How is it that regimes widely acknowledged to be the world’s most oppressive nevertheless continually win favors in Washington? In part, it is because they often have something highly desired by the United States that can be leveraged to their advantage, be it natural resources, vast markets for trade and investment, or general geostrategic importance. But even the best-endowed regimes need help navigating the shoals of Washington, and it is their great fortune that, for the right price, countless lobbyists are willing to steer even the foulest of ships.
American lobbyists have worked for dictators since at least the 1930s, when the Nazi government used a proxy firm called the German Dye Trust to retain the public-relations specialist Ivy Lee. Exposure of Lee’s deal led Congress to pass the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938 (FARA), which required foreign lobbyists to register their contracts with the Justice Department. The idea seemed to be that with disclosure, lobbyists would be too embarrassed to take on immoral or corrupt clients, but this assumption predictably proved to be naive. Edward J. von Kloberg III, now deceased, for years made quite a comfortable living by representing men such as Saddam Hussein of Iraq (whose government’s gassing of its Kurdish population he sought to justify) and Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire (for whose notoriously crooked regime he helped win American foreign aid). Two other von Kloberg contracts—for Nicolae Ceaus¸escu of Romania and Samuel Doe of Liberia—were terminated, quite literally, when each was murdered by his own citizens. In the 1990s, after Burma’s military government arrested the future Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi and cracked down on the pro-democracy movement she led, the firm of Jefferson Waterman International signed on to freshen up the Burmese image.Although there are distinct limits to what they can achieve, lobbyists are the crucial conduit through which pariah regimes advance their interests in Washington. “It’s like the secret handshake that gets you into the lodge,” as one former lobbyist told me.
Exactly what sorts of promises do these firms make to foreign governments? What kind of scrutiny, if any, do they apply to potential clients? How do they orchestrate support for their clients? And how much of their work is visible to Congress and the public, and hence subject to oversight? To shed light on these questions, I decided to approach some top Washington lobbying firms myself, as a potential client, to see whether they would be willing to burnish the public image of a particularly reprehensible regime.
The second element of the strategy was a “media campaign.” In a slide entitled “Core Media Relations Activities,” APCO promised to “create news items and news outflow,” organize media events, and identify and work with “key reporters.” As this was her field of expertise, Dyck presented this slide. The media would be receptive to stories about Turkmenistan with the change of government, she said, plus “energy security is an additional hook. We can also bring things like Internet cafés to their attention.”
In addition to influencing news reports, Downen added, the firm could drum up positive op-eds in newspapers. “We can utilize some of the think-tank experts who would say, ‘On the one hand this and the other hand that,’ and we place it as a guest editorial.” Indeed, Schumacher said, APCO had someone on staff who “does nothing but that” and had succeeded in placing thousands of opinion pieces.
Another firm offered this:
Also, The Maldon Group should not underestimate the value of arranging a trip to Turkmenistan for journalists and think-tank analysts, which was something Dolan said he had done for the Valdai International Discussion Club, a group funded by Russian interests that offers all-expenses-paid trips to Russia. Amid the general pampering, the Western academics and reporters who attend are granted audiences with senior Russian political figures. During the meeting, Dolan simply described it as a way to give people “firsthand information” and mentioned that past attendees had included Ariel Cohen of The Heritage Foundation, Marshall Goldman of Harvard, and Jim Hoagland of the Washington Post. A similar program might work for Turkmenistan, he suggested.If that doesn't work, you can just buy them outright:
Another option, he explained, would be to pay Roll Call and The Economist to host a Turkmenistan event. It would be costlier than the think-tank route, perhaps around $25,000, but in compensation we would have tighter control over the proceedings, plus gain “the imprimatur of a respected third party.” In order that the event not seem like paid advertising, the title for the event should be “bigger than your theme,” Schumacher explained, even as it would be put together in a way “that you get your message across.”
So we wouldn’t call it “Turkmenistan Day”? I asked.
No, Schumacher replied. “Energy Security” would be a better theme.