It was the story that dared Americans not to care—Iraqi soldiers yanking babies out of incubators in Kuwait and leaving them to die. The grisly tale turned out not to be true, but it was the hook that drew the American public into the Persian Gulf War and earned the PR wizards at Hill & Knowlton every dime of the $10.7 million they took from the emir of Kuwait.
Hill & Knowlton, backed by the first Bush administration and sympathetic lawmakers eager to protect oil interests in Kuwait, orchestrated a hearing before the House Human Rights Caucus. The Oct. 10, 1990 event featured a witness—the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the U.S.—who hadn’t seen the incubator incident. But the truth didn’t emerge until it was too late. Due to “firsthand” accounts of atrocities from other “witnesses” coached by Hill & Knowlton, the narrative caught fire. Soon President George H.W. Bush was repeating the trope, and the intervention was transformed from war for oil into a humanitarian mission for incubator babies “scattered like firewood across the floor.” Within months, the Kuwaitis, with the help of the best American flacks money could buy, got their war.
About the same time, veteran Republican operative and lobbyist Charlie Black, who now serves as McCain’s chief campaign adviser, was getting rich by vouching for the integrity of U.S.-backed kleptocrats such as Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire, brutal military rulers like Siad Barre in Somalia, and Jonas Savimbi, the guerilla leader who for years peppered Angola with land mines and left a generation of shell-shocked children without limbs.
More recently, his firm, Black, Kelly, Scruggs & Healey, represented Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi, the one-man show who tap-danced his way across Washington convincing the elite that a pre-emptive showdown with Saddam was vital to our interests. When the post-invasion didn’t go as planned, BKSH was commissioned by the shadowy Lincoln Group for “psyops”—planting happy but not necessarily real stories about the U.S. occupation in the Iraqi media for the Pentagon.
BKSH, working Chalabi and the neoconservative agenda into the embrace of the foreign-policy establishment before and after 9/11, got their war—and they may get more, judging from their client lists. Thanks to the Foreign Agent Registration Act—passed in 1938 in response to Nazi interests hiring American PR pioneer Ivy Lee for $25,000 to soften the image of Hitler’s Germany for American consumption—we can see who’s working for whom. We can also note that BKSH and their contemporaries—Republican and Democrat—have galloped through decades of military coups and bloody civil wars, advancing the agendas of Saudi princes, oil sheiks, and numerous dictators at the peril of U.S economic and national security.
“The notion that we can let foreigners define our foreign policy without injury to us is naïve and childish,” charges Stephen Van Evera, who teaches international relations at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
By now most political observers know that Black and others like him move in the inner circles of John McCain’s presidential team, even if some of his political operatives and fundraisers were forced to quit under new anti-lobbying rules introduced by McCain in May. Among them were Doug Goodyear and Douglas Davenport, McCain’s pick to head the Republican National Convention and his mid-Atlantic regional campaign director respectively. Their lobbying firm, DCI Associates, had represented the repressive military junta in Myanmar in 2002. Key McCain fundraiser Thomas Loeffler was also forced out because of his firm’s work with defense contractors and foreign governments. One contract with Saudi Arabia earned his company nearly $10 million for smoothing the kingdom’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2005.
But Black, a veteran of Republican campaigns dating back to Ronald Reagan, remains McCain’s top policy adviser. McCain’s campaign manager is Rick Davis, a pre-eminent Washington lobbyist and GOP operative whose lobbying partner Paul Manafort worked with Black on several foreign accounts under a separate PR firm. Although both Davis and Black reportedly quit lobbying—Black as recently as March— their firms continue to reap benefits from foreign contracts. Their connections still run deep, and their appetite for winning at all costs remains strong.
These instincts dovetail so seamlessly with McCain’s bloodlust that the teaming is almost natural. Unfortunately, the senator’s proudly unreconstructed approach to international events makes it hard to discern where the spin from former lobbyists (and their clients) ends and his own gut—and that of his more résumé-challenged running mate—begins.
