The trips highlight inconsistencies in tough ethics rules Congress set for itself. Although registered foreign lobbyists can’t buy a $2 cup of coffee for a congressional staffer in Washington, they are allowed to invite, plan and accompany a staffer on a trip costing $10,000 or more. Nor is there any requirement about how much time is spent on work related to Congress.
Congress overhauled the rules for travel after the 2005 scandal involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who had paid for lavish trips for several lawmakers and their families before his 2006 guilty plea on fraud and bribery charges. After Democrats won control of Congress in midterm elections, they passed legislation governing the rules for travel funded by organizations that hire lobbyists, requiring pre-approval of trip itineraries and limiting travel to a single day.
For travel sponsored by companies and other private interests, staffers must submit itineraries to House and Senate ethics committees for approval before departing and also make a full accounting of costs after the trip has concluded. The rules continue to tighten: starting in April, lawmakers and staff will have to submit trips for pre-approval even earlier — 30 days beforehand, up from 14.
By contrast, the costs, itineraries and other details for cultural-exchange trips are not disclosed. When costs are voluntarily added to disclosure forms, they typically run about $10,000 for a week-long trip, including first-class or business-class airfare.
In December 2010, a street vendor in Tunisia called Mohamed Bouazizi burned himself alive, thereby commencing the Arab Spring. The definitive history is still to be written, but it seems clear Bouazizi’s actions struck a nerve with a population that was tired of unemployment, inflation, corruption, lack of political freedom and poor living conditions.
Hardly anyone noticed, but seven months before Bouazizi took such drastic action, an American company put out a press release about the country, which is still viewable online. The company was called Washington Media Group, and it was celebrating the fact that it had been hired to work with the Tunisian government.
John Leary, the company’s vice president, is quoted: “Tunisia is also a stable democracy where American and European businesses can thrive. This is an important message for the international community and WMG has developed a number of innovative strategies to help ensure that message resonates with the appropriate audiences.” The country is described as “An international business success story”.
As the Arab Spring developed, and various leaderships reacted with increasing brutality, so the links between them and Washington PR firms were exposed. In March 2011, it was reported that more than a third of partners at another company - Qorvis - had jumped ship. One anonymous ex-employee was quoted: “People don’t want to be seen representing all these countries - you take a look at the State Department’s list of human rights violators and some of our clients were on there.”
Israel’s Resilient Democracy: Like the United States, We Have Our Flaws. but to Say Israel Is Undemocratic Is Just Dead Wrong
At 64, Israel is older than more than half of the democracies in the world. The Jewish state, moreover, belongs to a tiny group of countries — the United States, Britain, and Canada among them — never to have suffered intervals of non-democratic governance. Since its inception, Israel has been threatened ceaselessly with destruction. Yet it never once succumbed to the wartime pressures that often crush democracies.
On the contrary, conflict has only tempered an Israeli democracy that affords equal rights even to those Arabs and Jews who deny the state’s legitimacy. Is there another democracy that would uphold the immunity of legislators who praise the terrorists sworn to destroy it? Where else could more than 5 percent of the population — the equivalent of 15 million Americans — rally in protest without incident and be protected by the police. And which country could rival the commitment to the rule of law displayed by the Jewish state, whose former president was convicted and jailed for sexual offenses by three Supreme Court justices — two women and an Arab? Israeli democracy, according to pollster Khalil Shikaki, topped the United States as the most admired government in the world — by the Palestinians.
These facts are incontestable, and yet recent media reports suggest that democracy in Israel is endangered. The Washington Post was “shock[ed] to see Israel’s democratic government propose measures that could silence its own critics” after several Israeli ministers proposed limiting contributions to political NGOs by foreign governments. Citing “sickening reports of ultra-Orthodox men spitting on school girls whose attire they consider insufficiently demure, and demanding that women sit at the back of public buses,” New Yorker editor David Remnick warned that the dream of a democratic, Jewish state “may be painfully, even fatally, deferred.” In response to legislation sanctioning civil suits against those who boycott Israelis living in the West Bank, the New York Times concluded that “Israel’s reputation as a vibrant democracy has been seriously tarnished.”
