The Manafort mess: I’m shocked, shocked!

casablanca-17

“I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!,” said Captain Renault in Casablanca, as a croupier handed him a pile of money.

I feel the same way about comments from political figures in the U.S., including Hillary Clinton, who have expressed astonishment and dismay over allegations that Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, provided campaign assistance to Ukraine’s former president, Viktor Yanukovych. Yanukovych was forced to flee from Ukraine to Russia in 2014 after violent several months of political crisis and violent protests.

I’m equally unsurprised by attempts to tar Manafort as a villain because he has lobbied in the U.S. for Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire and Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines

Hillary Clinton’s campaign leapt at the chance to draw blood. “Donald Trump has a responsibility to disclose campaign chair Paul Manafort’s and all other campaign employees’ and advisers’ ties to Russian or pro-Kremlin entities, including whether any of Trump’s employees or advisers are currently representing and or being paid by them,” said Clinton’s campaign manager Robby Mook.

Good grief. Everybody’s in such high dudgeon.

But wait a minute.

We’re not all rubes, as so many politicians and media outlets assume. We know that Washington, D.C. is packed with public relations professionals and lobbyists who work for foreign governments and special interests, many of them with reputations for corruption and human rights abuses.

Take John Podesta, the Chairman of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

In 1988, he and his brother, Tony, founded Podesta Associates, Inc., a Washington, D.C., government relations and public affairs lobbying firm. The firm later changed its name to the Podesta Group, Inc.

According to the Sunlight Foundation, which works to make our government and politics more accountable and transparent, the Podesta Group has been a registered agent, or lobbyist, for a number of foreign governments, including the Government of the Arab Republic of Egypt, the Embassy of the Republic of Azerbaijan, the National Security Council of Georgia, the Republic of Kosova, the Government of Albania and the Kingdom of Thailand.

In 2013, for example, the Podesta Group reported being paid $840,196.21 by the Embassy of the Republic of Azerbaijan.

The previous year, the corruption watchdog Transparency International awarded the crown of “Corrupt Person of the Year” to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. “Despite its massive oil resources, … Azerbaijan is plagued by endemic corruption that prevents ordinary Azerbaijanis from sharing in their country’s natural wealth and is a significant barrier to Azerbaijan’s development,” the organization said.

That same year, public protests against human rights abuses led to brutal crackdowns, arrests, and undemocratic trials.

2013 was another awkward time for the Government of Azerbaijan when election authorities released vote results re-electing Aliyev – a full day before voting had even started. The announcement followed intimidation of activists and journalists and free speech restrictions.

Freedom House, a promoter of global human rights, lambasted the country’s government. “Azerbaijan is ruled by an authoritarian regime characterized by intolerance for dissent and disregard for civil liberties and political rights,” the organization said in 2013.

The federal  Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) requires persons acting as agents of foreign principals in a political or quasi-political capacity to make periodic public disclosure of their relationship with the foreign principal, as well as activities, receipts and disbursements in support of those activities. There are about  2,000 foreign agents registered under the Act representing more than 100 countries.

Late last year, the Center for Public Integrity released a study, “The hired guns who advocate for the world’s worst human rights abusers” – a research report that highlighted the PR firms that make the most money representing clients that violate human rights.

The study said FARA records revealed that “that the 50 countries with the worst human rights violation records have spent $168 million on American lobbyists and public relations specialists since 2010.”

The study said the leader of the pack was Omnicom-owned Ketchum PR, which made $37 million representing human-rights violators, followed by Qorvis Communications/MSL Group at $20.6 Million dollars.

In 2013, Ketchum was behind a Vladimir Putin-led PR push tied to Syria. When the New York Times ran a highly visible op-ed about Syria submitted by Russian President Putin in Sept. 2013, Ketchum arranged it (and likely wrote it).

“From the outset, Russia has advocated peaceful dialogue enabling Syrians to develop a compromise plan for their own future,” Putin said. “We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law.” The op-ed went on to say, “Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force…”

According to ProPublica and Ketchum reports, Russia paid $1.3 million for Ketchum’s professional services for the period ended in May 2013.