“[Charlie Black] is not loyal to America, he is loyal to his client list—that’s how he makes the big money,” Van Evera complains. “Anyone who thinks he won’t continue to be loyal to his clients after McCain gets into office is smoking something.” One needs only to look at top McCain foreign-policy aide Randy Scheunemann to see the blurring line between client and country. When McCain suggests there will be “severe, long-term negative consequences” for Russia if it doesn’t leave Georgia alone, how do Americans know that isn’t the $800,000 Scheunemann’s lobbying shop has gotten from Georgia since 2004 talking?
Public records show that Scheunemann received payments from foreign governments—including Georgia, Macedonia, and Taiwan—while he was part of the McCain campaign in 2007. He quit Orion Strategies LLC in May, but the two-man firm he helped build still has an open registration with Georgia, according to FARA. He personally began lobbying McCain’s Senate office on the Georgia issue in 2004.
Meanwhile, McCain has engaged in meetings and phone calls with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvilli, coauthored at least one bill requesting $10 billion in aid, and has been a vocal advocate for getting Georgia and Ukraine, where Davis’s firm had at least one contract advising the opposition party this year, into NATO.
Russia has responded hotly to the tough talk and to reports that the U.S. had been beefing up the Georgian military. Meanwhile, U.S. ally Israel has been providing sophisticated weaponry to Saakashvili under the radar. In response, Russia has stepped up its overtures to Iran. A proxy showdown between Israel and Iran, a scenario Scheunemann and his fellow neoconservatives at the Project for a New American Century envisioned when targeting Iran for regime change a decade ago, may be in the offing.
Sarah Palin, fresh from tutoring by Scheunemann, predictably told ABC’s Charlie Gibson that Russian aggression toward Georgia was “unprovoked” and “unacceptable,” and that the U.S. can’t “second guess what Israel has to do to secure its nation.”
Craig Holman, a researcher for Public Citizen, wonders through which filter Palin was getting her talking points, given that her pre-nomination foreign policy seemed at the best an empty vessel: “It certainly raises the specter of whether this advice is based on principle or based on money. These foreign governments are paying millions of dollars to these lobbyists. … Who are they going to be representing when they are teaching someone else about foreign policy?”
McCain’s campaign has complained that Barack Obama’s team has avoided similar scrutiny, but none of Obama’s paid operatives have the foreign lobbying experience of Scheunemann, Black, and Davis. An easier target is Hillary Clinton’s former campaign, which was sprinkled with lobbyists past and present.
Clinton’s chief strategist, Mark Penn, was called out during the campaign for his dual role as her counselor and the CEO of Burson-Marsteller, one of the biggest lobbying firms in Washington—and parent company of BKSH. It has represented scores of foreign governments, including the former Suharto regime in Indonesia, the Saudis, and a handful of countries south of the border pushing for free-trade agreements.
The McCain campaign did not return TAC’s request for comment. When confronted by the Washington Post in May, Black said his firm never took money from foreigners “without consulting the State Department first” and would drop a client as soon as the U.S. government severed ties. For example, he claims that his firm stopped representing Mobutu, who ruled Zaire with a bloody fist for three decades, after he refused to hold elections in 1993.
But nothing stopped Black, Manafort, Stone & Kelly from taking a new $15,000 monthly contract with Savimbi in late 1994—a year after he walked away from legitimate elections and continued “raping and pillaging” across Angola, said Ken Silverstein, Washington editor for Harper’s, who wrote “Their Man in Washington: Undercover with D.C. Lobbyists for Hire” in 2007. Silverstein found that top lobbying firms—many led by administration officials in the last three White Houses—were eager to represent the most unsavory of clients given the right price. Washington was embarrassed—for about two minutes.
Silverstein suggested to TAC that Black and friends knew what their clients were about all along. Caring was not part of the contract. But that doesn’t change the fact that these characters would never enjoy high-level access if Beltway fixers were not obscuring their atrocities and trumpeting their agendas.
Americans might have expected that a candidate who claims “it’s over for the special interests” would refuse to play the lobbyists’ game. Just the opposite: John McCain seems to think that foreign agents make ideal advisers. So it should come as no surprise that, from Tbilisi to Tel Aviv, he has trouble distinguishing other countries’ interests from our own.
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter.
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