The most scathing criticism of Israeli democracy derives from the situation in the West Bank, captured by Israel in a defensive war with Jordan in 1967. The fact that the Israelis and Palestinians living in those territories exercise different rights is certainly anomalous — some would say anti-democratic. “There are today two Israels,” author Peter Beinart wrote recently in the New York Times, “a flawed but genuine democracy within the green line and an ethnically-based nondemocracy beyond it.” The latter, Beinart concluded, should actually be called “nondemocratic Israel.”
Together, these critiques create the impression of an erosion of democratic values in Israel. Threats to freedom of speech and equal rights for women are cited as harbingers of this breakdown. Several observers have wondered whether the state that has long distinguished itself as the Middle East’s only genuine democracy is deteriorating into one of the region’s many autocracies and theocracies.
But are the allegations justified? Is Israeli democracy truly in jeopardy? Are basic liberties and gender equality — the cornerstones of an open society — imperiled? Will Israel retain its character as both a Jewish and a democratic state — a redoubt of stability in the Middle East and of shared values with the United States?
In a speech on U.S. foreign policy in October 2011, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney outlined an aggressive agenda for American leadership in the world. “In an American century, America has the strongest economy and the strongest military in the world. If you do not want America to be the strongest nation on Earth, I am not your president. You have that president today.” Like Mitt Romney, many pundits lament the diminishing influence of the United States in the world. In international politics, influence is linked directly to power, the sum of components such as the threat of force, economic magnitude, cultural vibrancy and effective diplomacy. In the case of the United States, however, influence in international politics is especially dependent on military operations.
Neither trade nor traditional diplomacy explains U.S. influence over foreign governments. China is the second-biggest trading partner of the United States, yet its influence over China is relatively small. The United States entertains its biggest diplomatic mission in Iraq, more than sixteen thousand strong, yet it fails to influence Prime Minister Maliki’s sectarian politics. That leaves only the military to act as both stick and carrot. U.S influence is strongest in countries that actively need military support—and Washington will increasingly have trouble gaining leverage in countries with little or no need of U.S. military assistance. A prosperous Western-style democracy facing no direct threats and not interested in joining interventions “in search of monsters to destroy” has little use for the superpower’s militarized diplomacy.
Consider the small West European republic of Austria. Bella gerant alii, tu, felix Austria, nube! “Let others wage war, you, fortunate Austria, be content to marry!” goes the fifteenth-century maxim by Hungarian king Matthias Corvinus, who mocked the Austrian Hapsburgs on their path to European ascendancy. Substitute the word “marry” with “invest” in King Corvinus’s statement, and you have Austria’s unofficial foreign-policy doctrine. Almost 72 percent of Austrian trade is with other EU countries. Fifty percent of Austria’s foreign direct investment is concentrated in Europe. Austria does not care about much more. The United States is only Austria’s sixth-largest trading partner worldwide, and it is outside Austria’s economic interests and strategic calculations. Austria never hosted U.S. bases or joined NATO. With the incentive for military cooperation gone and no fear of U.S. intervention in Austria, how do U.S. policy makers fare in influencing little Austria?
As cables from the U.S. embassy reveal, the United States has little to no influence on Austrian policies. For example, Austria rebuked a proposal to expand participation in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) from two to a larger number. The January 2009 cable reads: “On Afghanistan, ISAF’s UN mandate has still not overcome Austrian resistance to anything more than a symbolic presence or prevented some politicians from characterizing the fight as an ‘American war.’” Austria refused to accept any former Guantanamo detainees.
