by Jim Lobe and Eli Clifton
As regular readers of this blog know, Jim asserted that the Middle East section of a remarkably hawkish report published last spring by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) could have been written by the foreign ministries of Saudi Arabia and Israel. That report depicted Iran as the source of virtually all evils in the region and recommended confronting Tehran at every turn. Well, now it turns out that the foreign ministry of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) may well have helped draft the latest Middle East report by the “liberal” Center for American Progress (CAP). (The hyper-interventionist and highly confusing Washington Post has since endorsed the report in its lead editorial Sunday.)
At first, we only suspected as much based on the fulsome praise it received from UAE’s Washington ambassador at a CAP event on Tuesday. According to The Intercept’s Zaid Jilani who broke the story, Amb. Yousef Al Otaiba, one of four “distinguished panelists” at the event moderated by the report’s main author, Brian Katulis, began his remarks this way: “Thank you for the report on the Middle East, which I happen to completely agree with.”
Adding to our suspicions was the contribution to CAP that the UAE embassy gave of between $500,000 and $999,999 in 2014, according to a partial list of contributors published last year.
Tom Caiazza, associate director of media relations at CAP, told LobeLog that “The Embassy of the UAE in DC contributed $699,000 to CAP in 2016 with no contributions coming in 2015.” That contribution wasn’t disclosed in the report as posing a potential conflict of interest. Caiazza defended the independence of their policy work, saying:
As with all of our work, CAP’s policy work on the Middle East is independent and driven by solutions that we believe will create a more equitable, just and safe world. In all cases, CAP retains complete control over the direction of its work.
CAP isn’t alone in receiving generous support from UAE. The UAE (as well as Qatar and Saudi Arabia) has flooded Washington think tanks with tens of millions of dollars over the last few years.
But then Eli made a startling discovery in plain view within the report itself. One of its co-authors, Muath Al Wari, currently a “Senior Policy Analyst with the National Security and International Policy Team” at CAP, served in the UAE Embassy in Washington from 2009 and 2011 and, more recently, at “the Supreme National Security Council of the United Arab Emirates, where he focused on regional security in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings.”
No wonder the ambassador was so enthusiastic. No wonder the report so fervently embraced ever-closer security cooperation between the United States and the region’s Sunni-led autocracies and monarchies. No wonder it depicted Iran as an irredeemable destabilizer.
Al Wari, who incidentally authored two reports about the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) since joining CAP, helped develop the Emirates’ strategy on the Arab Spring, a movement that CAP and Katulis generally welcomed as offering an unprecedented opportunity for democratization, liberalization, and accountability throughout the region. Like its giant neighbor, Saudi Arabia, the UAE clearly felt threatened by the prospect of such change and led the counter-revolution against it.
This has clearly put Katulis, in particular, in a rather difficult position. He has always appeared somewhat hawkish on Iran, although he opposed military action by Israel or the U.S. against it). At the same time, he supported Mubarak’s ouster and a democratic transition in Egypt that included the Muslim Brotherhood and other non-violent forms of political Islam. He has been a member of the Project on Middle East Democracy’s (POMED) Working Group on Egypt, which, among other things, was highly critical of the Obama administration’s decision to restore military aid to Cairo after the 2013 coup d’état and has been consistently critical of the ongoing repression against the Brotherhood and other dissidents by the al-Sisi government. He voiced strong reservations about what he called “Saudi troops and Emirati police enter[ing Bahrain] to crush th[e] peaceful democratic protest” there in 2011.
Yet Katulis now advises the next administration to cozy up and make extra-nice to precisely those regimes that “crush[ed]” the democracy movement in Bahrain (and continue to subsidize the increasingly repressive and sectarian al-Khalifa monarchy), carried out a devastating military campaign in Yemen that has actually set back the fight against al-Qaeda and IS, financed the murderous al-Sisi regime, and, in the UAE’s particular case, led efforts to extirpate the Muslim Brotherhood across the region. Although Katulis personally believes that Washington should condition military assistance to Egypt on improvements in the deplorable human-rights situation there, the report written under his name calls for the United States to offer strong support to al-Sisi’s proposal for an Arab “joint stabilization force” based in Egypt with contributions from the GCC states, Jordan, and Morocco. Such a force would presumably counter Iran and suppress certain popular movements, such as the Brotherhood and the Shia majority in Bahrain, as well as to coordinate actions against IS and al-Qaeda.
