Picture: Martin Indyk at Brookings - Archives
The Huffington Post
President Barack Obama has excelled in domestic policies from healthcare and financial reform to education improvement and tax adjustments. But when it comes to foreign policy, Obama deserves a big bold F.
Why the failure? Stories of Washington's self-proclaimed experts and think tanks for hire might give us some clues.
Monica Hesse profiled James Zogby in The Washington Post. She quoted Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood as saying: "In Washington, if you want to know about Arab issues, you call Jim Zogby."
Zogby's father -- a Lebanese immigrant -- died when James was a teenager. Hesse (or probably Zogby himself) does not give the nationality of mother Zogby, only her first name, Celia, which does not come across as an Arab name.
Zogby's meager Arab credentials do not pose a problem for him. After all, being an Arab is just another profession. "If I had played baseball [for a living] or become a corporate lawyer, I never would have experienced any problems because I would have been completely assimilated," he told Hesse.
So instead, Zogby, along with his Irish-American wife Eileen, "traveled to Lebanon to interview the displaced inhabitants of Palestinian camps." And, lo and behold, Zogby today is Washington's reference on "Arab issues."
This is the absurdity of Washington DC where it is often "who you know," not "what you know."
The only thing Arab about James Zogby is that -- like your average Arab autocrat -- he has been grooming his son Joe, a staffer for Senator Richard Durbin (D-Ill), to succeed him as president of the Arab-American Institute, which James founded and has been presiding over for more than quarter of a century (unlimited presidency, too, is common practice in Arab countries).
James has employed his brother's group, Zogby International, to run surveys in Arab countries. He uses the findings to showcase Arab opinion before American audiences. This makes of James, who does not speak Arabic, America's "Arab voice."
Hesse further quotes LaHood: "[Zogby] knows all the Arab leaders, whether it's [Yasser] Arafat or the king of Jordan or the president of Egypt or the prime minister of Lebanon."
Since he has befriended most Arab leaders, one cannot but wonder whether Zogby shares with them his findings about Arab opinion polls. For instance, does Zogby ever tell them about how their citizens "liked freedom and democracy," as per his polls?
The short answer is no. Zogby is a TV host and columnist with several state-owned Arab media outlets. This puts Zogby on the payroll of Arab governments. When James Zogby addresses America, he does it on behalf of Arab autocrats, which makes him a foreign lobbyist.
Other foreign policy experts in Washington also have shadowy connections.
The Brookings Institution, one of the most prestigious think tanks in the nation's capital, maintains a "branch" in Doha, Qatar.
The Emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, has put on a double face ever since he came to power 15 years ago. On the one hand, Qatar's autocrat hosts CENTCOM headquarters and maintains ties with Israel. On the other hand "Sheikh Hamad" funds Al-Jazeera satellite TV, with its relentless anti-American rhetoric, and befriends Iran and Syria as he tries to undermine Saudi Arabia, which was reluctant in accepting Hamad's toppling of his father and predecessor in 1995.
In intellectual circles, like on Al-Jazeera, Qatar endorses an anti-American line. This means that, as long as Qatar is paying for Brookings Institute's "Doha branch," and probably other Brookings bills, it expects the think tank's papers and events to fall in line with Doha's perspective.
So strong the Qatar influence inside Brookings that Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel and a leading figure at the institute, flies routinely to Doha where he meets advisors to Syrian President Bashar Assad and their pro-Hezbollah Lebanese protégés.
In Washington, Brookings held this week a panel on a "strategy for Lebanon." The selected speakers were known for their support of Syria and Hezbollah. But that was not all. The audience too, was handpicked. The invitation did not go out to Lebanese activists, experts and journalists who might have presented counter-arguments.
Instead, the invitation was restricted to pro-Syria and pro-Hezbollah pundits, along with US government officials. Perhaps Brookings was hoping to get a specific point -- unchallenged -- across to US policy makers.
When the invitation leaked, several Lebanese experts and journalists -- known for their anti-Hezbollah stances -- RSVPed. Their reservations were turned down. Excuses were confused and included "cut off time for RSVP" was over, or the event was "closed to the media" (even though media presence does not necessarily mean coverage; various think tanks invite journalists and either instruct them to remain off the record or go by Chatham House Rules where arguments can be quoted but not ascribed to speakers).
When it comes to foreign policy, Washington is broken. Zogby and the Brookings Institute are among the many culprits.