In 2014, the New York Times reported how Angus Roxburgh, a former Ketchum consultant and journalist for the BBC and The Economist, recounted his experiences working with Ketchum. “The Russian officials…were initially convinced they could pay for better coverage, or intimidate journalists into it,” Roxburgh told the Times. “They were eventually persuaded to take reporters to dinner instead.”

According to the Times, Roxburgh told The Daily Beast that Ketchum’s aim “means helping them (Russia) disguise all the issues that make it unattractive: human rights, invasions of neighboring countries, etc.”

Last year, Saudi Arabia, under fire for human rights abuses, hired a cornucopia of U.S. PR/lobbying firms to tell its story in a favorable way and influence legislation.

In March, the Saudi Royal Embassy retained DLA Piper and Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman. That same month, it also hired Targeted Victory, which uses expansive data to put together digital campaigns for political clients, and Zignal Labs, which uses big data analytics, media monitoring and business intelligence to provide insights that drive public outreach efforts. In September 2015, the Saudi government expanded its efforts further by signing contracts with PR leviathan Edelman and the Podesta Group.

Just a few things to remember when attack dogs and establishment politicians, including Hillary Clinton, feign surprise and horror at amoral U.S. PR and lobbying firms doing business with foreign governments and foreign leaders with bad reputations.

Don’t be shocked.

 

Addendum

On 8/25/16, PoliticoPlaybook reported that the FBI and DOJ are looking into the Podesta Group’s work in Ukraine:

K STREET WATCH  The FBI and DOJ’s probes into the Podesta Group’s work for a non-profit tied to the former Ukrainian government are sending shockwaves downtown, where the investigation into the firm’s work for the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine has led to widespread nervousness. Reps from multiple firms who lobby for foreign entities think this might be a tipping point, and the feds might take a much broader look at other firms and clients. “It’s right in the purview of the DOJ – they don’t need a referral,” said one lobbyist.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Washout: Hillary’s foreign policy experience does her no favors

HillaryCaricature

Hillary Clinton and her backers figure she’s got at least one advantage, public trust in her foreign policy experience and judgment.

Hillary tried to highlight that factor when she told a questioner at a recent New Hampshire town hall meeting, “When you vote for someone for president, you’re also voting for a commander in chief.”

But why, exactly, does Hillary, or anybody else, think her foreign policy experience is a plus when you review her screw-ups.

Consider:

Libya

Then: Hillary Clinton urged President Obama to back a military campaign against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, over the opposition of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and other national security experts.

Now: Libya has deteriorated into a virtual failed state run by hundreds of private militias. Eighteen months after the initial airstrikes, U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed in attacks by militants on a U.S. diplomatic post and a nearby CIA site in Benghazi. The North African nation has become a primary outpost for the Islamic State, which has exploited the chaos to take territory, train soldiers and prove its strength outside Syria and Iraq. Washington Post, Feb. 3, 2016

Iraq

Then: On voting in favor of a resolution to take military action against Iraq in the face of Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction, “I believe the facts that have brought us to this fateful vote are not in doubt,” Clinton said in a Senate speech the day before the vote. “It is with conviction that I support this resolution as being in the best interests of our nation…It is a vote that says clearly to Saddam Hussein — this is your last chance. Disarm or be disarmed.”

“We’ve ended the war in Iraq,” Obama said on June 25, 2012, at a New Hampshire rally in New Hampshire. “I’ve kept the commitments that I’ve made,” he said in Iowa on Oct. 24, 2012. “I told you we’d end the war in Iraq. We did.”

Now:

Although the Iraq war has technically been over for more than four years, Iraqis are still dying in large numbers. The number of Iraqis seeking refuge in other countries has risen considerably as the conflict between the Islamic State and the Iraqi government and associated forces continues. The U.N. has described the violence as “staggering” and noted the Islamic State may be guilty of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and possibly genocide.

A Jan. 2016 report by the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq also accuses ISIS of holding an estimated 3500 people as slaves across Iraqi territory, using many as human shields, and pressing 800-900 children into military service for the conflict.

Meanwhile, animosity Between Sunnis and Shiites is threatening the Iraq’s stability. Neighboring Iran, home to the world’s largest Shia population, is behind the country’s support for Iraq’s Shia-dominated government.

