” holding up the sale and potentially “embarrassing and undermining the authority of their indispensable friend in the White House.”22

As Emerson noted, what made the AWACS debate unique was the extent of the involvement of American businesses, many of which had not previously been as­ sociated with the Arab lobby. For example, the Florist Insurance Companies and Fisher­ Price Toys, Inc. seemed to have little or no financial interest in the issue yet lobbied in favor of the sale.

Kenneth Duberstein as Deputy for Legislative Liaison worked skillfully and vigorously in rallying business and Congressional support. Although it never took a formal position, the President of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Richard Lesher, wrote to every senator the day before the AWACS vote and reported that during his October trip to the Middle East, he found that everywhere he went he was urged to support the sale. That same month the Chamber held a reception for the Saudi Minister of Commerce, Soliman Sulaim, who took the opportunity to lobby the businessmen in attendance. In addition, the 860,000 recipients of the Chamber’s newsletter were advised of the adverse consequences for U.S. trade if the sale was not approved.

As one would expect, the oil industry was lobbying hard for the sale. Mobil Oil spent more than a half million dollars on full-page ads extolling the virtues of the “profound and rapidly growing economic partnership between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.” The ads did not mention the arms sale, only the $35 billion in business for American firms and the hundreds of thousands of jobs created by Saudi contracts.

By far the biggest lobbying effort, however, was orchestrated by Boeing, the main contractor for AWACS, and United Technologies, which had $100 million at stake. The presidents of Boeing and UT sent out more than 6500 telegrams to subsidiaries, vendors, suppliers, subcontractors, and distributors all over the country urging them to support the sale. When asked whether the Saudis had pressured UT into lobbying, a spokesman told Emerson: “They didn’t have to. It was a matter of pure economic self-interest.”23

Challenging the President

Despite the Arab lobby’s efforts, there was strong congressional opposition to the sale. In July, a bipartisan group of 46 senators, led by Republican Robert Packwood, co-signed a letter recommending that the President “refrain from sending this proposal to the Congress.” Even administration supporters like Charles Percy and Paul Laxalt advised the President to delay the proposal.24 The administration ignored this advice; instead, President Reagan with the aid of Friedersdorf, Duberstein and the legislative liaison office sent a letter notifying Congress of the sale on August 5 which said:

I am convinced that providing Saudi Arabia with this equipment will improve the security of our friends, strengthen our own posture in the region, and make it clear both to local governments and to the Soviet leadership that the United States is determined to assist in preserving security and stability in Southwest Asia.25

The President also sent a letter asking the congressional leaders not to prejudge the proposal before it was formally presented. Meanwhile, with the counsel of Howard Baker, Friedersdorf, and Duberstein he targeted 20 Republicans, nine of whom had signed the Packwood letter, for presidential lobbying.26

Since the President had made it clear he was determined to push forward with the AWACS sale, the congressional opponents began the formal process required to veto the sale. In early September, 12 senators, six from each party, initiated a resolution of disapproval which said that the sale could lead to the compromise of American technology, would reward Saudi Arabia for its refusal to join the Camp David peace process and its financial assistance of the PLO, and contradict earlier assurances that the capabilities of Saudi F-15s would not be enhanced.27

The same week that the Senate resolution was introduced, Prime Minister Begin arrived in Washington. Senator Packwood had said before he arrived, that if Begin gave the impression that he did not strongly oppose the sale, then Saudi Arabia would get the AWACS.28 The President made another attempt to hold out a carrot to stifle Israeli opposition to the sale. In this case, the leaders reached a “strategic understanding.” Although it was vaguely worded, the understanding was said to consist of naval exercises, storage of medical supplies in Israel, and joint planning against outside attack.29 Although strategic cooperation implicitly depended on the AWACS deal being approved, Begin’s attitude remained unchanged.

After failing to persuade Begin to ease his opposition to the AWACS sale, Reagan turned to the leader of the Senate opposition in the hope that he might be persuaded to change his mind. After spending 45 minutes with the President, Packwood emerged no less determined to stop the sale to the “bagmen” for the PLO.30

Although Haig expressed confidence that the sale would pass, saying the list of 50 senators opposed to it was “replete with soft spots,” the Administration was surprised by the strength of the opposition that had been mounted even before it had presented its case. Given that opposition had been voiced since the early spring, it should not have been so shocking. The situation was largely the Administration’s own fault for not preparing a legislative strategy while allowing the opposition four months to organize. The Begin visit finally attracted the President’s attention and his personal involvement.

