3 November 2017

Washington is a city for sale


What do General Michael Flynn, President Donald J Trump’s first National Security Advisor, Paul Manafort, Trump’s erstwhile campaign chief, and Tony Podesta, the lobbyist and brother of Hillary Clinton’s former campaign chief, John Podesta, have in common?

They have all been accused of taking money from dodgy dictators to represent foreign interests in Washington. It’s worth considering what this unfolding corruption scandal in Washington says about our political elite and US foreign policy?

For a nation of such great power and global influence, America is curiously light on immutable foreign policy objectives. The country’s overseas activities are thus subject to the whims of Presidents and machinations of those, often in the pay of foreign adversaries, who have access to the former. Put plainly, our foreign policy seems to be up for sale.

First, a recap of what we know. Flynn was a paid lobbyist for the Turkish government and pocketed at least $500,000 as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s voice in Washington. Thus, while Trump campaigned to put “America First”, Flynn was putting Turkish interests ahead of America’s. Having failed to disclose his Turkish connection, Flynn resigned from his post as National Security Advisor after merely 24 days.

Meanwhile, Manafort was apparently pocketing millions of dollars from a corrupt Mafioso formerly known as the President of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, and laundering it to evade the grasping hands of the US Internal Revenue Service. Manafort’s shady connection to Yanukovych and, by default, his Russian sponsor, President-for-life Vladimir Putin, was well known before he took over as Trump’s campaign chief. Trump hired him anyway. So much for draining the swamp…

One of the more intriguing news items that have emerged as a result of the investigative efforts of Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller is that Manafort sprinkled the Ukrainian largesse around Washington by hiring, among others, “public affairs specialists” from the Podesta Group – a lobbying firm founded by John and Tony Podesta in 1988. The former left the firm in 1993, but the latter ran it until October 30. And so, in an incestuous manner that would make Caligula blush, the brother of Clinton’s campaign chief was on the payroll of Trump’s campaign supremo.

The Turks and the Ukrainians are not the only people spending vast amounts of money on Washington lobbyists. Just about every troubled government in the world retains the services of one K Street “public affairs” firm or another. The Podesta Group alone has represented, in addition to Ukraine under Yanukovich, Kenya under Uhuru Kenyatta, who stands accused of electoral fraud, and Azerbaijan under the grotesquely corrupt Ilham Aliyev. That raises the obvious question: why do all of these governments go through so much trouble to have their voices heard in Washington?

Part of the answer lies in the curious malleability of US foreign policy. Every four years, as Americans head to the polls to choose their next Commander in Chief, the world waits to learn about the changes in US foreign policy. This has been the case for a long time. During the Cold War, for example, John F Kennedy promised that America would “pay any price, [and] bear any burden [to fight communism].” Richard Nixon, in contrast, wanted America to “look to the nation directly threatened [by communism] to assume the primary responsibility of providing the manpower for its defense”.

Nixon felt that America could co-exist with communism and came up with his policy of détente. Ronald Reagan refused to co-exist with communism and promised to “roll it back”. More recently, George W Bush saw America as a nation of regime-changers and nation-builders. Barack Obama, in contrast, promised to avoid doing “stupid shit” and got out of Iraq as soon as he could. Put differently, one never really knows what the new guy will do, but everyone assumes that it will be different from what the previous guy did.

Typically, nations have immutable foreign policy objectives determined by geography (hence the term “geopolitics”). Russia, for example, obsesses about access to warm water ports, including   those of Syria and Ukraine. France, which has fought three devastating wars with Germany between 1870 and 1945, will always be concerned about German strength. Poland, having been repeatedly carved up by the two, will forever worry about both Russia and Germany.

In contrast, America’s neighbours, Canada and Mexico, are military pygmies. Moreover, mainland United States is separated from the world’s trouble spots by two vast oceans. Yes, Americans worry about nuclear weapons and terrorism, but most of America’s global concerns are not geographically determined. Instead, they are willingly assumed.

Take Azerbaijan, Kenya and Ukraine. It would be nice if all of these countries were well-run democracies, but America’s vital interests will not be threatened if the three remain what they are – corrupt and, with the exception of Ukraine, undemocratic. America, in other words, can take it or leave it.

Foreign governments, however, cannot be that nonchalant. Their survival often depends on goodwill in Washington. For example, a democracy promoter, like George W Bush, might be less inclined to sit on his hands if trouble breaks out in Baku, than Donald J Trump. Access to the US President, in other words, can make a helluva difference and that’s where the lobbyists come in.

America is not the first empire to deal with the problem of corruption in foreign policy decision-making. In its last republican century, Rome grew ever more hegemonic in the Mediterranean and, consequently, increasingly foggy about the nature and limits of the city’s overseas objectives. Increasingly, the Republic was dragged into territorial and dynastic disputes between third parties. Gold from foreign kings and potentates, who sought to gain favour in Rome, flew to the Senate and to the Proconsuls in the provinces.

One of the most notorious corruptors of the Roman body politic was King Jugurtha of Numidia. Jugurtha’s penchant for bribing Roman officials eventually led to a corruption trial in Rome, which the King survived by bribing a Tribune who used his veto to undermine the legal proceedings. As he passed through the city gates on his way home, Jugurtha uttered words that would reverberate through the rest of Roman history – “urbem venalem et mature perituram, si emptorem invenerit (a city for sale and doomed to speedy destruction if it finds a purchaser)”.

It is difficult not to see the parallels between the Roman and American republics.

Marian L. Tupy is senior policy analyst at the Cato Institute's Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity