Foreign Influence Peddling: Hidden in Plain Sight

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is today the poster child for influence peddling by high profiled former Western politicians. He has contracts with dictators around the world, including $7 million per year to promote the United Arab Emirates (UAE), he receives $60,000 a month plus 2% of any deals from a Saudi oil company connected to the Saudi ruling family, he has a contract with the ruler of Kuwait with an estimated remuneration of $40 million, and he has used his two "charities" as a calling card to lay the foundation for his personal business activities while he was acting as a "selfless" official peace negotiator in the Middle East.

But Mr. Blair is by no means the only one. As in most other dimensions of life, the US has been ahead of the UK. Some former American politicians must have been Mr. Blair's role models! Politics has become the latest path to wealth in the US and it seems in the UK. It would appear that we have been in denial for what has been in plain sight for years. Today, some may be shocked by influence-soliciting gifts to the Clinton Foundation but foreign gifts to politicians have sadly become a part of our culture--something that has gotten out of control and could be very well be compromising our foreign policy. Let's begin by asking a number of questions to uncover what has been going on for decades and why.

Which countries and which heads of state give lucrative contracts/gifts/ to former US presidents and other former senior politicians, such as cabinet members, either directly or indirectly? Well, it certainly is not a country such as Germany or a senior politician like Chancellor Angela Merkel. It is Third World countries and their oppressive rulers, especially dictators who control vast financial resources derived from the sale of oil, natural gas, diamonds and the like. Many of these rulers happen to be in the Middle East and North Africa, they are invariably dictators and oppressive rulers with governments that we deplore in public as undemocratic and oppressive, but support in private.

Why do these dictators give away their country's national wealth to former influential US politicians? They are dictators who need US political and military support to stay in power. These oppressive rulers are squandering the birthright of generations (oil and natural gas in the ground that should benefit this and all future generations) to foreigners who in return help them stay in power. While they need the money desperately at home to educate their people, afford them better healthcare and stamp out poverty, they are giving their money to the richest nation in the world! Dictators pay for US support to stay in power but the likes of an Angela Merkel have no need for such support as they only need the approval off their electorate to stay in power.

How does this money in support of oppression play out in these third world countries? Do they love or hate us? Well, the answer should be obvious. As we have said before in our last post, the US is unpopular in the Arab countries of the Middle East with 7 of the 10 countries where the US is most unpopular in the entire world located in the Middle East region. Can we blame a poor disenfranchised citizen who is struggling to make a living for his or her family hating us as he or she sees millions going into the pockets of rich Americans to support rulers who oppress them? Our meddling in turn breeds anger toward the US, it spawns the likes of Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations hell bent on deposing their oppressive rulers and on hurting us at home.

Do we benefit in some ways as a nation from our former senior leaders and politicians having outstretched hands to Middle Eastern dictators and happy to do their bidding? Absolutely not! In the short run, our support for these dictators gets us influence in their country and may promote our exports of goods and services. It may afford us military bases and promote stability. It is colonialism morphed, something that we have coined in a book as collaborative colonialism --because we reap some of the economic benefits of colonialism, but no longer in conflict with the local rulers and instead with their collaboration to suppress their people. While this may motivate us to look the other way at the influence peddling and compromising of our foreign policy by our former officials, there is a price to pay in the form of catastrophic upheavals (for example in Iran, Iraq and Libya) instead of more tempered reforms. In the process, we lose the moral high ground and the principles that were at the foundation of the United States as a nation, it becomes harder for us to develop good relations with other third world countries and even the senior officials of these foreign dictatorships who line the pockets of our former officials do not have charitable words in private for the role played by these influence peddlers.

What are the channels of these lucrative contracts and gifts? First let's set the record straight. As of 2014, the value of the maximum gift that serving US officials could accept from foreign governments was $375 with larger gifts put into the national archives. So while in office, a person cannot accept much, but then the floodgates open up! "Gifts" come in the form of large annual/monthly checks, at times with additional "success" fees, contracts with vague advisory responsibilities (to such high profile entities that include Tony Blair Associates and Kissinger Associates). There are also multi-million dollar gifts of jewelry, which some influence peddlers may prefer because they are less transparent and as a result less likely to attract attention or spark a tax audit. There are also gifts to third parties, which may indirectly benefit a former politician--gifts to foundations, universities (such as centers in their names), charities, and other non-profits; and this again blurs the lines, avoids taxes and can give our influence peddler what he or she craves. In particular, American universities have been eager recipients of such gifts. Importantly in most such cases, these former officials do not register as "foreign agents," something that is required by law if one is lobbying and acting on behalf of a foreign government. Thus they keep their name "clean" and out of the limelight and away from public scrutiny. But there are a whole host of "lower level" influence peddlers, such as law and public relations firms and individuals, who must register as foreign agents because they actively lobby for their foreign clients with contracts that may have been initiated by a former senior official.

Having said all of this and seeing how foreign gifts have become an important issue in our 2016 presidential election (gifts to the Clinton Foundation, for example), the question is what should we as a nation do moving forward? We must make sure that the United States is not up for sale through our former officials and that our foreign policy and national interest are not compromised. We suggest the following initiatives. First, we need a government study to compile a benchmark, a list (from say 2000 on) of all gifts and all category of contracts from foreign governments and those connected with them to our former senior elected and appointed officials of federal and state governments, and to foundations, universities, charities and other non-profits (associated and not associated with former government officials). Second, we should broaden the disclosure and reporting requirements (source, amount, purpose, duration, deliverables, etc.) of all gifts and contracts from foreign governments, rulers and their associates to former senior elected and appointed federal and state government officials for say 10 years after their departure from government. Third, we should expand the definition of "foreign agent" to include any individuals receiving contracts valued at say over $100,000 for advisory (that includes lobbying) services from foreign governments, no matter what the stated purpose of the contract.

It is high time that we scrutinize and assess the sale of our national interests to foreigners, especially to dictators, and reign in influence peddling by our former officials that compromise our values as a nation and our foreign policy. No matter who wins the White House, the adoption of these, or similar, initiatives should be readily acceptable to both parties, as candidates from both sides have publicly condemned foreign interference in our political system.