On Sept. 14, Reagan met with 27 senators at the White House, and Richard Allen and Edwin Meese followed up that meeting with one of their own attended by 47 senators at the Capitol. The latter apparently broke up in anger with one senator describing the meeting as “very elementary, very disappointing.”31 The Administration’s chief lobbyist, Max Friedersdorf sent uncommitted senators a packet of editorials supporting the sale and there were also quiet efforts to attract bipartisan support that focused on Minority Leader Robert Byrd. The Senator from West Virginia was un­ receptive, however, partly because he had sent Haig a letter in April expressing concern about the sale and had never received an answer.32

In late September, Anthony Lewis criticized the Administration for choosing Richard Allen to coordinate the White House’s strategy for the sale. “He is the Assistant for National Security Affairs – one who, unlike his predecessors, has no regular access to the President and no effective ability to coordinate departmental policy affecting national security.”33

The situation changed after the Begin visit, however, when White House Chief of Staff James Baker and the Legislative Strategy Group that had successfully engineered legislative victories on the President’s tax and budget programs now turned their attention to the AWACS lobbying campaign. It was this group that decided that the most effective strategy would be to appeal to wavering senators in personal meetings with the President.

On October 1, President Reagan held a press conference in which his statements of support of AWACS were a direct challenge to the Israeli lobby. “While we must always take into account the vital interests of our allies,” Reagan said, “American security interests must remain our internal responsibility.” Then, in what was obviously a reference to Israel, he added: “It is not the business of other nations to make American foreign policy. . .. I suppose what really is the most serious thing is a perception that other countries must not get a perception that we are being unduly influenced one way or the other regarding foreign policy. “He also tried to reassure Israel’s supporters that the sale posed no threat to Israel, contradicting the statements of Israel’s Prime Minister, Defense Minister, and military experts. Reagan also responded to critics’ fears that AWACS technology would fall into the hands of America’s enemies as it had in Iran, asserting that Saudi Arabia would not be permitted to be an Iran.34

The Israelis listened closely to the President’s views and some Foreign Ministry officials recommended that Israel avoid an all-out fight with a President considered to be a friend of Israel. AIPAC, American Jewish leaders, and congressional opponents of the sale conveyed their concern about the apparent weakening of the Israeli position directly to the government. “They did not want to see the rug pulled out from under their feet.”35 Thus, the battle lines were drawn in what became widely seen as Reagan vs. Begin.

Let the Hearings Begin

As the formal debate in Congress began, the Israeli lobby would take little comfort from the fact that most of the public opposed the AWACS sale. Ac­ cording to a Harris poll, 59 percent opposed the sale, 28 percent favored it, and 13 percent were undecided.36 The general feeling of the Israeli lobby was: “If we lose, we lose; if we win, we lose.”37 Proponents of the sale, meanwhile, continued to try to paint the Israeli lobby as the cause of tension between Saudi Arabia and the United States. In a press conference, four former ambassadors to Saudi Arabia asserted that the failure to sell AWACS would be seen as “congressional surrender to Israeli pressure” and that the beneficial oil policy of the kingdom would be subject to review. They also warned that the U.S. military and economic presence in Saudi Arabia would be scaled down “at immense cost to our economy.”38

In his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary Haig said that the Carter Administration had made a commitment to provide F-15 enhancement equipment and had conveyed the belief that it favored Saudi Arabia having the radar capability of the AWACS. Haig reiterated the role of the sale in the Administration’s scheme of strategic consensus:

What is at stake here is far more than an improvement in the military capability of a friendly nation. What is at stake is this nation’s capacity to develop a strategy that can move the peace process forward and protect our vital interests in an un­ stable area exposed not only to historic Arab-Israeli rivalries but increasingly to threats from the Soviet Union and its proxies.

Haig also praised the Saudis for their assistance to states that “broke away from the Soviet embrace” and their “essential diplomatic role in negotiating the cease-fire in Lebanon.” The Secretary expressed the belief that “Saudi cooperation in fostering peace and stability” would “broaden as the Saudis feel themselves more secure.” With regard to those who feared AWACS pose a threat to Israel or might fall into enemy hands, Haig assured the committee that there would be no sharing of AWACS data with any other parties without U.S. consent; that there would be complete data sharing of AWACS data with the United States; that only carefully screened Saudi and U.S. nationals would be permitted to be involved with these aircraft; and that there would be an American presence in the aircraft and on the ground well into the 1990s. Haig also said the AWACS would not operate outside Saudi airspace and that extensive and elaborate security measures would be employed to safeguard the equipment and technology.

