Foreign countries and dollar diplomacy

Based on what is publicly reported, foreign governments spent millions in 2013 to develop relationships in the United States with members of Congress, federal agencies and even members of the news media, according to an analysis from the ever-informative Sunlight Foundation.

The United Arab Emirates spent a whopping $14.2 million to influence Americans, making contacts with, among many others, columnists and reporters to discuss “illicit finance issues.” Those conversations most likely focused on terrorist financing and Iran sanctions, two issues that punctuated a visit that ­Deputy Treasury Secretary ­David Cohen made to the UAE early last year.

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993. View Archive

Foreign lobbying disclosures, by law, are much more specific than domestic ones, requiring nations to say whom they contacted, when and why. For example, the UAE reached out to ­Jennifer Rubin, a conservative opinion blogger for The Washington Post, in December 2013 regarding illicit finance.

The law that governs these stricter reporting requirements, the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938, was created to keep tabs on Nazi propagandists during World War II. Why reporters? The United States feared that Nazi Germany was paying public relations people to spin Hitler’s motives in conversations with American journalists.

Sunlight, which just last week unveiled a new data tool called Foreign Influence Explorer, analyzed spending that “foreign entities or their paid representatives” reported to the Justice Department for 2013. The data collected by Justice does not include “diplomatic contacts by members of a nation’s embassy.”

The governments that spend the most here on hired PR are ones that typically don’t have strong established diplomatic ties, Sunlight’s Bill Allison told the Loop. “It’s like renting a diplomatic core when they hire foreign agents,” he said. But when there is a hot issue with international implications, like the Keystone XL pipeline or a trade treaty, there is often a spike in lobbyists representing a country’s interests, so even nations with already close relationships with the United States — Canada, Mexico, Germany — rack up hefty bills.

Last year, lobbyists for Canada met with members of Congress for “relationship building.” Mexico’s lobbyists contacted offices about the “Consular Notification Compliance Act,” legislation to protect the rights of prisoners who are foreign nationals. And Germany lobbied Congress on overseas military bases, presumably since several U.S. installations there are scheduled to be closed.

Other allies, including England and France, didn’t register on Sunlight’s list. And Israel, which already has huge U.S. political pull through domestic organizations, spent only $1,250. Meanwhile, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the well-connected pro-Israel group based in the United States, spent close to $3 million on lobbying last year.

It’s easy to surmise generally that the countries spending the most on U.S. lobbyists are ones with substantial energy, trade, immigration, agriculture or other notable business dealings in Washington. But it’s not entirely clear why some countries depend on their diplomats here to cultivate relationships while others look for outside help.

You would think those rooftop receptions at the Canadian Embassy, with its majestic views of the Capitol, would more than suffice.

But does he look French?

We understand it’s difficult to capture the perfect image of your opponent as a flip-flopper.

No one in modern political history has done so as effectively as President George W. Bush’s reelection campaign in 2004, when its strategists turned a video of Democratic challenger John Kerry windsurfing into an attack ad with the hook that Kerry shifts positions “whichever way the wind blows.”

So if you want to make the same point, what’s the next-best thing to finding a video of your opponent blowing in the wind? Superimposing his head on Kerry’s body, of course.

Neel Kashkari, running for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in California’s June 3 primary against tea party favorite Tim Donnelly, a member of the State Assembly, has a Web site with a list of nine reasons, complete with animated GIFs, that Donnelly would be a “REALLY” bad choice. The fourth reason on the site, Tim Donnelly Facts (www.timdonnellyfacts.com), challenges Donnelly on property rights and says that “Tim Donnelly is flipping all over the place.”

Above those words is a moving image of Donnelly’s head perched on Kerry’s lanky body, borrowed from the famous windsurfing ad.

Cheap trick or genius politics? We’ll let you decide.

Soon, a new deputy in town

When Bill Burns, the outgoing deputy secretary of state, finally rejected entreaties from President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry and declared last month that he would leave this fall, there was much speculation about who might replace the consummate diplomat.

There was talk that several folks, such as Undersecretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, now immersed in the Iran nukes portfolio, might be tapped to move up. And former undersecretary for political affairs Nicholas Burns, now teaching at Harvard’s Kennedy School, was said to be in the mix. (That would be great, since then you’d have Nick Burns replacing Bill Burns, who had replaced Nick Burns in the undersecretary job.)

Some of the chatter these days has it that deputy national security adviser Antony Blinken is a leading contender. Blinken worked at State during the Clinton presidency and then moved to the White House National Security Council.

But we should caution that Kerry has not weighed in yet with his views. And tradition has it that one of the top three jobs at State goes to a career diplomat. So that would augur consideration of a Foreign Service officer.

Some might argue that this is a suitable reward for Blinken for spending about eight years as Democratic staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, crafting superb talking points — beautiful, coherent comments — and sitting behind ranking member or Chairman Joe Biden only to see Biden keep talking and talking and talking until, as Blinken shrank in his chair, Biden got so far off-message that he started making news on a completely different subject.

— With Colby Itkowitz

The blog: washingtonpost.com/intheloop. Twitter: @InTheLoopWP.

Colby Itkowitz is a national reporter for In The Loop.
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