Syria

Then: Hillary Clinton joined President Obama in declaring that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces would cross a “Red Line” if they used chemical weapons. On Aug. 11, 2012, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Istanbul that it’s clear to the Assad regime the use of chemical weapons is “a red line for the world.” On Aug. 20, 2012, Obama said that the use or movement of chemical weapons by the Assad regime is a red line. “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,” Obama said. “That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”

Now:

Under the banner of fighting international terrorism, President Vladimir Putin has reversed the fortunes of forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which were rapidly losing ground last year to moderate and Islamist rebel forces in the country’s five-year-old crisis. Washington Post, Feb. 3, 2016

Today, 4.6 million Syrians are refugees and 6.6 million are displaced within Syria; half are children. World Vision

Syria’s civil war is the worst humanitarian crisis of our time. Half the country’s pre-war population — more than 11 million people — have been killed or forced to flee their homes. Mercy Corps

The conflict is now more than just a battle between those for or against President Bashar al-Assad. It has acquired sectarian overtones, pitching the country’s Sunni majority against the president’s Shia Alewite sect, and drawn in regional and world powers. The rise of the jihadist group Islamic State (IS) has added a further dimension. BBC

Russia

Then: In March 2009, Hillary Clinton presented Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with a red button with the Russian text “перегрузка”, which was intended to be the Russian word for “reset”. Clinton explained that she wanted to reset relations between Russia and the United States, to spur a new era of better ties. “The reset worked,” Clinton told CNN in August 2014.

Now: In March 2014, Russia decided “To hell with the reset” and annexed Crimea. This led to the installation of a pro-Russian government in Crimea, the holding of a disputed, unconstitutional referendum and the declaration of Crimea’s independence.

 Russia subsequently:

  • blocked a U.N. Security Council resolution on Crimea’s referendum
  • provided a Russian-made Buk missle to Ukrainian rebels who used it to shoot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board
  • granted asylum to Edward Snowden, who’s wanted in the United States for leaking information about National Security Agency surveillance practices.
  • Provided military support to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Hillary, a tested,  brilliant, strategic foreign policy expert the American people can trust? I don’t think so.

 

 

Obama insists “I’m OK, you’re OK” in response to global terrorism

President Obama, speaking to an audience that included unrepentant leaders from repressive countries who couldn’t care less and who regularly brutalize their people and deny them basic human rights, argued on Thursday that force of arms was not enough and called on all nations to “put an end to the cycle of hate” by expanding human rights, religious tolerance and peaceful dialogue.

Barack_Obama_in_tank

“Oh sure, the al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen actively plots against us, terrorists have murdered ambassadors, Americans have been killed at Ft. Hood and during the Boston Marathon, in Syria and Iraq the terrorist group we call ISIL has slaughtered innocent civilians and murdered hostages, including Americans, and has spread its barbarism to Libya with the murder of Egyptian Christians, we’ve seen deadly attacks in Ottawa, Sydney, Paris and Copenhagen, the Pakistan Taliban has massacred schoolchildren and their teachers, al-Shabaab has launched attacks from Somalia across East Africa, and in Nigeria and neighboring countries, Boko Haram kills and kidnaps men, women and children,” Obama said. “But hey, shit happens.”

Calling the slaughter of thousands of Ukrainians by Russian-backed rebels supplied with Russian equipment “a hiccup on the pathway to peace”, Obama insisted that the cease-fire that came into effect in eastern Ukraine on Sunday was holding. “The Russians are honorable, peace-loving folks,” he said, “and I’m sure that if Putin and I got together he’d be overwhelmed by the force of my personality and insist that the rebels pull back.”

As the rebels raised their flag over Debaltseve, Ukraine and celebrated their humiliating defeat of the Ukrainian forces, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed hope that this wouldn’t scuttle the peace deal.

Promising “swift, meaningful punishment for those who terrorize peaceful nations”, Obama called for another conference to be held at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. that would “offer more strong words in response to beheadings , immolations, child-killing, and other barbarities.”

“We’ll take an important step forward as governments, civil society groups and community leaders from more than 60 nations will gather in Washington for a global summit on countering violent extremism,” Obama said. “Our focus will be on community organizing, which I know a heck of a lot about, and empowering local communities.”

