In the Oval Office (or the White House underground bunker) is a president who does just what he wants. Not long ago, for instance, his administration sent two million doses of his much-favored anti-malarial drug of the moment, hydroxychloroquine, to Jair Bolsonaro's Brazil where Covid-19 is raging. Bolsonaro, recently spotted wearing a tie with an assault-rifle design, is, of course, another head of state with an ultra-loyal "base." He may, in fact, be the only leader on earth who makes Donald Trump look almost sane when it comes to the global pandemic. In the process, our president is providing a potentially dangerous drug to Brazilians suffering from the coronavirus even as he denies it to patients in the U.S. who actually need it for other diseases.
To cite another example of Donald Trump doing just what he wants, consider the weapons version of those anti-malarial drugs. After all, at a moment when you might think they'd have a few other things on their minds, the president and his men are at it again when it comes to selling yet more weaponry to Saudi Arabia! From the beginning of his presidency, when the Saudi royals, led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, wined him, dined him, and sword-danced with him in Riyadh, he's been desperate to peddle the products of major American arms makers to the kingdom and so (supposedly) create more jobs here at home.
Last year, Trump clashed with Congress over $8.1 billion in such sales and his administration declared an "emergency" to ink those deals without congressional approval. Now, add another half-billion-dollar deal for 7,500 Raytheon-made Paveway IV precision-guided munitions to the 60,000 of those weapons sold to that country in 2019. (And speaking of jobs, part of the agreement evidently is that Raytheon will produce ever more of those weapons in Saudi Arabia. Brilliant!) Such "precision" missiles have, of course, been used for years by the Saudis to take out Yemeni civilians -- in a country now hit by Covid-19 as well -- in what undoubtedly is the most devastating war on Planet Earth for a civilian population at this moment.
In that grim context, consider how what's still officially labeled "U.S. foreign policy" in the Persian Gulf is actually being made. In today's TomDispatch post, Morgan Palumbo and Jessica Draper, who work for the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative and the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, dramatically lay out the twenty-first-century version of such policy-making, move by move, blow by blow, PR firm by PR firm. Tom
It was a bare-knuckle brawl of the first order. It took place in Washington, D.C., and it resulted in a KO. The winners? Lobbyists and the defense industry. The losers? Us. And odds on, you didn't even know that it happened. Few Americans did, which is why it's worth telling the story of how Saudi, Emirati, and Qatari money flooded the nation's capital and, in the process, American policy went down for the count.
The fight began three years ago this month. Sure, the pugilists hadn't really liked each other that much before then, but what happened in 2017 was the foreign-policy equivalent of a sucker punch. On the morning of June 5th, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, and Bahrain announced that they were severing diplomatic ties with Qatar, the small but wealthy emirate in the Persian Gulf, and establishing a land, air, and sea blockade of their regional rival, purportedly because of its ties to terrorism.
The move stunned the Qataris, who responded in ways that would later become familiar during the Covid-19 pandemic -- by emptying supermarket shelves and hoarding essentials they worried would quickly run out. Their initial fears were not unwarranted, as their neighbors, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, were even reported to be planning to launch a military invasion of Qatar in the weeks to come (one that would be thwarted only by the strong objections of Donald Trump's then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson).
To make sense of this now three-year-old conflict, which turned aspects of American policy in the Middle East ranging from the war in Yemen to the more than 10,000 American military personnel stationed in Qatar into political footballs, means refocusing on Washington and the extraordinary influence operations the Saudis, Emiratis, and Qataris ran there. That, in turn, means analyzing Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) documents filed by firms representing all three countries since the spat began. Do that and you'll come across a no-punches-barred bout of lobbying in the U.S. capital that would have made Rocky envious.
The Saudis Come Out Swinging
The stage had been set for the blockade of Qatar seven months before it began when Donald Trump was elected president. Just as his victory shocked the American public, so it caught many foreign governments off guard. In response, they quickly sought out the services of anyone with ties to the incoming administration and the Republican-controlled Congress. The Saudis and Emiratis were no exception. In 2016, both countries had reported spending a little more than $10 million on FARA registered lobbying firms. By the end of 2017, UAE spending had nearly doubled to $19.5 million, while the Saudi's had soared to $27.3 million.
In the months following Donald Trump's November triumph, the Saudis, for instance, added several firms with ties to him or the Republicans to an already sizeable list of companies registered under FARA as representing their interests. For example, they brought on the CGCN Group whose president and chief policy officer, Michael Catanzaro, was on Trump's transition team and then served in his administration. To court the Republican Congress, they hired the McKeon Group, run by former Republican Representative Buck McKeon, who had previously served as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
And that was just registered foreign agents. A number of actors who had not registered under FARA were actively pushing the Saudi and Emirati agendas, chief among them Elliott Broidy and George Nader. Broidy, a top fundraiser for Trump's campaign, and Nader, his business partner, already had a wide range of interests in both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. To help secure them, the two men embarked on a campaign to turn the new president and the Republican establishment against Qatar. One result was a Broidy-inspired, UAE-funded anti-Qatar conference hosted in May 2017 by a prominent Washington think tank, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. It conveniently offered Representative Ed Royce (R-CA) a platform to discuss his plans to introduce a bill, HR 2712, that would label Qatar a state sponsor of terrorism. It was to be introduced in the House of Representatives just two days after the conference ended.
Qatar, mind you, had been a U.S. ally in the Middle East and was the home of Al Udeid Air Base, where more than 10,000 American soldiers are still stationed. So that bill represented a striking development in American-Qatari relations and was a clearly traceable result of Saudi and UAE lobbying efforts.
The unregistered influence of players like Broidy and Nader was evidently backed by other FARA-registered Saudi and UAE foreign agents actively pushing the bill. For example, Qorvis Communications, a long-time public relations mouthpiece for the Saudis, circulated a document titled "Qatar's History of Funding Terrorism and Extremism," claiming that country was funding Al-Nusra, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, and other groups. (Not surprisingly, it included a supportive quote from David Weinberg, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.)
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