Which leaves Americans to wonder: Exactly what sorts of promises do these [lobbying] firms make to foreign governments? What kind of scrutiny, if any, do they apply to potential clients? How do they orchestrate support for their clients? And how much of their work is visible to Congress and the public, and hence subject to oversight? To shed light on these questions, I decided to approach some top Washington lobbying firms myself, as a potential client, to see whether they would be willing to burnish the public image of a particularly reprehensible regime.
The first step was to select a suitably distasteful would-be client. Given that my first pick, North Korea, seemed too reviled to be credible, I settled on the only slightly less Stalinist regime of Turkmenistan…
I would have difficulty passing for Turkmen, I knew, so rather than approaching the firms as a representative of the government itself, I instead would be a consultant for “The Maldon Group,” a mysterious (and fictitious) firm that claimed to have a financial stake in improving Turkmenistan’s public image. We were, my story ran, a group of private investors involved in the export of natural gas from Turkmenistan to Ukrainian and other Eastern European markets. We felt it would strengthen our business position in Turkmenistan if we could convey to American policymakers and journalists just how heady were the reforms being plotted by the Berdymukhamedov government.
It is, in all, a fascinating (and depressing) look at the mercenary lobby firms in my hometown. It also, to get a touch personal for a moment, one of the many reasons why I get tired of living here—everyone knows everyone else, it’s a gigantic good ol’ boys’ club, and hopelessly corrupt to the very core.
What was most interesting about this piece, however, wasn’t necessarily that academics and think tankers get bought off by lobbying firms to write blatant untruths about nasty regimes—that’s kind of par for the course, and why I usually don’t trust their op-ed writings (peer review, despite its many other annoyances, does a tremendous service to sourcing and truth in comparison). No, the most interesting bits are the biases of Silverstein himself.
Indeed, he seems to regard all the post-Soviet states with equal disdain, so far as their levels of freedom are concerned. This allows Silverstein to discuss Kazakhstan and Equatorial Guinea in the same sentence, even though Nazarbayev has never been accused of a third of Obiang’s horrendous crimes, such as cannibalism. Much like darling Anne Penketh, he needs to take a step back from his subject matter and breathe a few times, lest he let hyperbole spoil the very real point he is making—the corrupt lobbying system defends dictatorships and distorts the public record.
That is a story very much worth telling, and distorting Kazakhstan’s real issues with human rights—which, while unacceptable to us in the west, truly do pale in comparison to its neighbors’—only makes it that much easier for the dictators’ apologia.