Friday, September 11, 2009
Pakistan's lobbyists target Congress
The Pakistani government deployed a team of lobbyists to Capitol Hill on Monday to contain the fallout from the destabilizing actions by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, as congressional Democrats and the Bush administration sought a review of the country’s foreign aid.
“The focus is on the Hill right now,” said Mark Tavlarides, a former national security aide in the Clinton administration whose firm, Van Scoyoc Associates, is paid $55,000 a month from the Musharraf government — a significant boost from the $40,000 the firm earned before July.
In the wake of Musharraf’s moves over the weekend to scuttle the constitution and, effectively, declare martial law to hold onto power, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and top congressional Democrats promised to review the $845 million in foreign aid the administration has requested for Pakistan next year.
Congressional Democrats may want to be more punitive toward the authoritarian regime than the Bush administration, which cast its lot with Musharraf after the Sept. 11 attacks. The Pakistani government — and opposition leader Benazir Bhutto — have lined up some of the capital’s top lobbying talent, ensuring that the struggle for power in Islamabad will have a Washington front.
“Pakistan will only be a reliable and capable ally against terrorism when its government is not seen as an enemy by its own people,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement. “The interests of the United States are best advanced by policies that do not promote one goal at the expense of the other.”
The lobbyists will have their work cut out for them, as lawmakers finalize an end-of-the-year spending package to fund each federal agency.
Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.), who chairs a powerful subcommittee that allocates foreign aid urged her congressional colleagues Monday to revisit the $747 million the House approved earlier this year for Pakistan.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), her counterpart in the Senate, included in his version of the bill restrictions on that money if the State Department does not demonstrate the Pakistani government has implemented Democratic reforms, such as allowing “free, fair and inclusive” election, “respecting the independence of the judiciary” and ensuring freedom of expression for journalists and critics of the government.
“U.S. aid to the Musharraf government should stop until constitutional order, civil liberties and judicial independence are restored, until political prisoners are released, and until free and fair elections are allowed,” Leahy said in a statement Monday. “The Bush administration has only paid lip service to the abuses of Gen. Musharraf’s authoritarian rule.”
Congressional Democrats have been at odds with the White House all year, but both sides exhibited a willingness to cooperate over foreign aid funding.
“This is one where the administration and the Congress should sit down together and work for a common purpose,” House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) said Monday at the National Press Club.
The divisions may come over the money set aside for counterterrorism, which appears safe for the moment. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, “We are reviewing all of our assistance programs, although we are mindful not to do anything that would undermine ongoing counterterrorism efforts.”
As Musharraf moved to stifle dissent in recent months, his backers and opponents alike have marshaled Washington’s lobbying community on their behalf.
Just last month, the Pakistani Embassy hired Cassidy & Associates for a whopping one-year, $1.2 million contract. Heading up the account is Robin Raphel, a former assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs in the Clinton administration. The firm declined to comment on its lobbying activities on behalf of the embassy.
Tavlarides said he is “basically trying to get reactions from [members of Congress] about the state of emergency. The embassy recognizes that Congress is a coequal branch of government in shaping U.S. policy towards Pakistan.”
Meanwhile, the Pakistani opposition party, led by Bhutto, has retained public relations giant Burson-Marsteller and its affiliates, the lobbying firm BKSH & Associates, and the polling firm Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates. The firm declined comment on its activities, which it is charging an initial $75,000, to be followed with monthly payments of $28,500.
The contract filed with the Justice Department does, however, give some insight into what all of the money buys. Among the promised services: surveys of “100 American political, journalistic, and business elites in Washington, D.C., and New York”; an “internal brainstorming session”; and setting up meetings for Bhutto in Washington “with an eye towards convincing U.S. officials that Prime Minister Bhutto is still relevant to further the democratic process in Pakistan.”
At the top of the Pakistan government’s worry list is that it will lose American foreign aid, which has totaled some $10 billion since the Sept. 11 attacks, most of it military, according to an analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The government’s lobbyists “have to walk a fine line. Lots of members are upset about this,” said a Democratic congressional aide working on the issue, who added that so far, the issue has not split down partisan lines.
It’s unclear, though, whether the administration will act to tighten American aid to Pakistan. A planned sale of F-16s to Pakistan “is definitely going to be under discussion,” the Democratic aide said.
He noted that aid does not come in one lump package but, instead, in many “different spigots.”
“The administration will figure out some spigots to remove or delay to signal that we are not happy with them,” said the aide.
Brookings Institution scholar Stephen P. Cohen has long been critical of the aid program, arguing in a recent paper that the United States has become “Musharraf’s ATM machine, allowing him to build up a military establishment that was irrelevant to his (and our) real security threat, yet presiding over an intensification of anti-American feelings in Pakistan itself, and failing to provide adequate aid to Pakistan’s failing social and educational sectors.”
Lobbyists from the Pakistan government, Bhutto and rival India have all been actively working Congress for months. And recently, they have been joined by human rights organizations like the International Crisis Group.
It remains unclear exactly what Bhutto is seeking, said a Democratic congressional aide working on Pakistan issues. Her lobbyists’ arguments were “less harsh than I thought they might be,” said the aide, speculating on rumors that Bhutto may be trying to cut a power-sharing deal with Musharraf.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee and co-chairwoman of the Congressional Pakistan Caucus, called for timely elections and protection for opposition voices.
India, meanwhile, has long been using the issue of religious extremism in Pakistan to gain leverage on the contentious issue of control of Kashmir, which has been a simmering conflict for decades. Among India’s lobbying firms is GOP powerhouse Barbour, Griffith and Rogers, which is being paid $58,333 a month, according to its 2005 Justice Department filing. The firm declined to comment.