Of course, the report is sprinkled with references to the importance of “human rights,” “”pluralism,” “political legitimacy,” “tolerance,” “basic freedoms,” and even “democracy.” But ultimately the report urges Washington to increase military and security cooperation among and between its “closest partners” in the region, which just happen to be led by Sunni monarchs and autocrats who have most strongly resisted the aforementioned liberal values. Amb. Al Otaiba, as liberal as he personally may be, doesn’t likely care a great deal for democracy.
As for Al Wari, it’s really difficult, at least judging from his frequent tweets, to find any deviation from the ambassador’s positions about which he displayed a notable enthusiasm, as he did for the other panelists’ hawkish declarations about Iran, during last Tuesday’s event.
This whole episode raises serious questions about how much financial and other contributions by the Gulf states are influencing supposedly independent think tanks— including those from which a Hillary Clinton administration will likely recruit fairly heavily, such as CAP, the Center for a New American Security, and Brookings—especially when these institutions are less than fully transparent about their funding sources. Of course, the directors of CAP’s national security team could have decided on the merits that Al Otaiba was absolutely the best ambassador to address the topic under review and that the report needed to be written regardless of whether the embassy made a donation. And perhaps Al Wari’s current position at CAP has nothing whatever to do with any financial relationship between the think tank and the UAE embassy.
The Post Piles On
What makes all this even more ironic—although not entirely unpredictable—is the Post’s endorsement of the CAP report. A mere three days before, the Post published an editorial entitled (in the print edition) “Is This The Kind of Ally America Wants?” decrying the Obama administration’s alleged failure to “defend U.S. values even in cases where—as in Bahrain—it wields extraordinary leverage.” The editorial offers a litany of abuses committed by the al-Khalifa family regime and notes that the situation has grown steadily worse since Obama lifted restrictions on arms sales to the kingdom.
Now, just three days later, it endorses the CAP report, which is all about working to tighten security cooperation among the GCC and other Sunni-led authoritarian states, which, of course, includes Bahrain. “The next administration,” it states in praise of the CAP report,
needs to avoid becoming “stuck in a cycle of reaction without a set of clear long-term strategic priorities.” Instead, it should seek “renewed American leadership in the region” by “working with partners to outline an affirmative agenda for the next decade.” In short, what’s needed is a president who recognizes the need for American leadership in the Middle East.
So, on the one hand, the Post argues that the new administration should distance itself from the increasingly repressive Sunni monarchy in Bahrain, the very same Bahrain whose “peaceful democratic protest” was “crush[ed]” with the help of Emirati police in 2011, according to the Katulis, and which continues to be sustained by Emirati financial and security support. The very same Bahrain with which Katulis and CAP—and the UAE—apparently now believe that the U.S. should seek to reassure and “[work] with …to outline an affirmative agenda for the next decade.” So, when it talks about a new administration’s need for “a set of clear long-term strategic priorities,” the Post, it would seem, faces its own challenge in that regard.
That said, this whole episode is a very striking example of what Obama refers to as the “Washington playbook” and what other, less diplomatic administration officials refer to as “The Blob.” A UAE-approved strategy is codified (with the addition of nice liberal Washington-type language) in the form of a report by a DC think tank with close ties to Hillary Clinton and then endorsed by The Washington Post. The great irony here is that the national newspaper that was possibly the most influential and unreserved champion of the Arab Spring is now essentially supporting the positions of the country that played a leadership role in crushing it.
Eli Clifton reports on money in politics and US foreign policy. Eli previously reported for the American Independent News Network, ThinkProgress, and Inter Press Service.
Photo: Defense Secretary Ashton Carter meets with UAE delegation including Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba (far right).