Argument

Lawyers, Guns, and Money

Why is the Obama administration giving the odious Sudanese regime's lobbyists a polite hearing instead of running them out of town?

As the Obama administration's Sudan policy review drags on, the Sudanese government, led by a wanted war criminal, President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, clearly looks to Washington and dreams of normalizing relations. So how has Bashir tried to work his way back into the good graces of the United States? Well, there has been a recent spate of government attacks in Darfur, and a recent Small Arms Survey report suggests that most of the new and heavier weaponry appearing in militia clashes in South Sudan likely comes from government stockpiles. Certainly, the government has not given the slightest suggestion that it will hand Bashir over to the International Criminal Court to face charges. Khartoum has not been on a charm offensive.

Instead of actually changing its behavior, Sudan's ruling National Congress Party wants to return to favor in Washington the old-fashioned way: by swamping a bunch of high-powered lobbyists in a sea of money to make its case. Thanks to two excellent recent articles by the Washington Post's Dan Eggen, we have gained a much clearer window into the behind-the-scenes machinations of the National Congress Party and the greedy inside-the-Beltway types lining up to do the party's bidding. In the process, we have also gained some alarming insight into how the administration is dealing with this mess. As actress Lily Tomlin once said, "No matter how cynical you get, you just can't keep up."

The first bombshell dropped when former U.S. National Security Advisor Bud McFarlane of Iran-Contra fame was outed by the Post as having accepted $1.3 million, passed through the government of Qatar, to represent the Sudanese government as it tried to warm relations with Washington. McFarlane somehow forgot that this kind of representation usually requires registering as a lobbyist on behalf of a foreign government, something he did not do for either Qatar or Sudan. Making matters worse, Sudan is still on the state sponsors of terrorism list. But the niceties of paperwork never appear to have been McFarlane's strong suit.

So what did the Sudanese get for their $1.3 million? According to the White House, current National Security Advisor James L. Jones and the special envoy for Sudan, retired Maj. Gen. Scott Gration, had "conversations" with McFarlane to discuss "the urgent need to improve the security situation in Sudan and the need for development in southern Sudan." It does not pass the laugh test to believe that the Sudanese government was spending more than a million dollars to express its concerns, via McFarlane, about development prospects for South Sudan given that the ruling party views the South as a mortal enemy. On one level, you can certainly understand how Jones and Gration got mousetrapped into taking the meeting with McFarlane; he is a former national security advisor after all. But Jones has also failed to detail whether he has held any other meetings with outsiders on Sudan, leaving as a real likelihood that the only outsider he has consulted on Sudan policy is a disgraced former national security advisor on the take from Khartoum.

The second shoe fell with Eggen's article revealing that Robert B. Crowe, a partner at Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough (and a prominent fundraiser for the Democratic Party), has been working behind the scenes to lock down a lobbying contract with the Sudanese government. Crowe, who might be every bit as ethically challenged as McFarlane, at least had the good sense to try and garner support from Gration and Sen. John Kerry, with whom he reportedly has good ties, to ensure that he could get legal approval to sign a lobbying contract. And because truth is invariably stranger than fiction in this business, celebrity television doctor Bob Arnot also appears mixed up in all of this. To quote the article:

The lobbying proposal arose out of discussions this year between aides to Kerry, who led a congressional delegation to Khartoum in April, and Bob Arnot, a physician and television personality active in humanitarian causes, according to several of those involved in the debate. Arnot then approached Crowe with the idea, leading to an application this summer with the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which must approve any U.S. firm doing business with Sudan.

A State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said OFAC rejected the initial application on Gration's recommendation. That led to further talks between Crowe, Gration and other administration officials. "It was our understanding that Nelson Mullins was going to work on getting support from key members of Congress about the work they wanted to pursue in Sudan," the official said.

This passage may shed light on a curious exchange Gration had when testifying before Kerry in July. At that hearing, when discussing Sudan, Gration declared, "At some point we're going to have to unwind some of these sanctions." Many were baffled by Gration's comments at the time because exemptions already exist for humanitarian relief and South Sudan has argued strongly that sanctions against the government should stay in place. What Gration might actually have been doing, with a wink and a nod, was offering the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee assurance that his favored lobbyist would also be eligible for a piece of Khartoum's pie.

None of these stories looks very good for an administration that promised to take a very tough line with Khartoum upon entering office. Perhaps a shorter response from the administration would be more appropriate when addressing those who seek to lobby on Khartoum's behalf at a time when almost 3 million Darfuris remain displaced: Get lost. As for the lobbyists themselves, with health-care reform, energy legislation, and a hundred other issues working through Congress right now, are times really so hard that the only work they can find is representing war criminals?

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

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