Quoting Anwar Sadat, Haig said that “a refusal to give the AWACS will raise a huge question mark because Saudi Arabia is one of the closest American friends in the region.” Finally, to Israel’s friends, Haig pointed out that “President Reagan would not have authorized this sale if he believed it would jeopardize Israel’s security.” “The risks for Israel,” he said, “are greater if U.S.-Soviet cooperation is disrupted and Saudi Arabia is left insecure or forced to turn elsewhere for equipment.”39

In his testimony, Secretary of Defense Weinberger argued that the AWACS sale would “help the Saudis defend their oil facilities against surprise attacks” and thereby serve American security interests. The sale also would help “rebuild confidence in the United States as a reliable partner in the region.” He also asserted that the sale would increase the effectiveness of U.S. forces by providing bases and support infra­ structure which the Secretary implied would be accessible to the United States despite repeated Saudi statements to the contrary.40 As for the opposition of the Israelis to the sale, Weinberger said: “I don’t have the faintest idea why they have opposition to it ... I don’t think there is any basis for that opposition. They could shoot down this plane in less than a minute and a half. It’s not an armed plane. There isn’t even a BB gun on that plane.”41

The Secretary’s argument was ingenious. Earlier in the year, Weinberger had acknowledged that “there would be little to prevent Saudi Arabia from feeding vital information about Israeli aircraft to Syria” and the Saudis had said that they would have used the AWACS to warn Iraq of the Israeli attack on the nuclear reactor had the planes been in their possession.42 As for Weinberger’s casual dismissal of the AWACS threat because of the Israeli air force’s ability to shoot them down, the Israelis did not find this very reassuring since it implied the shooting down of Americans who were supposed to be assisting the Saudis on the planes “well into the 1990s.”

During the hearings, events in the Middle East again complicated the domestic issue. The Administration claimed that an Iranian air attack on the oil facilities in Kuwait “underscored the need of our friends to acquire adequate air defense systems, both to protect their petroleum resources and enhance stability by deterring attacks by regional power.” The assassination of President Anwar Sadat, the only Arab leader to make peace with Israel, was seen as “a reminder to us all that our policies in the area must be built on the firm foundation of a mutuality of interests so that we may develop enduring relationships not only with particular leaders and governments but with the peoples and nations of the Middle East that are of particular importance to us.”43 

Although there was an intense lobbying campaign taking place behind the scenes, few of the participants in that battle testified at the hearings on the sale. The National Association of Arab-Americans’ (NAAA) representatives reiterated the Administration line that the sale would not threaten any other countries, and that Saudi Arabia played a “major peacemaking role in the Middle East by helping the U.S. in its efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the current crisis in Lebanon,” and that Saudi Arabia was “the major force for price moderation within OPEC.”44

The Israeli lobby relied for the most part on AIPAC to rebut the Administration’s case. Thomas A. Dine outlined five reasons for opposing the sale:

  1. There has been and is no Saudi quid pro quo to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.
  2. It is dangerous to the United States to transfer sophisticated defense technologies to arm an inherently unstable government.
  3. An unbridled arms race involving the most advanced weaponry that now exists in the American, European, and Soviet arsenals is unfolding which under­ mines all peace efforts.
  4. Selling F-15 enhancement items such as the AIM-91 Sidewinder missiles would violate explicit assurances provided to Congress.
  5. The sale is a threat to Israel’s security.45

To support his argument, Dine cited numerous statements by Saudi officials suggesting that the AWACS were not going to be in “friendly” hands. For example, in January 1980, Saudi King Khalid declared, “Our loyalty should be neither the Eastern bloc or the Western bloc but to God, His prophet, and the Islamic masses everywhere in the world.” In April, Saudi Oil Minister Yamani told a Foreign Policy Association audience in New York City that Israel was a bigger threat to the Saudis than the Soviet Union. Two weeks before Dine’s testimony, Prince Khalid, the son of the Saudi Defense Minister, told a Los Angeles audience that if the United States refused to sell AWACS, Saudi Arabia would go to the Soviet Union to obtain them. Dine asked rhetorically: “Can America afford to be selling our most advanced weapons to a so­ called friend that threatens to remain neutral in the East-West conflict?”46

Contrary to the claims of the sale’s supporters, the Israeli lobby was willing to acknowledge the strategic importance of Saudi Arabia, but the transfer of such sophisticated weapons was not considered a necessary means of protecting the Kingdom. Dine concluded that he favored the stationing of American AWACS in Saudi Arabia, but “the sale of any sophisticated arms must be dependent on tangible quid pro quos.” Arms sales, he said, should be used “to encourage a genuinely mutual partnership in the search for peace in accord with the Camp David framework.”47

Searching for a Compromise

The Administration focused all its attention on the Senate and never seriously argued its case in the House. Since AIPAC had lined up well over half of the Democratic-controlled House in opposition to the sale, the Administration knew it would lose and consequently decided to concentrate on the chamber where it enjoyed a majority.

