Buying influence in Washington

America’s decision to supply Pakistan with F-16 fighter aircraft, despite protest from India, suggests the effectiveness of lobbying within the ambit of Washington’s Beltway politics

March 08, 2016 01:50 am | Updated September 12, 2016 10:01 am IST

“Scarcely a month after the 9/11 terror attacks, Gen. Musharraf faced pressure from the Bush White House to allow the transit of enormous U.S. military supplies through Pakistan as the campaign to overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan kicked off in earnest.” Picture shows Gen. Musharraf with Mr. Bush in 2004.

“Scarcely a month after the 9/11 terror attacks, Gen. Musharraf faced pressure from the Bush White House to allow the transit of enormous U.S. military supplies through Pakistan as the campaign to overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan kicked off in earnest.” Picture shows Gen. Musharraf with Mr. Bush in 2004.

A shockwave ripped through South Asian policy circles in mid-February when the U.S. confirmed that lengthy negotiations between Washington and Islamabad had resulted in a decision >to supply Pakistan with eight F-16 fighter aircraft worth $699.04 million, despite a year of unrelenting protest from India.

The deal marked the continuation of standard U.S. policy on Pakistan, namely support for an “ally” in the global fight against terror, including against a myriad of hardcore militant outfits on Pakistani soil.

Yet it reflects a troubling conundrum for India, which is that Washington appears to be unable or unwilling to scale back military transfers to Islamabad despite the available evidence of complicity between the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence and various extremist groups.

Unflagging support to an “ally”

With the sale announced a little more than a month after the Pakistan-origin attack in Pathankot, India’s ministry of External Affairs >immediately summoned U.S. Ambassador Richard Verma to express its “displeasure,” and in Washington Republican Senator Bob Corker described vowed to block the sale to the country that is acting as a “duplicitous partner” and providing safe havens to terror groups.

Yet even as the Modi administration fumed and as Mr. Corker and other Congressmen dashed off sharply-worded letters to Secretary of State John Kerry, threatening to block U.S. taxpayer funds to support the sale of the jets, the Secretary in his annual budget sent to the U.S. Congress proposed a financial assistance package of $859.8 million for Pakistan, including $265 million for military hardware.

In other words an all-too-familiar sub-continental dilemma for India has again resurfaced: On the one hand Osama bin Laden’s hideaway villa was discovered in Abbottabad, Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad >attempted to spectacularly car-bomb New York’s Times Square , and Haqqani Network terrorists regularly flee to safe havens inside Pakistan after attacking U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.

On the other, the U.S. readily proffered >Kerry-Lugar financing to Pakistan , sold the country around $5.4 billion worth of military equipment during 2002-14, and is now handing over even more F-16s, beyond the 70 that the Pakistani Air Force has gradually acquired since the 1980s – assuming that Pakistan can pay for the latest fleet of jets.

With what black magic has Pakistan blinded the mandarins of successive U.S. administrations to Islamabad’s dark side, and even more, kept them blithely skipping along the path of strategic handouts, all in the name of regional counterterrorism cooperation?

Islamabad’s beltway lobbying

Setting aside explanations based on strategic calculus, all of which would in some way return to the central dictum that Washington cannot afford to lose a nuclear-armed Pakistan’s goodwill in fighting more dangerous foes, an alternative theory that could partially explain the all-weather nature of this one-way partnership is the effectiveness of Pakistani lobbying within ambit of Washington’s beltway politics.

Historically there is perhaps no greater example of the power of lobbying in this context than the stranglehold that the Israel lobby, led by the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, has had upon the narrative of U.S. policy towards West Asia for decades.

Counting the U.S.’s consistent military, diplomatic and economic support of Israel John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt argue in their 2006 paper on this subject, “If neither strategic nor moral arguments can account for America’s support for Israel… the explanation is the unmatched power of the Israel Lobby.”

Similarly Islamabad’s peddlers of shadowy influence on Pennsylvania Avenue and Capitol Hill have been a force to reckon with for decades, most notably when, during the term of General Pervez Musharraf a battalion of fleet-footed lobbyist-ninjas rehabilitated Pakistan’s reputation on the eve of U.S. President George W. Bush’s War on Terror.

Scarcely one month after the 9/11 terror attacks General Musharraf faced cascading pressure from the Bush White House to allow the transit of enormous U.S. military supplies through Pakistan as the campaign to overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan kicked off in earnest.

But he was not about to issue any carte blanche permissions to Mr. Bush.

Instead Mr. Musharraf quietly enlisted the services of Houston-based Republican Stephen Payne, described as a staunch “Bush supporter” and a member of a firm known as Team Eagle, and signed a $180,000-a-year contract with that entity on October 13, 2001, according to a government database maintained under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).

An investigation by Talking Points Memo noted that in the contract that Pakistan signed with Team Eagle Islamabad wanted “Meetings with Administration officials and members of congress and/or staff and share with Pakistan the U.S. attitudes and desires regarding the bilateral relationship with Pakistan and assist in bringing U.S. interests together.”

The policy issues they wanted redressed? “Ending U.S. sanctions against Pakistan [and] providing economic assistance on Pakistan's external debt and related trade issues.”

