By Arab News
By Ellen R. Wald*
Washington, D.C., is the capital of the US, but these days it seems like every international interest is being pushed in the offices, bars and restaurants of the city. American public relations firms have contracts from Gulf countries, lobbying firms advocate for Chinese state-owned business interests, pro-Iranian non-profits operate with unknown sources of funds, and think tanks are funded from a range of foreign powers. There are groups in Washington that support almost every political and geopolitical side. Everyone wants to influence the US government, and it seems all too possible with the free and open form of government that America has.
The US permits Americans and foreigners to advocate and lobby for the interests of other countries, but technically those persons engaged in such activity are required to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Until very recently, however, there was essentially no repercussion if a lobbyist for a foreign government failed to register, and even today the assumption is that thousands of people — Americans and foreigners — are paid to pursue the interests of foreign governments within the US capital without notifying the authorities.
FARA is a law that originated in 1938, as the US feared the rise of international communism and the world was on the brink of war precipitated by Nazi and Japanese aggression. At the time, the US understandably feared foreign interference in its government, which was made easier by a Constitutionally-enshrined dedication to free speech. The dilemma is that, if every person within the US is guaranteed the right to speak freely about politics, it becomes impossible to stop those speaking on behalf of foreign powers. The solution is to require those people to simply register so they cannot work surreptitiously. During World War II, 23 people were prosecuted for violating the law, but it was used sparsely thereafter.
Now FARA has reemerged as prominent legislation, but not because foreign agents are being forced to comply en masse. Rather, it is because FARA is being used in the prosecution of Paul Manafort, President Donald Trump’s one-time campaign chairman. Manafort is accused of failing to register as an agent of pro-Russian Ukrainian elements before the president ever ran for office. Supporters of Trump, and others, say that the prosecution of Manafort is part of the history of selective enforcement of the law. In their argument, so few people and organizations have been prosecuted under the law despite so many thousands of people and institutions having violated it. To them, this is evidence that the selective enforcement of FARA is being used to prosecute political opponents only. It is a sign that the law has failed.
Yet FARA could work. The US government should issue notice that violators have some time — perhaps one year — to register. The government should further issue guidance on who is expected to register so it is clear if registration is necessary. Once the registrations come pouring in from across the capital, the government should publish lists of foreign agents. Some businesses and people will halt their work for foreign governments rather than suffer the ignominy of publicly admitting to working as an agent for another country.
Still, the question remains: Just how effective are all of the millions of dollars spent by other countries in Washington? There is a good chance that much of it is ineffective.
Take the case of Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on the campaign Qatar put together to lobby Trump through his friends and confidants. Saudi Arabia has, meanwhile, devoted money and time to public relations campaigns and official visits to further solidify its relationship with Trump. And yet none of that time, effort, planning and money will truly impact how Trump handles the situation between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Trump will not take sides in the dispute because the entire situation boils down to the fact that Saudi Arabia is America’s largest trading partner in the Gulf and Qatar hosts an American military base. Those two realities are much more powerful than all of the money these countries can pour into the pockets of Washington lobbyists.
Even the most successful foreign public relations campaigns have had little impact on the American political system. In 1987, a non-profit was formed in London called Free Tibet. It soon started operating in the US, advocating for Tibetan freedom from China. Bumper stickers and T-shirts calling for a “Free Tibet” became commonplace nationwide. The campaign convinced almost every American that Tibet should be free of Chinese subjugation. And yet the US did nothing to bring freedom to Tibet. After all, the US had its own interests with China, and no T-shirts were going to change that. Free Tibet’s advocacy efforts changed the views of Americans, but it did not change America’s behavior.
Foreign lobbying falls under the protection of free speech, enshrined in the US Constitution. At best the government can restrain it by enforcing FARA. And yet, it is unclear if all of this foreign lobbying money really buys what the foreign governments pay for.
*Ellen R. Wald, Ph.D. is a historian and author of “Saudi, Inc.” She is the president of Transversal Consulting and also teaches Middle East history and policy at Jacksonville University. Twitter: @EnergzdEconomy