The President was advised by Howard Baker, James Baker, Friedersdorf, Meese, and Duberstein that the sale would not go forward without some modification; thus, much of the time prior to the vote was spent searching for a suitable compromise. The President hoped to satisfy Senator John Glenn’s (D-Ohio) concerns because of Glenn’s reputation as a supporter of a strong U.S. defense and the belief that Glenn’s support would insure the sale’s approval. Glenn’s primary concern was that the AWACS would fall into hostile hands and U.S. technology would be compromised. To prevent such an eventuality, he proposed that American and Saudi crews jointly operate the planes.

In late September, Glenn met with Richard Allen, Senators Baker and Laxalt, and Prince Bandar to discuss the possibility of joint crewing.48 The following day The New York Times reported that the Saudis would not agree to joint control of the AWACS.49 On separate news programs two days later, Senators Laxalt and Hollings (D-SC) said flatly that the sale would not pass without joint crewing.50 The Washington Post wrote on October 4 that “the sale is in trouble not because of pressures from the so-called Israeli lobby, as Reagan intimated at his news conference, but because many senators, including several Republicans, are uneasy about the control issue.”51 

As expected, the sale was overwhelmingly rejected by the House 301-111 with nearly 60 percent of the Republicans voting with the majority. That same week, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee also voted to disapprove the sale by a vote of 9-8. The Administration was encouraged, however, by the close vote which resulted from the last-minute lobbying of the President whose promises about providing Israel additional radar-jamming equipment persuaded Republicans Larry Pressler and S.I. Hayakawa to vote for the sale. All eight Democrats voted against the sale with the deciding vote cast by Republican Rudy Boschwitz, coincidentally the only Jew on the committee.52

The Administration’s hopes to obtain bipartisan support suffered a severe blow when Minority Leader Robert C. Byrd announced his opposition to the sale. Although Byrd believed in a bipartisan foreign policy, he concluded that the AWACS vote was too important to be based simply on returning the favor of Howard Baker’s support on the Panama Canal treaty vote. He believed that the sale did not make sense without progress toward peace and that there was too great a threat that the AWACS technology would be compromised.53

On October 23, The New York Times counted 50 senators opposed to the sale and only 40 in favor with the rest undecided. Senator Cranston expressed confidence that the opponents would win by a “significant” margin and The Times seemed to agree that the Administration’s chances were not good.54 The following day, two more senators announced their opposition to the sale leading Senator Baker to discuss for the first time the possibility of withdrawing the sale.55

The day before the Senate vote, Reagan called the sale “vital to America, vital to the West, vital to Israel, and vital to peace in the Middle East.”56 That same day, in the most dramatic reversal of the debate, Roger Jepsen announced he was switching his vote and eight other senators (four Democrats and four Republicans) announced they were voting for the sale making The Times head count 52-47 against the sale. There were two other likely Republican switchers (Slade Gorton and Mark Andrews) and one undecided (Russell Long), however, which made the vote a virtual dead heat.

The final vote was 52-48 rejecting the resolution of disapproval, thereby permitting the sale to proceed. The President declared that “peace is again on the march in the Middle East” and told aides at a victory party that “it was in the fourth quarter, goal to go, and you pushed it over.”57 Eight senators, one a Democrat, who had co-sponsored the resolution of disapproval switched their votes. Edward Kennedy commented afterward: “In my 19 years up here I have never seen such 180-degree turns on the part of so many Senators. I have seen nothing that would justify this kind of reversal.”58

The Arab lobby hailed the AWACS sale as a major victory over the Israeli lobby. According to Levins, “That AWACS vote represented nothing less than a revolution within the Capitol’s established order. Things were not likely ever to be the same again. The Arab lobby had established itself as a major force in American politics and was continuing to consolidate and strengthen its position.”59

Was the outcome really a victory for the Arab lobby? Strictly in terms of obtaining the desired outcome, it would have to be classified as such, but it was not the Arab lobby that was responsible for the result, it was the President.

