Ben Freeman: Foreign Money Flowing into Washington Keeps U.S. in Prolonged Wars

The Committee for Responsible Foreign Policy (CRFP) sponsored the following post.

Foreign money flowing into Washington is keeping the United States in prolonged wars, and most Americans are not even aware of it, according to Dr. Ben Freeman, director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy.

“Right now, U.S. foreign policy is for sale — not to the lowest bidder, but to the highest bidder. War is a business. And our wars are not our own. They never have been,” he said Wednesday at an event in Washington, DC, sponsored by the Committee for a Responsible Foreign Policy.

Freeman and his team researched for six months Saudi Arabia’s 2017 lobbying activities in Washington, DC, including meetings, emails, contacts with journalists, and political campaign contributions, and the potential effect those activities had on foreign policy.

They found that Saudi Arabia had hired more than two dozen firms in that year with more than a hundred agents working on their behalf. In 2017, those agents had more than 2,500 contacts during this time, the majority of them with members of the Senate, news media, and the House–in that order.

Freeman said many of the contacts were related to arms sales, foreign military sales, and some of the votes that were held to stymie those arms sales. He said sometimes the lobbying is done by former members of Congress who earn hundreds of thousands of dollars to lobby former colleagues.

“Every time there is a vote on arms sales or anything related to Yemen, this lobby goes bananas,” he said. “And we can see the activity on the days that there are these votes. In some cases, they visit almost every single office on the day of those votes.”

Freeman said they also found more than $2.2 million in 2017 campaign contributions to both Democrats and Republicans. The list was a “who’s who” in the Democrat and Republican Party, he said.

The top Saudi campaign contributions were to then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, totaling $94,496 because some donations in late 2016 were included, he said. He said Trump got “a little over $10,000” from Saudi Arabia.

And they found 12 instances where contact with a lobbyist pushing for or against a vote and a campaign contribution happened on the same day.

“In other words, a lobbying firm walks into a member of Congress’s office and says, ‘I need you to vote a certain way on this upcoming vote on an arms sale,’ and then later that day … they say, ‘Oh, by the way, here’s a $2,000 check to your campaign. Good luck on re-election, buddy,'” Freeman said.

He said the number of contacts expands exponentially if the time window is expanded, for example, to two weeks before a vote.

“The influence is absolutely pervasive, [and] there’s a lot more influence that we’re not even capturing,” he said.

To test how contacts and campaign contributions influenced a vote, Freeman and his team looked at the November 2018 Senate vote on the resolution to end the war in Yemen, which passed 63 to 37.

Freeman said 30 of those 37 who voted against ending the war had received campaign contributions from Saudi Arabia in 2017, with some receiving as much as tens of thousands of dollars. He said even more money went to them in 2018, close to certain votes.

“There’s a strong correlation between the way these folks vote and the money that’s coming in, and it’s directly tied to our issues of war and peace,” he said.

He said they also found that a “big crux” of Saudi Arabia’s lobbying effort was public relations.

They found 744 times that lobbyists, or “foreign agents,” for Saudi Arabia contacted media organizations in 2017.

“This is something that flies under the radar for a lot of folks that are looking at foreign influence,” he said. “And the interesting thing about these 744 contacts is that they don’t pick and choose. … They contact left-wing media and right-wing media.”

He stated that they also contact local media to shape stories at the local level, that they even contacted ESPN six times.

Freeman said they would begin looking at the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

He said Saudi Arabia and the UAE are “often working to the same purpose — to promote U.S. involvement in the war in Yemen. They’re lobbying against Iran. They’re lobbying for arms sales for their countries, more U.S. military equipment, more U.S. militarization in the Middle East, more of us propping up their defense at our expense in a lot of cases.”

But Freeman asserted that foreign lobbying efforts were not unique to Saudi Arabia or the UAE. In fact, he said, the countries where the U.S. has foreign bases spend most of the money to lobby the U.S. to keep them there — almost half-a-billion dollars each year, not including unregistered foreign agents.

Those countries, which include Germany, South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Canada, and Bermuda, want to make sure American troops stay on their soil to ensure that America continues to subsidize their security, he said.

Think tanks and universities are also top recipients of foreign contributions, he said.

“There is so much foreign money pouring in to think tanks in America,” and “there’s no disclosure” over how much a think-tank expert may be paid by a foreign country to promote a certain point of view, he said.

“It’s a dark space in terms of transparency,” he said.

At American universities all over the country, China has set up “Confucius Institutes” in exchange for agreements not to criticize China, he said. China has spent more than $486 million in contributions to universities since 2012.

“We need a lot more transparency there so we know when our sons and daughters are going to university, what they’re getting, and is that coming from a foreign government or not?” he added.

He appealed to Americans to help “flip the iceberg” of foreign influence in America.

“We know very little about foreign influence in America. What we do know is that it leads to greater U.S. militarization in the world, it keeps involved in wars longer than it probably should, it leads to more military bases abroad, [and] increases the likelihood of our involvement in all these ongoing conflicts in the world,” he said.

“And it just generally increases the amount of spending to the American taxpayer–in many cases, in ways that are decidedly not in the American interest, that are in foreign interests,” he said. “We need to flip the iceberg.”

The Committee for Responsible Foreign Policy is a 501(c)(4) organization with the mission of pursuing a more restrained foreign policy that adheres to the Constitution. The organization aims to increase awareness of Congress’ Article I responsibility to oversee war. For more information on CRFP, please visit http://responsibleforeignpolicy.org.

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