Once the province of a few fringe players operating on the margins of Washington, lobbying for foreign countries has become big business for the most prestigious firms in D.C. According to data from the Department of Justice, the number of registrants—forms submitted by people registered to represent foreign countries—grew from about 1,800 in the first half of 2005 to 1,900 in the first half of 2009, the most recent data available. Human-rights activists say there has been a steeper rise, particularly in terms of dollars spent, among some of the most brutal regimes on earth, including several sanctioned by the U.S. for their human-rights abuses.
The Republic of the Congo spent $1.5 million on lobbying and PR firms and other representation in the first half of 2009 alone, according to reports compiled by the Justice Department. Angola, one of the most corrupt nations in the world, spent more than $3 million in that period. Teodoro Nguema Obiang, the brutal dictator of African petrostate Equatorial Guinea, who took power more than three decades ago in a coup, has hired the law firm of former Bill Clinton aide Lanny Davis to lobby on his behalf, for the annual sum of $1 million. (Davis says the arrangement is contingent on Obiang’s progress on human-rights issues.) Chris Walker, of the NGO Freedom House, says this is all a reflection of the fact that “authoritarian regimes recognize there is a greater payoff in participating in and influencing the decision-making process, rather than sitting it out.”
In the past, foreign lobbying by rogues in Washington was a relatively small game. Nazi agents lobbying in Washington before World War II had tainted the whole enterprise, a stain that would take decades to erase. Though allies like Japan or Britain could find representation, the task of shilling for the nastiest governments fell to those like Edward von Kloberg III. Wearing a cape and calling himself “Baron,” a made-up honor, he represented Saddam Hussein and Nicolae Ceausescu, among others. Many developing nations, including China, meanwhile, had little idea how to win influence in Washington through lobbying. China has built a lobby since its harsh experience in 2005, when Congress, playing upon a strong anti-China sentiment among constituents, scuttled an attempt by China National Offshore Oil Corp. to purchase American petroleum firm Unocal. Now even new regimes waste no time finding their men in Washington. After seizing power in a coup last summer, and facing immediate criticism from the Obama administration, Honduras’s new military rulers quickly spent at least $400,000 to hire powerful American firms to lobby for them.
One result is that lobbying has become less transparent. U.S. law requires lobbyists to disclose all contracts with foreign clients, but the reality is that filings about foreign clients offer little information, and some lobbyists simply don’t file. “I was so careful to document every phone call, every meeting, and then I found that some other people, they don’t file at all,” says one lobbyist who works extensively with foreign clients. “Does anything happen to them? Not really.” Since the mid-1960s, in fact, the U.S. government has never successfully prosecuted anyone for violating the disclosure rules.
The rise in foreign lobbying may have also compromised the policymaking of current and future U.S. government officials. With little oversight, lobbyists can represent the most repressive regimes and then turn around and work in government. According to John Newhouse, author of a forthcoming book on the influence of foreign lobbies on American policies, one of John McCain’s senior foreign-policy advisers during his 2008 campaign, Randy Scheunemann, simultaneously worked for McCain and as a paid adviser to the government of Georgia, which had been accused of human-rights violations. Despite McCain’s reputation as a leading champion of human rights, Scheunemann largely escaped questions about whether his lobbying might have affected his foreign-policy advice to the powerful senator. Similarly, while at Cassidy & Associates, lobbyist Amos Hochstein oversaw the Equatorial Guinea account, which required him to argue the merits of one of the most repressive regimes on earth. Still, after leaving Cassidy, Hochstein landed a prominent job on the (ill-fated) 2008 presidential campaign of Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, a politician also known for his longstanding human-rights advocacy. Now Hochstein says he helped “move the ball forward on human rights” in the country.
Lobbying can turn down the pressure on authoritarian regimes. After years of intense lobbying, Equatorial Guinea’s Obiang managed to transform his image in Washington from a venal autocrat into a solid American ally and buddy of U.S. business. In 2006 he strode out of a meeting at Foggy Bottom with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who declared him “a good friend.” Last year Obiang met with Obama for a public photo op, which is coveted by foreign leaders. Similarly, according to several congressional staffers, the authoritarian regime in Kazakhstan won support for its chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe by hiring lobbyists to help quiet congressional critics of Kazakhstan’s human-rights record. Ethiopia’s lobbying, meanwhile, has helped to defuse charges that the government has turned increasingly authoritarian. In a memo sent to congressional offices, DLA Piper, representing Ethiopia, argued, “The terms ‘political prisoners’ and ‘prisoners of conscience’ are undefined and mischaracterize the situation in Ethiopia,” and should be removed from a bill that condemned the Ethiopian regime for detaining opposition activists.
All this has taken a toll. Many democratic countries retain lobbyists in Washington to handle issues like trade disputes or intellectual-property challenges. But in those free countries, human-rights activists or opponents of the government could hire their own lobbyists in Washington and make their cases to the American government. Not so in the world’s most repressive countries. Though there are rare exceptions, like the Tibetan government in exile, most human-rights activists in authoritarian countries cannot make the close connections in Washington, or come up with the funds needed to match the lobbying of leaders like Obiang. The result: while thugs get heard in Washington, the voices of their opponents remain silent.
With R. M. Schneiderman in New York. Kurlantzick is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.