The Power of Executive Persuasion

“AWACS: He Does It Again” was the caption accompanying the President’s picture on the cover of Time magazine the week after the vote. The President had indeed done it again, snatching victory &om what appeared just a few days earlier to be the certain jaws of defeat. Even AIPAC’s Dine admitted that it was the President who was responsible for the sale’s passage, calling it “a vote of confidence in President Reagan himself” and a response to the President’s “appeal that if the sale were defeated, his effectiveness would be impaired.”60

The vote was more than just an expression of confidence in the President, how­ ever, it was also a product of political bargaining. In his October 1 press conference, the President admitted that he had told Democrats who voted with him on his tax and budget plans that he would not campaign against them, but Reagan denied making any such deals on the AWACS vote. After the vote, Reagan reiterated that “there have been no deals made. None were offered.”61 Senator Dale Bumpers who was undecided and eventually voted against the sale suggested that the deals were not explicit. “It often works with a wink or nod,” Bumpers said. “They don’t have to make overt promises. They know the way things work around here….If you want something very badly for your state, they don’t have to say anything…You just feel that pressure.”62

The pressure began when James Baker and the legislative liaison staff began to shuttle senators in to see the President. Beginning in September, the President met with 75 senators and held private discussions with 22 Republicans, 14 of whom voted for the sale. He also met with 22 Democrats and convinced 10 to vote his way. In the week before the vote, Reagan made 26 telephone calls to plead his case and had private meetings with 17 senators between Monday morning and two p.m. the day of the vote.63 “When the President started calling up senators and inviting them down to the White House,” Senator Packwood said, “they came back converted.”64 Does that mean the President made deals with the senators? Not necessarily, as Glenn ex­ plains: “When the President says ‘I need your help: that’s a rather potent argument.” In addition, Glenn said, there is a certain aura associated with “sitting down with the most powerful person in the free world, maybe the whole world.”65 Then again, this does not mean deals were not made.

One of the most important factors in persuading uncommitted senators to sup­ port the sale and opponents to switch was the letter Reagan sent to Congress promising that before delivering the AWACS to Saudi Arabia he would “certify” to the Senate that he had obtained agreements from the Saudis that would prevent the planes’ use against Israel or the compromise of its technology. Although falling short of Glenn’s demand for joint crewing, the letter did say that Americans would have a role in operating the planes “well into the 1990s.” The letter also appeared to commit the President to obtain “substantial assistance” from Saudi Arabia in moving the peace process forward. By the time the letter was submitted to the Senate, several wavering senators had been allowed to insert their own provisions into the letter which, Packwood suggested, “allowed the vote changers a graceful way out.”66

There were also counter-pressures. Of the 20 Republicans who signed the resolution of disapproval, six were up for reelection in “Jewish” states; two were Jews; and two were from New York and Florida. Of those ten, only one (Hayakawa of California) voted for the sale. This seems to give some support to the argument that the informal component of the Israeli lobby does exert influence, even on Republicans.67

Why did Hayakawa support the sale? After meeting with Administration officials and President Reagan, Hayakawa said he had secured “a guarantee of a continuing review of these sales in the context of progress toward a regional Middle East settlement as well as assurances about the technical aspects of the sale and the security of Israel.” He also claimed that his constituent mail had changed from opposition to support of the sale.68

There were ten other Republicans who had signed the letter of disapproval. Except for Robert Packwood, all were first-term senators who had been swept into office by Reagan’s victory. Besides this electoral debt, the senators were subject to various pressures and all but Robert Kasten and opposition leader Packwood succumbed.

After receiving “top secret” assurances from the President regarding Israel’s security, Orrin Hatch switched in mid-October and explained that he had come to the conclusion “that if there was a time to support the President this is it.” Alan Simpson said, “It’s in the best interest of this country and the best interest of Israel that we do this.”69 A little over a week before the vote, Slade Gorton received a promise from the White House to support a $26 million appropriation to renovate a public health hospital in Seattle. Gorton claimed that his vote and the appropriation were “entirely separate” but also admitted that no congressman would admit that he had made a deal with the Administration.70 Charles Grassley found that the White House was willing to speed up his request for the appointment of his candidate for U.S. Attorney in Iowa but said that he hung up on the White House lobbyist when the appointment was tied to the AWACS vote. Nevertheless, Grassley switched his vote saying: “I saw the prospect of what a defeat for Reagan would do for peace in the Middle East.”71 

Another co-sponsor of the resolution of disapproval to reverse his position was William Cohen who said that he regarded the Saudi Government to be as “moderate as Yasir Arafat.” One of Cohen’s friends, presidential advisor Michael Deaver, arranged for two meetings with the President. At the second meeting, Cohen told the President he was afraid Israel would become a scapegoat if the sale were rejected and anti-Semitism would flare up in the United States. He also expressed his fear of “another holocaust” if Israel’s hostile neighbors were further armed. The President reassured him “that Israel’s quantitative and qualitative military edge will be maintained.” When Cohen told his colleagues in the Senate dining room that he was only trying to help Israel, everyone laughed. “Come on, Bill,” one Senator replied, “Just say you sold out. But don’t give me that stuff about saving Israel.”72