According to the information provided by another firm of Mr. Payne’s, Worldwide Strategies, Team Eagle “Helped Pakistan negotiate a 5-year, $3 billion dollar aid package from the U.S.,… coordinated the removal of economic and military sanctions imposed on Pakistan under the Clinton Administration [and] secured Pakistan the prestigious ‘Major Non-NATO Ally Status’ including: Japan, Australia, Israel, Egypt.”

Given the most recent developments a notable accomplishment that Mr. Payne’s firm claimed then was, “After intensive coordinated efforts, Pakistan was finally able to purchase F-16 fighter jets (previously cancelled under the Clinton Administration) and secured the delivery of C-130 transport aircrafts, helicopters and night-vision equipment from the U.S. to fulfill Pakistani military requirements.”

Dark side of power corridors

As much as the historical record of the Pakistani lobby in the U.S. reflects creativity and single-minded focus, in equal measure it has allowed itself to be carried too far into the dark side of backroom politicking, with the expected toxic fallout.

Most well-known among these is the case of Syed Ghulam Nabi Fai, a U.S. citizen of Kashmiri origin who was arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2011 for clandestinely pushing the cause of the Pakistani government in seeking to influence the U.S. position on the Kashmir issue.

Court documents showed that Mr. Fai received funding to the tune of nearly $4 million from the ISI and through the Kashmiri American Council, of which he was the Director, he made more than $20,000 in campaign contributions over two decades.

In complete disregard of the U.S. law prohibiting foreign governments from making donations to American political candidates, these funds were mostly doled out to the National Republican Senatorial Committee and Representative Dan Burton, a staunchly pro-Pakistan Republican from Indiana.

Lobby or perish?

Yet if Pakistan’s lobbying efforts in Washington reflect somewhat unhinged but largely successful multi-decade adventurism, then India’s efforts are clearly lacklustre by comparison and hesitant in tenor.

There is one notable exception to this observation, when the influence of the Indian and Indian-American lobbies engulfed every corridor of the U.S. Congress and animated the Oval Office like never before – in the run up to the signing of the India-U.S. civil nuclear agreement in 2005, between President Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

According to disclosures under FARA the Indian government paid two lobbying firms $60,000 each per month, one being Barbour Griffith and Rogers (BGR), the employer of Robert Blackwill, U.S. Ambassador to India during 2001-03 and a confirmed backer of India’s rise in the 21st-century world order.

The other was pro-Democratic lobby firm Venable LLP, which Dr. Singh reportedly decided to hire “to protect India when the political tide shifted to the Democrats in Congress;” even though in 2008 Venable LLP was replaced by Patton Boggs, a firm headed by Indian-American Anurag Varma.

While the intense lobbying that characterised this inflection point in India-U.S. ties may well have led to the successful passage of the civil nuclear agreement, it was in no small measure a victory owed to the unprecedented personal commitment of the U.S. President and the Indian Prime Minister to see it through to ink on paper.

After this high point, however, with no major “big-bang” policy goals in sight, the focus on lobbies appears to have somewhat blurred on the Indian side.

According to an analysis of Justice Department filings by Caravan Magazine India paid Patton Boggs $350,000 for a six-month contract at least until around 2010.

The Hindu directly accessed the FARA database which suggests that India spent at least $700,000 per year on another major lobby firm, the Podesta Group, between 2010 and 2015, and on BGR it spent respectively $700,000 in 2011, $350,000 in 2010 and $700,000 in 2005.

However data collected under FARA and the Senate Office of Public Records and reported by the non-partisan Centre for Responsive Politics research group suggests that between 2008 until 2013 India spent $3.91 million whereas Pakistan spent $5.15 million.

If there was a price to pay for reining in lobbying expenditure then it may have come in the form of painful but relatively manageable bilateral conflicts breaking out from time to time, whether it was the Khobragade affair that stung India or the MMRCA deal that fell through for the U.S.

Show us the money

Regardless of how useful money and lobbying are in oiling Washington’s policy wheels, the limits to lobby-power are reached when it collides with strategic reality, a fact that former senior diplomats who spoke to The Hindu acknowledged in the context of the latest F-16 transfer to Pakistan.

Some of them characterised the deal as an inevitable blip within the broader rhythm of the bilateral compact between India and the U.S., but one that was perhaps less likely to cause genuine geopolitical instability in the region than the scaremongers would have us believe.

That bilateral compact is more regularly validated, they argued, by the vast strides that New Delhi and Washington have made together, for example in terms of defence trade and technology transfers. In fact it is in such areas of regular commercial-strategic interest that a myriad of groups can and do play a productive role, including for example, the U.S.-India Business Council, a cross-industry association of companies that regularly lobbies the White House and the U.S. Congress on everything from allowing technology partnerships with India on par with the U.S.’s NATO allies, to more fairness within the U.S.’s sometimes difficult H1-B visa regime.

Seen in this light lobbying through intermediaries in Washington can certainly bring quick wins or stave off tactical setbacks, but ultimately strategic convergence between nations may depend much more on governments rolling up their sleeves and working together to deliver what lofty vision statements have promised.

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