Does something smell especially bad?Front and center is Martin Indyk, his past and present roles as a leading figure in the Brookings Institution, Qatar's multi-million dollar gifts to Brookings, the failure of Indyk to broker a deal between Israel and Palestinians, and the blame that Indyk has directed against Prime Minister Netanyahu.
Or is it just the normal smell of political infighting and mutual accusation?
Qatar has received headlines for its financial support of Hamas, the desire of Indyk's bosses to include Qatar and Turkey among the mediators between Israel and Hamas over the recent operation in Gaza, and the refusal of the Israeli government (along with the Egyptians) to accept Qatar or Turkey.
The New York Times has recently published a long article probing foreign government contributions to American research institutes, and what the donors receive by way of so-called objective analyses of public issues tilted in their favor.
The headline leaves nothing to doubt, "Foreign Powers Buy Influence at Think Tanks." The text mentions a host of countries, giving prominent attention to Norway. Its reputation for having a squeaky clean government and enough oil to give it a high enough score on lists of the richest countries per capita suggesta it needs no outside help on anything. Yet it wants support from the US on Artic drilling and environmental policy. Also on the list of donors are Japan and Germany with their better than average reputations, and a number of Muslim countries which, along with Qatar, are likely to be using their money for less than Utopian purposes.
The article notes that Brookings and its cousins insist on scholarly independence, but also cites scholars who admit that
"donations have led to implicit agreements that the research groups would refrain from criticizing the donor governments. . . . 'If a member of Congress is using the Brookings reports, they should be aware — they are not getting the full story,' said Saleem Ali, who served as a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar and who said he had been told during his job interview that he could not take positions critical of the Qatari government in papers. 'They may not be getting a false story, but they are not getting the full story.'”
The Times article does not mention Israel among the donors.
If that means Israel does not play in this game, the reason is obvious. Why spend our tax dollars when American Jews are shelling out their money for AIPAC and no end of other channels to those who make policy. Sheldon Adelson's $100 million in the 2012 presidential campaign dwarfed anything going from Qatar to Brookings.
The Jerusalem Post published an article focused even more narrowly than the New York Times on the Indyk-Qatar-Brookings linkage. The Post's article is headlined "Jerusalem doubts Indyk’s institute after Qatar funding reports." It notes that Qatar's $14.8 million makes it the largest foreign donor to Brookings.
The Post's article goes on to summarize Indyk's criticism of Netanyahu.
"After stepping down as Middle East envoy, Indyk – in speeches and interviews – was highly critical of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and placed a large share of the blame for the breakdown of the talks on the prime minister’s shoulders. In a recent interview with Foreign Policy magazine about the Gaza conflict, Indyk said US President Barack Obama became “enraged” with Israeli criticism of US Secretary of State John Kerry. Indyk said Gaza has had a “very negative” impact on the US-Israel relationship. (Indyk also said) “There’s a lot of strain in the relationship now. The personal relationship between the president and the prime minister has been fraught for some time and it’s become more complicated by recent events.”
The same article notes that American-Israel film and television producer Haim Saban, known for a stridently pro-Israel posture, donated only slightly less than Qatar to Brookings,
". . .some $13 million to the institute to set up the Saban Center for Middle East Policy. In July the Saban name was dropped from the title, with the director – Tamara Coffman Wittes – writing on the center's website that the Brookings partnership with the Saban Family Foundation was entering a “new phase.” The Saban Foundation and Brookings, she wrote, would continue to work together on the annual Saban Forum dealing with the US-Israel relationship."
There was a time when I knew several of the top scholars of Brookings and other Washington think tanks well enough to call one of them and inquire about the internal politics beyond that change in name. However, those years, and my friends, are long gone.
Other sources note that Saban ranks as one of the biggest individual donors to the Democratic Party, and recruited Martin Indyk to head the Brookings' Center that he funded.
Money may affect what research institutes publish and neglect to publish. As the New York Times article makes explicit, there is a thin line, often breached, between research institutes claiming objective scholarship and lobbyists for hire.
While holding our noses against the likelihood of stink, we should also remember that information does not control policy. It may influence policymakers, but not likely all of them in the same direction.
For this we can thank the multitude of policymakers, policymaking institutions (i.e., the executive branch with its many quasi-autonomous agencies, plus the plurality of houses, committees, and high-ego members of Congress), as well as the multitude of research institutes, the donors who support them, and journalists who report about them.
Political scientists and journalists who contribute to the field of policymaking and the subfield of policy implementation provide numerous insights that support both skepticism and cynicism about the power of any one donor or policymaker.
The slippage between policy preferences, formal declarations by authoritative bodies, and the actual implementation of programs is likely to be considerable. Sometimes it is 100 percent. That is, nothing may get done, even about an issue that a key policymaker describes as most important.
Among the reasons are that other policymakers or key administrators succeed in foiling the effort.
Getting back to Indyk, his appointment suggests the naivete or duplicity of Obama and/or Kerry. No one should have thought that a leading J Street activist would be a good fit with Benyamin Netanyahu. There are lots of other reasons for the failure of the Obama-Kerry process to broker an agreement between Israel and Palestine, but if Indyk contributed to the failure or the nastiness of the post-mortem, those looking for an explanation had best look at his initial appointment.