Austrians do not hesitate to do business with America’s declared enemies. The Austrian Bank Creditanstalt was involved in financial transactions supporting the Iranian nuclear program and has business ties with North Korea, according to DerSpiegel. The Austrian Raiffeisenbank also entertains transactions with Iran despite numerous protests by the U.S. embassy in Vienna. “In recent years, our leverage over Austrian policy has been extremely limited by the reality that there were very few things Vienna wanted from Washington,” emphasizes the cable. None of this should come as a surprise. With declining military influence and the ongoing economic crisis, the United States increasingly has less to offer the developed world.
What is Internet freedom? The United States government has an “Internet freedom” agenda, complete with speeches by the Secretary of State and millions of dollars in program funding. A key United Nations official last year issued a major report emphasizing the right of all individuals freely to use the Internet. Taking a different tack, Vint Cerf, one of the Internet’s founding fathers and “Chief Internet Evangelist” at Google, recently argued in the New York Times that Internet access is not a human right. And Devin Coldewey parsed the debate in TechCrunch, noting that the Internet is an enabler of rights, not a right unto itself.
The answer matters. As an ever greater proportion of human activity is mediated through Internet-based technologies, the extent of our online rights — and what we really mean by “Internet freedom” — will take on greater importance in political and economic life. After a year in which new communications tools were used to dramatic effect throughout the Middle East, and at a time when autocratic governments are cracking down against online freedom, it is worth pausing to get straight the concept so many hold dear.
We might start by distinguishing between two linked but distinct concepts: freedom of the Internet and freedom via the Internet. Freedom of the Internet refers to the ability to engage in unfettered expression in cyberspace. This vision of Internet freedom, as scholar Evgeny Morozov has pointed out, represents freedom from something: censorship, government surveillance, DDoS attacks, and so on. The principles undergirding freedom of the Internet are articulated in documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which describes as inalienable the right to receive and impart information without interference, “throughout any media and regardless of frontiers.”
In this sense, Internet freedom is little different from the notion of free expression, whose advocacy has been an element of U.S. foreign policy for decades. After all, American ambassadors have long pressed foreign governments to allow a free press, release jailed journalists and cease jamming unwanted broadcasts.
A true story: Several years ago, the CIA informed the White House counterterrorism adviser that it had located a wanted Islamic terrorist and requested White House guidance for how to proceed. The counterterrorism adviser recommended “extraordinary rendition” — snatching the terrorist in a covert operation and secretly whisking him away for interrogation in a foreign country. A White House lawyer demanded a meeting with the president to argue that this would be a violation of international law. In the Oval Office, the lawyer and the counterterrorism adviser argued their cases, when suddenly the vice president walked in. Hearing the lawyer’s objections, he said: “Of course it’s a violation of international law, that’s why it’s a covert action. The guy is a terrorist. Go grab his ass.’ ” The rendition was authorized.
The vice president in question was not Dick Cheney, nor was the president George W. Bush. Rather, they men who decided to carry out the first extraordinary rendition of a terrorist target — over the legal objections of the White House counsel’s office — were Al Gore and Bill Clinton, according a description of the meeting by the counterterrorism adviser, Richard Clarke, in his memoir, “Against All Enemies.”
This episode is worth recalling in light of Amnesty International’s call for the arrest of former President George W. Bush during his recent visit to Ethiopia, Tanzania and Zambia for alleged “crimes under international law” relating to his administration’s RDI (Rendition, Detention and Interrogation) program. Yet it was the Clinton administration that pioneered what Amnesty considers the “illegal” practice of extraordinary rendition, which the organization claims “usually involve[s] multiple human rights violations.” Indeed, Gore himself acknowledged that such renditions were “a violation of international law” but counseled the president to go ahead anyway — sending captured terrorists to be interrogated by the intelligence services of regimes with questionable human rights records.
I asked Amnesty spokeswoman Sharon Singh, whether Amnesty had ever made a similar request for foreign governments to detain Bill Clinton and Al Gore when they traveled abroad? She sent me a press release Amnesty had put out in 1999 calling for an investigation of alleged war crimes during the Kosovo war but could not provide a single example of any time Amnesty had demanded the arrest of Clinton or Gore.