Saudi Arabian Lobbyists Have Many Friends in DC
Most libertarians are familiar with Dwight Eisenhower’s warning about the military-industrial complex and its nefarious influence on US foreign policy. Many have read Major General Smedley Butler’s short book War is a Racket, in which he lays out the ways in which war is in the economic interests of certain groups, while other groups pay the cost. Some may even have read Robert Nisbet’s warning about the way in which the military-industrial complex has expanded to universities, as researchers seek out government funding from the vast military-industrial blob. While all of these warnings are indeed correct, they neglect another equally nefarious influence on American foreign policy; foreign governments.
Every year foreign governments spend hundreds of millions of dollars lobbying the US government for everything from foreign aid and trade deals, to trying to influence US military policy. This lobbying is generally ignored, but after the recent gruesome murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudi Arabian government, there has been increased scrutiny on the cozy relationship between the Saudi regime and US politicians — a relationship maintained through the Saudi’s vast entourage of over two dozen DC-area lobbying firms.
According to a recently released Center for International Policy (CIP) report — one based entirely on publicly available information — the Saudi government spent approximately $27 million on US lobbying firms in 2017. So there is no doubt that there’s plenty of good money in pestering politicians on behalf of the Saudis. Not only the lobbyists but for the politicians as well. CIP found that Saudi lobbying firms donated nearly $400,000 to the campaigns of members of Congress they “had contacted on behalf of Saudi interests.” And if this weren’t blatant enough, CIP identified “twelve instances in which that contact and contribution occurred on the exact same day.”
What has Saudi Arabia gotten in return? The CIP report notes that “the timing of many of these political contributions coincides closely with key Congressional events, involving the Justice Against State Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) votes and votes to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia.” Let’s also not forget the US support, in the form of mid-air refueling and intelligence, for the Saudi-led coalition into Yemen that has led to a humanitarian disaster — complete with the threat of mass starvation and a widespread cholera outbreak .
This mid-air refueling has been stopped for now as a result of the Khashoggi affair, but, according to CNN ’s Sam Kiley, “it's an opportunity to appear a little bit cross over the alleged murder of Jamal Khashoggi while making sure that the Kingdom's strategic trajectory stays on course.”
It is even possible that all of this lobbying might manage to save Saudi Arabia from the ongoing Khashoggi murder fiasco. NBC reports that the Trump administration has weighed expelling Fethullah Gulen, an exiled Turkish cleric and enemy of the Erdogan regime, “in order to placate Turkey over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.” The Trump administration denies this, but the fact that such action is even in the realm of possibility speaks to the success of Saudi lobbying efforts.
The outrageous abuses by the Saudi regime — both domestically and abroad — are nearly endless. But, unfortunately, they are not the only foreign power pouring lobbying money into DC to influence US military policy. In 2017, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), the UAE spent over $21 million on US lobbying. The UAE has a large ground presence in Yemen as part of the Saudi-led coalition and has been accused of running secret prisons where Yemenis are tortured. Former US Army Colonel Stephen Toumajan is currently the head of the UAE Joint Aviation Command, where, by his own admission to BuzzFeed News, Toumajan claimed that he was “instrumental in the modernization of the UAE fleet with investing over $10 billion in American aircraft and services.”
But US entanglement with the UAE’s sordid business in Yemen doesn’t even stop there. An in-depth investigative report from BuzzFeed News found that former US special forces had been serving as an assassination hit-squad in Yemen for the UAE. In a stunning report, a former Navy Seal recounted to BuzzFeed News how he, along with a former French Foreign Legionnaire, ran a hit squad made up of former US special forces in Yemen — whose targets included not only armed terrorists but politicians as well.
As of 2008, it took over $350,000 to train a Navy SEAL, and then an additional $1 million to deploy him overseas. As Ryan McMaken points out, this means that the US taxpayer is effectively subsidizing the training of “what are essentially death squads designed to eliminate the regimes' enemies” for the UAE.
The Saudis and the UAE obviously feel it is necessary to grease US palms with tens of millions of dollars in order to ensure that arms sales get approved, US assistance in the Yemeni war continues, and the Pentagon continues to turn a blind eye to misconduct from former US service members. This leads to the question, what would US policy toward these two onerous regimes be without millions of dollars in lobbying money?
With such blatant bribery of US officials, it seems impossible to trust US foreign policymakers to judge American national interests in an unbiased and levelheaded way. Factor in the even larger amount of influence wielded domestically by the military-industrial complex and it seems hopeless to expect American foreign policymakers to actually be acting in the American national interest. It is little wonder that American foreign policy has been a complete disaster for decades.