By far the most important and surprising reversal was made by Roger Jepsen. Jepsen had been one of the original sponsors of the resolution of disapproval and had given an eloquent speech to AIPAC’s policy conference explaining the religious and political basis for his support for Israel and opposition to the AWACS sale. A week before the vote, Jepsen broke into tears when explaining the conflicting pressures on him to his colleagues. The day before the vote, he switched because he said he had received “highly classified” information from the President that eased his fears about the AWACS’ threat to Israel. “A vote for the sale,” he said, “is a vote for my President and his successful conduct of foreign policy.”73

Jepsen received no favors but did get a lesson in hardball politics. A White House official said bluntly: “We just beat his brains out.” Jepsen protested that he was one of the President’s most loyal followers, but he was told that Reagan had to win the AWACS vote and that his vote was needed. If he did not vote with the President, he would get no further cooperation from the White House. “We stood him up in front of an open grave and said he could jump in if he wanted to,” the White House official said. Meanwhile, the White House legislative liaison staff was putting out calls to people in Iowa which, in turn, generated calls and letters to Jepsen. Apparently, there were a lot of anti-Semitic calls accusing Jepsen of selling out to Jewish interests as well as ones reminding him that he was a conservative elected to support the President. Additional pressure was put on Jepsen indirectly by Iowa’s other senator. When Grassley switched his vote, Jepsen faced the prospect of becoming the junior senator from Iowa. Although the change would have been only in the eyes of the Administration, that would be enough to deny Jepsen the patronage and ceremonial advantages of being the leader of the State’s delegation.74

The Administration also tried to obtain Democratic support. Nebraska’s Edward Zorinsky was one of those whose support was sought. Before the Foreign Relations Committee vote, Zorinsky refused to accept a phone call from the President. He said he did not “want to get caught with the Gipper in the locker room at halftime.” Later, he did meet with the President who told him that King Hussein was coming to visit in a few days and asked: “How can I convince foreign leaders that I’m in command when I can’t sell five airplanes?” Zorinsky left saying he had never been subjected to a “full-court press like this before” and went back to his office “to do some soul searching.” A reporter reminded him that he had once said Reagan could sell ice to Eskimos to which the Senator replied: “I’m thinking about putting a heavier coat on.” There were other pressures on Zorinsky as well, such as the discovery that the lampposts .in Riyadh were made in Nebraska. Like Jepsen, Zorinsky also had to take into consideration the position of his colleague, James Exon. Exon was under pressure not only from the Administration but also from the Union Pacific Railroad and Omaha banking executives. Exon had been leaning against the sale but voted for it. Demonstrating that being Jewish does not guarantee support for the Israeli lobby position, Zorinsky also voted for the sale.75

Another Democrat, Montana’s John Melcher, was won over by receiving support for a coal-conversion facility near Butte and a letter from Ambassador to Japan Mike Mansfield. Mansfield was Melcher’s predecessor and mentor so when Administration lobbyists called him off the floor the day of the vote to read him Mansfield’s letter supporting the sale he was provided with additional justification to vote for the sale.76 

The Administration was not always successful in its lobbying campaign. Dennis DeConcini of Arizona, for example, was told that Reagan would not campaign against him, but he voted against the sale anyway.77 Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont was subject to pressure from both sides because he had remained uncommitted. After a 45-minute discussion at the White House, Leahy told Reagan that he would go home to Vermont and consider his vote. “When you’re walking those fields and looking over those beautiful mountains,” the President said, “think of my face up there in the sky looking down on you.” Replied Leahy: “I’ll have to go to the Capitol physician first to get my arm put back in the socket.”78 Leahy voted against the sale.

The President did not restrict his lobbying to the use of positive reinforcement; he also tried punishment. For example, about 15 minutes after Rudy Boschwitz of Minnesota cast the only Republican vote against the AWACS sale in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he learned that an Air Force base in Duluth would be closed.79


In this case, the President wanted to sell the AWACS planes prior to the involvement of the Arab lobby. The issue, then, was not whether the balance of lobbying power had shifted in favor of the Arab lobby, but whether the Israeli lobby could overcome the power of the President combined with the Arab lobby. The likely outcome could have been predicted by analyzing the domestic balance of power.

The Constitution endows the executive branch with greater power in the realm of foreign policy than the legislative branch which implies that the balance of power is in favor of the former at equilibrium. The ability of a lobby to add sufficient weight to the legislative side of the balance to overcome this disadvantage depends on several variables: political capital (presidential popularity and the number of members of the President’s party in Congress), presidential deference, staff effectiveness, timing, and the policy type.