Dismissing concerns about his feckless foreign policy, Obama  said, ” Not to worry. I’m OK you’re OK.”

 

Berlin Redux: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it

In July 2009, speaking at Moscow’s New Economic School, Obama said long-standing assumptions that the US and Russia were antagonists vying for spheres of influence were inaccurate.

“Given our interdependence, any world order that tries to elevate one value or people over another will inevitably fail,” he said. “That is why I have called for a ‘reset’ in relations between the United States and Russia. This must be more than a fresh start between the Kremlin and the White House, though that is important.”

“It must be a sustained effort among the American and Russian people to identify mutual interests, and to expand dialogue and co-operation that can pave the way to progress,” he added.

Obama calls for reset of U.S.-Russian relations in 2009

Obama calls for reset of U.S.-Russian relations in 2009

All this just 12 months after Bush’s hopes for better relations with Russia had been shattered by its war with Georgia.

Now, five years later, Russia has annexed the Crimean Peninsula of Ukraine and the United States is sitting by helplessly.

Obama has said that Russia, by its actions in Crimea, is on the wrong side of history.

Perhaps Obama is forgetting history.

In 1933, Adolph Hitler emphatically proclaimed Germany’s commitment to peace.

“The German government “…is…of the conviction that there can only be one great task in our time: securing peace in the world,” he declared to the Reichstag. “The German Government wishes to engage in peaceful discussions with the other nations on all difficult questions,” he added.

Hitler proclaims Germany's pursuit of peace

Hitler proclaims Germany’s pursuit of peace

That same year, however, Hitler laid the groundwork for what would become the pretext for forcefully absorbing other countries. “We have particularly at heart the fate of the Germans living beyond the frontiers of Germany who are allied with us in speech, culture, and customs and have to make a hard fight to retain these values,” he said in a policy statement submitted to the Reichstag on March 23, 1933. “The national Government is resolved to use all the means at its disposal to support the rights internationally guaranteed to the German minorities,” he said.

When Germany annexed Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland in 1939, it was justified as an effort to “liberate” the predominantly German area and protect the abused ethnic German population . Foregoing action, Britain and France chose to negotiate a deal that preserved “peace in our time”.

Austria was next. In March 1938, a coup d’état was engineered by the Austrian Nazi Party of Austria’s state institutions in Vienna and Germany annexed Austria into the Third Reich that same month. The Nazis then held a plebiscite allowing the people to vote on the annexation and claimed that the vote in favor was 99.8 percent. (Sound familiar?)

The reaction from the Allies? Mostly words.

It wasn’t until Germany and the Soviets invaded Poland in 1939 that Britain and France declared war on Germany, too late to stop the Soviets and Nazis from slaughtering millions of Jews and Polish intelligentsia through starvation, forced labor and mass killings.

The Russian portion of Poland, by the way, was incorporated within Russia by Soviet “elections” and Russian citizenship was conferred on the Polish inhabitants. (Sound familiar?)

Allied action also came too late for Ukraine, which was overrun by the Nazis in 1941 after years of brutal killings under Stalin, during which millions of Ukrainians were murdered and millions more were sent to concentration camps.

Now we have Putin talking about the need to “protect” ethic Russians in Eastern Ukraine.

“It’s all nonsense. There are no kinds of Russian units in eastern Ukraine. No special forces, no instructors. They are all local citizens.” Russia's President Vladimir Putin

“It’s all nonsense. There are no kinds of Russian units in eastern Ukraine. No special forces, no instructors. They are all local citizens.”
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin

On April 17, 2014, in a televised Q&A session with the Russian public, Putin observed that the Federation Council, the upper house of Russia’s Parliament, had granted him the right to use military force in Ukraine. “I really hope that I do not have to exercise this right and that we are able to solve all today’s pressing issues via political and diplomatic means,” he said.

And today, with Russian-connected demonstrators fomenting unrest in Eastern Ukraine, Russia had the gall to accuse the new Ukrainian government of flouting a just concluded agreement intended to diffuse the crisis. “The Geneva accord is not only not being fulfilled, but steps are being taken, primarily by those who seized power in Kiev, that are grossly breaching the agreements reached,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in a press conference in Moscow.

Here we go again?