A congressman once admitted to me that he and his colleagues know a lot of things, generally speaking, but their knowledge only "extends about one inch deep." In other words, the briefings provided by staffers and in committees is intended to touch only on what is important to know to look well informed in front of the C-SPAN cameras without any unnecessary depth that would only create confusion. And the information provided must generally conform to what the congressmen already believe to be true and want to hear so no one will be embarrassed.
That such ignorance would be particularly notable in the realm of foreign policy should surprise no one because congressmen as a group are no longer very well educated. Few speak foreign languages and no one any longer studies the history or culture of any country but the United States, and sometimes not even that.
Some Congressmen nevertheless boast about all the countries they have visited to "fact find." They fail to recognize how they travel in a bubble, whisked to foreign lands via military aircraft on the virtually worthless congressional delegations known as CODELS. On these trips, spouses go shopping while American legislators are briefed by the ambassador's staff and the CIA station, both of which, for budget reasons, are more interested in demonstrating what a wonderful job they are doing rather than explaining the complexity of the local situation. And that is followed by the obligatory visit to listen to the local head of state lie about how everything is going just fine in his country.
Given the reality of garbage in, garbage out, it is no wonder that buffoons like Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham are lauded as foreign-policy experts in the Republican Party. It's called setting the bar really low.
For a Congress intent on appearing to be doing something while doing nothing, one of the worst time wasters is the committee hearing, where the senators and congressmen call in "experts" to explain to them why a certain policy is either worthwhile or useless. Of course, it usually doesn't exactly play out that way, as the committee generally wants to hear testimony that supports its preconceptions about whatever is being discussed, so it only invites those to the party who will say what it wants to hear.
To cite only one of many examples of Congress's unwillingness to listen to any opinion that might challenge the establishment view, a February 16 hearing by the House Foreign Affairs Committee entitled "Iran on Notice" featured four "experts," all of whom were hostile to Iran and advocates of "solutions" ranging from actively encouraging regime change to using military force. No one knowledgeable enough to explain Iran's behavior and/or offer non-confrontational approaches was invited or asked to participate.
I have been closely following some recent hearings that relate to Russia, most particularly the Senate Judiciary session that was supposed to look into the issue of registry under the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938 for Russian agents. The hearing, which started on July 26, and was extended to the following day, was entitled "Oversight of the Foreign Agents Registration Act and Attempts to Influence U.S. Elections: Lessons Learned from Current and Prior Administrations."
The first day's session included statements by three Justice Department and FBI officials regarding how the FARA legislation is enforced and how presumed violations of it are investigated. There were some specific comments and questions from individual senators regarding Russian and Saudi government attempts to influence opinion in the United States, but little in the way of drama.
The second day was for additional "expert testimony." It consisted of billionaire hedge-fund director William Browder, who read a prepared statement and then responded to questions. (Video of the statement and the following discussion are available here, with Browder beginning at minute 24.) Browder, who clearly has his own agenda to debunk a film made last year attacking him and a narrative about a former employee Sergei Magnitsky that he has been promoting, was embraced by the senators, who should have known better.
Veteran award-winning journalist Robert Parry describes what took place: "...last week, Senate Judiciary Committee members sat in rapt attention as hedge-fund operator William Browder wowed them with a reprise of his Magnitsky tale and suggested that people who have challenged the narrative and those who dared air the documentary one time at Washington's Newseum last year should be prosecuted for violating the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA)."
Not even one senator challenged William Browder's sometimes extraordinary claims about Russia's government in general and its President Vladimir Putin in particular, including that Putin is the richest man in the world due to all the money that he has stolen. As Browder appears to be seeking to use FARA to punish those who have criticized him or even watched a movie about him based on the assumption that they must be Russian agents, he might well be regarded as not exactly a disinterested source providing objective information about Russia and its government.
American-born British citizen Browder has been the principal promoter of a narrative about Russian government malfeasance relating to his former employee Sergei Magnitsky, who, Browder claims, was a courageous whistleblower who was falsely arrested after exposing corruption and eventually died in a Moscow prison after being tortured. Browder's energetic promotion of the Magnitsky story has poisoned relations with Moscow and led to the passage of the Magnitsky Act by Congress in 2012. Russia rightly has seen the legislation, which includes sanctions on some officials, as unwarranted interference in the operation of its judicial system.
Browder astutely portrays himself as a human-rights campaigner dedicated to promoting the legacy of Magnitsky, but his own biography is inevitably much more complicated than that. The grandson of Earl Browder, the former general secretary of the American Communist Party, William Browder studied economics at the University of Chicago, and obtained an MBA from Stanford.
From the beginning, Browder concentrated on Eastern Europe, which was beginning to open up to the west. In 1989 he took a position at highly respected Boston Consulting Group dealing with reviving failing Polish socialist enterprises. He then worked as an Eastern Europe analyst for Robert Maxwell, the unsavory British press magnate and Mossad spy, before joining the Russia team at Wall Street's Salomon Brothers in 1992.
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