Last week, a feeble cease-fire in Libya collapsed just days after it went into effect following an international conference in Berlin. Foreign governments, including Russia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, had agreed to stop supplying weapons and fighters to back either the internationally recognized government in Tripoli or the armed opposition led by Col. Khalifa Hifter.
But Libya’s warring parties themselves have sought foreign assistance. While fighting battles at home, in Washington and other U.S. cities they have hired PR professionals with close connections to the U.S. government to lobby Congress, the White House and other policy audiences.
Lobbying by the Libyan government is but one instance of a multimillion-dollar industry in which U.S. law firms and PR companies work with foreign governments to influence U.S. politics.
Perhaps less known is the fact that armed rebel organizations, too, often work actively with PR firms to access and sway U.S. policymakers. Hifter, commander of the self-styled Libyan National Army, last year contracted a Houston-based lobbying firm for $2 million to help the rebel group conduct outreach toward the U.S. government. The firm took on its rebel client just weeks after Hifter’s forces launched a deadly military offensive on Tripoli, one which Amnesty International warned could amount to war crimes.
Rebel lobbying goes back decades
In the mid-1980s, the Nicaraguan contras worked with lobbyist Roger Stone to get Americans to “adopt a contra for $3.50 a day” during the war against the Sandinistas. During the 2011 Libyan revolution, the National Transitional Council — the political wing of the armed campaign to oust longtime dictator Moammar Gaddafi — hired a Washington firm to lobby for international recognition as the legitimate government of Libya.
Other armed rebels and secessionist organizations have worked with U.S. PR firms in recent years, including the Palestinian Authority, the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq and the Syrian opposition.
Lobbying is an integral part of U.S. politics and exemplifies the First Amendment rights of free speech, peaceful assembly and petitioning the government. It can promote industries and contribute to economic growth, or elevate civic voices that may otherwise go unheard.
But critics have highlighted the problems of outsize lobbies with disproportionate influence in American politics, whether they represent foreign governments or giant corporations.
The rebel lobby raises questions
For rebel organizations that can afford their services, lobbyists can literally open the doors to influential U.S. lawmakers. Some critics claim this leaves U.S. firms essentially abetting foreign wars — for a profit. Lobbying groups help their clients navigate the complex workings of the U.S. government and civil society so they know just whom to meet and what to say for the greatest impact.
For example, amid a devastating war in Yemen, the country’s southern secessionists, the Southern Transitional Council (STC), in 2017 hired a U.S. lobbying firm to generate support for the STC cause in the United States. The STC now runs a small office in Washington and has secured meetings with many members of Congress. Overshadowed by the wider Yemeni conflict against the Houthis, this organization is unlikely to have achieved these feats without the help of their U.S. enablers.
Likewise, in the 1980s, Angolan rebel group UNITA hired the law firm Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly, whose executives had deep ties to the Reagan administration. With their help, UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi gained direct access to the White House and Congress. Charming audiences with his self-proclaimed democratic credentials, he secured years of CIA support for his guerrilla war and eventually entered into Angola’s electoral politics.
The bottom line? My research suggests lobbyists can enable rebel diplomacy aimed at influencing decisions at the top echelons of U.S. policymaking. They can help rebel groups establish a presence in Washington, and land armed groups on lawmakers’ crowded agendas. Their work can sustain insurgencies with new infusions of U.S. arms and funding, potentially prolonging conflict.
What rebels do with the fruits of their lobbying efforts is often unpredictable. Savimbi, for instance, went on to violently reject democracy in Angola after losing in the 1992 postwar elections.
Lobbying laws are unevenly enforced
To be sure, there is a degree of transparency in the lobbying industry. U.S. firms working with foreign clients are required to routinely register their work with the U.S. Justice Department under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). They must disclose information on the foreign client, the nature of the work the firm has contracted to do, income from and expenditures on behalf of the client, and any propaganda material distributed for the client.
But enforcement of these rules has been both erratic and politicized. Enforcement is now being tightened, but enforcement alone won’t address fundamental questions the rebel lobby raises for U.S. policymaking.
Lobbying, by its very nature, concentrates information, ideas and influence within the political elite. In foreign policymaking, these processes are often exclusionary and potentially far removed from U.S. citizens’ actual preferences. And rebel lobbying reflects an unusual triad of foreign wars, lobbying firms’ business interests and U.S. foreign policymaking — at times without much thought on how this influence affects Americans, or the broader goals of U.S. foreign policy.
Reyko Huang is an associate professor at the Bush School of Government & Public Service at Texas A&M University. She is the author of “The Wartime Origins of Democratization: Civil War, Rebel Governance, and Political Regimes” (Cambridge University Press, 2016).