The model predicts that presidents will have more success if they control the agenda and have large amounts of political capital. In this case, Reagan controlled the agenda by initiating the proposal. Since the proposal required congressional approval, interest groups had access to the decision-making process and the Israeli lobby used its access to mobilize opposition in Congress. At the time of the sale, however, the President enjoyed a great deal of popularity, a 56-35 approval/disapproval rating, had legislative momentum from his tax and budget victories during the summer, and had a 53-47 majority in the Senate. Given this relative political strength, it would be difficult for any lobby to defeat the President who was ably assisted. After the victory, Duberstein was named to head legislative liaison.

During an election year, interest groups may be able to overcome party loyalty and bipartisan inclinations because of individual electoral imperatives, but 1981 was an off-year so the Israeli lobby would be expected to have less influence. In addition, the President deferred to Congress to a sufficient degree that congressmen did not feel that an imbalance of power between the branches existed. In fact, many senators expressed the belief that the presidency would be seriously weakened if they did not support the AWACS sale, thus adding additional weight to the executive side of the balance.

The implication of this analysis is not that the balance of lobbying power is irrelevant, but that the influence of the holder of the balance is limited by the overall balance of domestic power and that is determined largely by the strength of the Presi­dent. The fact that the Israeli lobby did affect the outcome can be seen from the additional assurances secured from the Administration regarding the use of the AWACS. Furthermore, the President reaffirmed his commitment to Israel’s security offering an additional $600 million in military credits, 15 F-15s, and the promise of future arms sales as well as the signing of the strategic cooperation agreement. Perhaps the most important result, from the Israeli lobby’s perspective, was that the difficulty of the legislative battle helped dissuade the Administration from proposing any additional arms sales to Arab states despite its expressed desire to do so. Moreover, comparing the Arab lobby’s failure to accomplish many of its subsequent policy objectives (e.g., cutting off arms or aid to Israel) with the Israeli lobby’s success in reaching a number of its goals (the Free Trade Agreement to name one), suggests that the balance of lobbying power remains solidly in favor of the Israeli lobby.


