This Is Not What Democracy Looks Like

Column: Stop foreign governments from buying American think tanks

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, and Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani in Doha, Qatar / AP
September 19, 2014

Foreign governments and their citizens are forbidden from contributing to U.S. elections. If a foreign government hires a lobbyist to influence the legislative or executive branches of the United States, that lobbyist must disclose his contracts and activities with the Justice Department in compliance with the Foreign Agents Registration Act. FARA is so strict that it applies not only to lobbyists, but to any American who works within the United States to influence our politics on behalf of a foreign interest. Break the law, and you go to jail.

Yet there is a loophole for foreign contributions to U.S. think tanks. And today that loophole is being exploited to an extent that mocks the very purpose of FARA. Earlier this month, the New York Times published a blockbuster report on foreign influence over D.C. nonprofits. Its conclusion: "Since 2011, at least 64 governments, state-controlled entities, or government officials have contributed to a group of 28 major United States-based research organizations, according to disclosures by the institutions and government documents."

These institutions, the Times suggests, have received "a minimum of $92 million in contributions or commitments from overseas government interests over the last four years." But who knows. "The total is certainly more."

The report generated well-deserved outrage. A rule change has been introduced in the House to require think tanks to disclose sources of foreign funding when they testify before Congress. It’s a solid proposal. But it does not go far enough. Congress should pass a law making contributions to think tanks by foreign governments and foreign nationals subject to FARA. What else could that money be for, if not to influence policy and public opinion to further foreign interests? Here is one area where transparency is vital. Let the money be disclosed. Or let it dry up.

This is not a trivial matter. The Times investigation raised serious questions regarding national security. Among the nations attempting to influence U.S. politics by funding think tanks is China. No doubt Russia, which has been supporting anti-fracking campaigns in Europe and operates a propaganda outfit in the United States, is also involved. We won’t know for sure until the recipients of money from Beijing and the Kremlin complete their FARA forms.

Think tanks can be the vehicles for revolutions in foreign policy. The Gulf state of Qatar, for example, is one of the most generous donors to U.S. nonprofits. It "agreed last year to make a $14.8 million, four-year donation" to the Brookings Institution, the Times reports. And Brookings, in turn, "has helped fund a Brookings affiliate in Qatar and a project on United States relations with the Islamic world."

I have not been asked to participate in either of these initiatives. But let me take a stab at why "United States relations with the Islamic world" are so terrible. One reason is that radical Muslims have a habit of killing innocent men, women, and children in gruesome ways, and imposing their medieval vision of society upon unwilling populations. But I would not expect the Brookings Institution to focus too much on this angle, since one of the global engines of Islamic radicalism in our time—its financier, champion, and propagandist—is none other than Qatar.

Qatar is the chief sponsor of the Muslim Brotherhood, the global Islamist movement whose offspring include Hamas, al Qaeda, and Islamic Jihad. Hamas’ leader, Khaled Meshal, resides in Qatar’s capital. It is a financial and ideological sponsor of Hamas—whose charter demands not only the destruction of Israel but also the removal of Jews from an Islamic "Palestine"—as well as a supporter of the Taliban, the Al-Nusra front, militias in Libya, and other armed prophets throughout the Ummah. And Qatar is the founder and owner of Al Jazeera, which pushes the Brotherhood line, and whose anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism have reached our shores in the form of Al Jazeera America.

The Qatari regime is awful. And, of course, it is authoritarian. I don’t want its agents and proxies interfering in our intellectual or policy debates, period, especially without having to tell the law enforcement officers of my country what they are doing with their money and why. The current arrangement—by which one has to read closely between the lines to detect Islamist influence in Washington—is unacceptable.

An example. The director of Brookings’s Foreign Policy Program is Martin Indyk. You know Marty. He recently took a sabbatical from Brookings and was for a time U.S. Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations. In this capacity he demanded that Israel make unilateral concessions to the Palestinian Authority, and was overheard bashing the Jewish State and its government over drinks at a hotel bar. He and the Qataris have lots to talk about at development meetings.

Over the summer, during the war between Israel and Hamas, Secretary of State John Kerry needlessly and unsuccessfully attempted to broker a ceasefire. But Kerry did not spend too long in Egypt, whose military government opposes Islamism and Hamas, and whose leader General Sisi had been leading the negotiations in cooperation with the Israelis. Instead Kerry set off to Paris, where he met with representatives of Hamas’ allies Turkey and Qatar. Kerry had bypassed America’s traditional allies in favor of upstart powers committed to Islamist rule in the Middle East.

What I am saying is that the money Qatar has thrown around town in recent years has created an environment where the views of its government are considered congenial, normal, an "important perspective" worthy of consideration by noted policy analysts, who just happen to become key policy makers. It is exactly the sort of "soft power" the wonks paid by Qatari money urge upon our confused and incompetent White House. Let Brookings take Qatar’s money—or Russia’s, or China’s, or Burma’s, or Saudi Arabia’s—if it wants. But make them own it. Make them disclose it.

The foreign powers know what they are doing. It is not as though these governments have suddenly taken up an interest in adult education, in nodding thoughtfully during a panel featuring Bill Galston and E.J. Dionne, in trying not to chew too loudly on grilled salmon and mixed vegetables as Isabel Sawhill discusses social mobility. What the governments want is return on investment.

Take Norway, which has given "at least $24 million to an array of Washington think tanks over the past four years." Among Norway’s goals: push the U.S. government to spend more money fighting deforestation. Why? Not out of environmental concern. "Slowing deforestation could buy more time for Norway’s oil companies to continue selling fossil fuels on the global market even as Norway and other countries push for new carbon reduction policies."

It is one thing if Tom Steyer gives money to further causes that would harm his opponents and benefit his allies. Steyer is, I regretfully admit, an American. But it is another thing entirely when a foreign government self-interestedly enters policy debates—and does so in secret.

Many of the countries giving to think tanks are American allies like Norway: NATO powers, Japan, South Korea, France. They would have to comply with my beefed up FARA as well. And yes, haters, so would Israel, should Israel actually donate money to U.S. think tanks, which it does not.

But these allies have nothing to fear from transparency. They already have constituencies in the American political system. Many of them have treaty guarantees. And Israel has a broad, deep, and thriving community of supporters both Jewish and Christian. There will always be an Israel "lobby" because of the ethnic and religious and ideological connections between our two countries. There is no Qatari lobby without Qatari money.

Four years ago, President Obama made the panicked and baseless accusation that foreigners had paid for ads produced by the Chamber of Commerce. "Groups that receive foreign money," Obama said, "are spending huge sums to influence American elections, and they won’t tell you where the money from their ads comes from." Liberal fact-checkers condemned Obama’s statement. The Chamber does receive some foreign money, but says that none of it is used to finance political advertisements.

The more important point is this: What has Obama done about foreign money to nonprofits? Applying FARA to foreign donations would reveal exactly who is giving to whom, and to what use the money is being put.

Regulating foreign money in politics is exactly the type of thing one would expect from an avowed reformer such as Obama. Yet he hasn’t assisted the cause—probably because doing so would lead to less money for his friends.

Congress should do his work for him. Deny Martin Indyk his Islamic piggybank. Get Qatar, China, and Russia out of American politics. Register foreign donations. And make lawbreakers go to jail.