Opinion

George Clooney comes to Washington

Posted July 20

This week, George Clooney came to Washington, D.C. Hollywood actors are more prominent than anyone else on the D.C. scene except maybe the president. When actors talk in our society, everybody listens. The American people are more interested in what a movie star has to say than what any member of Congress has to say. It is somewhat ironic, but that is how it really works in our culture.

Clooney came to Washington to criticize a prominent D.C. lobbying firm for receiving $40,000 a month from the government of Sudan. Clooney has taken an interest in Sudan. He fears the D.C. lobbying firm of Squire Patton Boggs is taking money from a repressive regime and he lists three of the firm’s high-profile executives: Trent Lott, John Boehner and John Breaux. Lurking behind this story is that Sudan and Squire Patton Boggs are not alone in this practice. Foreign governments routinely hire expensive D.C. lobbying firms to promote their interests.

I just authored a new book, available on Amazon, "Neighbours in Arms: An American Senator’s Quest for Disarmament in a Nuclear Subcontinent," in which I recount how sanctions legislation preventing Pakistan from getting a nuclear weapon was thwarted year after year by lobbying firms behind the scenes. I define the various lobbying firms and law firms acting on behalf of the military-industrial state as "the Octopus."

Today, foreign policy and domestic policy are formulated almost as much in private law firms and lobbying firms as it is in the traditional governing bodies like the State Department and Congress. These firms raise huge amounts of money for candidates in both parties and thereby gain direct access to members of Congress whom they financially support. Thus a new ambassador’s first duty in Washington, D.C., is to hire one of these lobbying firms.

While the foreign governments do not make campaign contributions directly, they do indeed make payments or professional fees to law firms/lobbying firms who in turn make campaign contributions and control the policy process. Thus, the traditional way of making foreign policy — holding congressional hearings, working with policy planning offices in the State or the Defense departments, or working with the White House, have been circumvented by unseen negotiations with big lobbying firms. In fact, a check with the Department of Justice shows that at least five lobbying firms in Washington, D.C., alone are working for India and Pakistan. Perhaps Clooney speaking out on this will make a difference, or at least draw attention to the situation.

I do not always agree with Clooney, though I do enjoy his acting. In this case, I think he makes a very valid point. How can an impoverished little country like Sudan be paying $40,000 a month? And that is probably just the tip of the iceberg. And they are probably paying four or five lobbying firms the same amount.

Furthermore, Sudan is considered a state sponsor of terror, and its head of state is wanted for genocide by the international courts. That is the exact pattern of the "Octopus" that I describe in my new book. The "Octopus" is an army of thousands of lawyers hired by foreign governments and domestic interests scrambling around Washington to find loopholes, sell or buy arms and promote the foreign government’s interests inside the military-industrial state. This is how a country like Pakistan acquired nuclear weapons — the arms race is on. Let us remember North Korea got nuclear arms from exactly these sources.

Here in Washington, there is an organization called POGO (Project on Government Oversight). POGO points out that lobbyists do not frequently comply with the law to register when working on behalf of a foreign government. And POGO is calling for more transparency in all the backroom deals made on behalf of foreign governments in Washington. POGO’s preference is these countries be represented by their ambassadors talking directly to our government.

I have been offered to represent two or three foreign governments since retiring from the Senate. However, after spending a career in public service I decided I did not want to "throw it all away" in terms of ethics and represent a government other than my own beloved country (for which I served in the Army in Vietnam). It is a sad day in Washington, D.C., that so much of our policy is made in lobbying firms paid for by foreign interests.

The framers of our Constitution and our forefathers envisioned that foreign policy would be made within the State Department, Defense Department, White House, Congress and the courts working together. They did not envision this underground sewer of special-interest money that seems to be making all the decisions.

For once, today, I find myself in complete agreement with George Clooney!

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