  1. State Department Bulletin (April 1981), p. 31.
  2. David Pollock, The Politics of Pressure (Conn: Greenwood Press, 1982), p. 277; Steven Emerson The American House of Saud (NY: Franklin Watts, 1985), pp. 177-178; The New York Times (Feb. 26, 1981).
  3. President’s Conference Annual Report (Year ending March 31, 1981), p. 18.
  4. Near East Report (Feb. 27, 1981), p. 34; Emerson, p. 177.s
  5. Near East Report (March 20, 1981), pp. 46 and 48; Near East Report (April 3, 10, 17, 1981), pp. 55-56, 61-62, 67-70; William Safire, “Arming the Arabs,” The New York Times (March 12, 1981).
  6. George J. Church, “AWACS: He Does It Again,” Time (Nov. 9, 1981), p. 16.
  7. Emerson, pp. 178-179.
  8. State Department Bulletin (June 1981), p. 47. Statement made on April 23, 1981.
  9. Hoag Levins, Arab Reach (NY: Doubleday, 1983), p. 13.
  10. Near East Report (April 3, 1981), p. 53.
  11. Near East Report (June 5, 1981), p. 105.
  12. Washington Post (Aug. 15, 1981).
  13. Near East Report (May 29, 1981), p. 100.
  14. State Department Bulletin (Oct. 1981), p. 61.
  15. Steven L. Spiegel, The Other Arab-Israeli Conflict (IL: University of Chicago Press, 1985), p. 410.
  16. Steven Emerson, “The Petrodollar Connection;’ The New Republic (Feb. 17, 1982), reprint; also Emerson (1985).
  17. Levins, p. 17; Emerson (1985), p. 187; The New York Times (Oct. 1, 1981).
  18. John Rourke, Congress and the Presidency in U.S. Foreign Policymaking (CO: Westview Press, 1983), p. 260; Emerson (1985), pp. 188-189.
  19. The New York Times (Oct. 4, 1981); Near East Report (Aug 7, 1981), p. 152.
  20. The New York Times (Sept. 18, 1981); Near East Report (Sept. 25, 1981), p. 178.
  21. Emerson (1985), pp. 187-188.
  22. The New York Times (Oct. 1 and 4, 1981).
  23. Emerson (1985), p. 213.
  24. Near East Report (July 3, 1981), p. 131.
  25. State Department Bulletin (Oct. 1981), p. 52.
  26. The New York Times (Aug. 6 and Sept. 5, 1981).
  27. Near East Report (Sept. 11, 1981), p. 169.
  28. The New York Times (Sept. 5, 1981).
  29. The New York Times (Sept. 11, 1981).
  30. Rehavia Yanovee, “Arms for Oil-Oil for Arms: An Analysis of President Carter’s 1978 Planes ‘Package Deal’ Sale to Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia,” (Claremont: Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, 1983), p. 328.
  31. The New York Times (Sept. 17, 18, 21, 22, 1981); Emerson (85), p. 180.
  32. The New York Times (Sept. 14, 18, 22, 1981).
  33. The New York Times (Sept. 18, 1981).
  34. State Department Bulletin (Nov. 1981), pp. 16-17.
  35. Wolf Blitzer, “The AIPAC Formula,” Moment (Nov. 1981), reprint.
  36. Richard Cohen, “Even if He Wins on Saudi Arms Sale, Reagan May Find it a Hollow Victory,” National Journal (Sept. 12, 1981), p. 1621; Near East Report (Oct. 2, 1981), p. 181.
  37. Near East Report (Oct 2, 1981), p. 181.
  38. Near East Report (Oct 2, 1981), p. 182.
  39. U.S. Congress. Senate. Committee on Foreign Relations, Hearings, Oct. 1981 [henceforth SFRC]; State Department Bulletin (Oct-Nov. 1981), pp. 13-14 and 60-61.
  40. SFRC, pp. 54-55.
  41. The New York Times (Oct. 2, 1981).
  42. Quote from “Meet the Press,” May 17 cited in The New York Times (May 18, 1981); Near East Report (May 22, 1981), p. 93.
  43. James Buckley, Under Secretary of State testimony to SFRC, p. 32.
  44. SFRC, pp. 145-152.
  45. SFRC, p. 159.
  46. SFRC, p. 160.
  47. SFRC, p. 163.
  48. The New York Times (Sept. 25, 1981).
  49. The New York Times (Sept. 26, 1981).
  50. The New York Times (Sept. 28, 1981); Near East Report (Oct. 9, 1981), p. 185.
  51. Near East Report (Oct. 9, 1981), pp. 186 and 188.
  52. James Kelly, “In A World Without Sadat,” Time, Oct. 26, 1981, p. 21; Anthony King, “A Mile and A Half Is A Long Way,” in Anthony King, ed., Both Ends of the Avenue (Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute, 1983), pp. 263-264; Near East Report (Oct. 23, 1981), pp. 193-197; The New York Times (Oct. 16, 1981).
  53. The New York Times (Oct. 22, 25, 1981).
  54. The New York Times (Oct. 23, 1981).
  55. The New York Times (Oct. 24, 1981).
  56. The New York Times (Oct. 28, 1981).
  57. Church, p. 13.
  58. Emerson (85), p. 182.
  59. Levins, p. 3.
  60. Near East Report (Nov. 6, 1981), p. 203.
  61. The New York Times (Oct. 18, 29, 1981).
  62. The New York Times (Nov. 15, 1981).
  63. Walter Isaacson, “The Man With The Golden Arm;’ Time (Nov. 9, 1981), p. 25; Church, pp. 12-13.
  64. The New York Times (Oct. 29, 1981).
  65. The New York Times (Oct. 29, 1981).
  66. King, pp. 268-269; The New York Times (Oct. 14, 1981); Isaacson (Nov. 9, 1981), p. 26; Near East Report (Nov. 6, 1981), p. 201.
  67. The New York Times (Nov. 18, 1981); Levins, p. 15.
  68. Letter from Senator S.I. Hayakawa to Dr. Arthur S. Bard dated Nov. 3, 1981.
  69. Walter Isaacson, “Once Again, AWACS On The Line,” Time (Oct. 19, 1981), p. 41; The New York Times (Oct. 7, 1981).
  70. The New York Times (Oct. 29, 1981).
  71. Isaacson (Nov. 9, 1981), pp. 25-26; Rourke, p. 260; Kelly, p. 21; John Hyde, “How the White House Won Jepsen’s AWACS Vote;’ Des Moines Register (Oct. 29, 1981).
  72. The New York Times (Oct. 29, 1981); Isaacson (Nov. 9, 1981), p. 26.
  73. Isaacson (Nov. 9, 1981), p. 25; Church, p. 13.
  74. Hyde.
  75. Isaacson (Nov. 9, 1981), p. 25; Emerson (85), pp. 208-209.
  76. Isaacson (Nov. 9, 1981), pp. 25-26.
  77. Kelly, p. 21.
  78. Isaacson (Nov. 9, 1981), pp. 26-31.
  79. The New York Times (Oct. 18, 1981).

Source: Mitchell Bard, “Interest Groups, the President, and Foreign Policy: How Reagan Snatched Victory from the Jaws of Defeat On AWACS,” Presidential Studies Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 3, (SUMMER 1988), pp. 583-600.