Ben Freeman

Shaping the public narrative: The Military-Entertainment Complex

Hartung and Freeman, The Twenty-First Century of (Profitable) War

Honestly, it should take your breath away. We are on a planet prepping for further war in a staggering fashion. A watchdog group, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), just released its yearly report on global military spending. Given the war in Ukraine, you undoubtedly won’t be surprised to learn that, in 2022, such spending in Western and Central Europe surpassed levels set as the Cold War ended in the last century. Still, it wasn’t just Europe or Russia where military budgets leaped. They were rising rapidly in Asia as well (with significant jumps in Japan and India, as well as for the world’s second-largest military spender, China). And that doesn’t even include spiking military budgets in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere on this embattled planet. In fact, last year, 12 of the 15 largest military spenders topped their 2021 outlays.

None of that is good news. Still, it goes without saying that one country overshadowed all the rest — and you know just which one I mean. At $877 billion last year (not including the funds “invested” in its intelligence agencies and what’s still known as “the Department of Homeland Security”), the U.S. military budget once again left the others in the dust. Keep in mind that, according to SIPRI, Pentagon spending, heading for a trillion dollars in the near future, represented a staggering 39% of all (yes, all!) global military spending last year. That’s more than the next 11 largest military budgets combined. (And that is up from nine not so long ago.) Keep in mind as well that, despite such funding, we’re talking about a military, as I pointed out recently, which hasn’t won a war of significance since 1945.

With that in mind, let Pentagon experts and TomDispatch regulars William Hartung and Ben Freeman explain how we’ve reached such a perilous point from the time in 1961 when a former five-star general, then president, warned his fellow citizens of the dangers of endlessly overfunding the — a term he invented — military-industrial complex. Now, let Hartung and Freeman explore how, more than six decades later, that very complex reigns supreme. Tom

Unwarranted Influence, Twenty-First-Century-Style

Not Your Grandfather’s Military-Industrial Complex

The military-industrial complex (MIC) that President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned Americans about more than 60 years ago is still alive and well. In fact, it’s consuming many more tax dollars and feeding far larger weapons producers than when Ike raised the alarm about the “unwarranted influence” it wielded in his 1961 farewell address to the nation.

The statistics are stunning. This year’s proposed budget for the Pentagon and nuclear weapons work at the Department of Energy is $886 billion — more than twice as much, adjusted for inflation, as at the time of Eisenhower’s speech. The Pentagon now consumes more than half the federal discretionary budget, leaving priorities like public health, environmental protection, job training, and education to compete for what remains. In 2020, Lockheed Martin received $75 billion in Pentagon contracts, more than the entire budget of the State Department and the Agency for International Development combined.

This year’s spending just for that company’s overpriced, underperforming F-35 combat aircraft equals the full budget of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And as a new report from the National Priorities Project at the Institute for Policy Studies revealed recently, the average taxpayer spends $1,087 per year on weapons contractors compared to $270 for K-12 education and just $6 for renewable energy.

The list goes on — and on and on. President Eisenhower characterized such tradeoffs in a lesser known speech, “The Chance for Peace,” delivered in April 1953, early in his first term, this way: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children…”

How sadly of this moment that is.

New Rationales, New Weaponry

Now, don’t be fooled. The current war machine isn’t your grandfather’s MIC, not by a country mile. It receives far more money and offers far different rationales. It has far more sophisticated tools of influence and significantly different technological aspirations.

Perhaps the first and foremost difference between Eisenhower’s era and ours is the sheer size of the major weapons firms. Before the post-Cold War merger boom of the 1990s, there were dozens of significant defense contractors. Now, there are just five big (no, enormous!) players — Boeing, General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon. With so few companies to produce aircraft, armored vehicles, missile systems, and nuclear weapons, the Pentagon has ever more limited leverage in keeping them from overcharging for products that don’t perform as advertised. The Big Five alone routinely split more than $150 billion in Pentagon contracts annually, or nearly 20% of the total Pentagon budget. Altogether, more than half of the department’s annual spending goes to contractors large and small.

In Eisenhower’s day, the Soviet Union, then this country’s major adversary, was used to justify an ever larger, ever more permanent arms establishment. Today’s “pacing threat,” as the Pentagon calls it, is China, a country with a far larger population, a far more robust economy, and a far more developed technical sector than the Soviet Union ever had. But unlike the USSR, China’s primary challenge to the United States is economic, not military.

Yet, as Dan Grazier noted in a December 2022 report for the Project on Government Oversight, Washington’s ever more intense focus on China has been accompanied by significant military threat inflation. While China hawks in Washington wring their hands about that country having more naval vessels than America, Grazier points out that our Navy has far more firepower. Similarly, the active American nuclear weapons stockpile is roughly nine times as large as China’s and the Pentagon budget three times what Beijing spends on its military, according to the latest figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

But for Pentagon contractors, Washington’s ever more intense focus on the prospect of war with China has one overriding benefit: it’s fabulous for business. The threat of China’s military, real or imagined, continues to be used to justify significant increases in military spending, especially on the next generation of high-tech systems ranging from hypersonic missiles to robotic weapons and artificial intelligence. The history of such potentially dysfunctional high-tech systems, from President Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” missile defense system to the F-35, does not bode well, however, for the cost or performance of emerging military technologies.

No matter, count on one thing: tens, if not hundreds, of billions of dollars will undoubtedly go into developing them anyway. And remember that they are dangerous and not just to any enemy. As Michael Klare pointed out in an Arms Control Association report: “AI-enabled systems may fail in unpredictable ways, causing unintended human slaughter or an uncontrolled escalation crisis.”

Arsenal of Influence

Despite a seemingly neverendinglist of overpriced, underperforming weapons systems developed for a Pentagon that’s the only federal agency never to pass an audit, the MIC has an arsenal of influence propelling it ever closer to a trillion-dollar annual budget. In short, it’s bilking more money from taxpayers than ever before and just about everyone — from lobbyists galore to countless political campaigns, think tanks beyond number to Hollywood — is in on it.

And keep in mind that the dominance of a handful of mega-firms in weapons production means that each of the top players has more money to spread around in lobbying and campaign contributions. They also have more facilities and employees to point to, often in politically key states, when persuading members of Congress to vote for — Yes!– even more money for their weaponry of choice.

The arms industry as a whole has donated more than $83 million to political candidates in the past two election cycles, with Lockheed Martin leading the pack with $9.1 million in contributions, followed by Raytheon at $8 million, and Northrop Grumman at $7.7 million. Those funds, you won’t be surprised to learn, are heavily concentrated among members of the House and Senate armed services committees and defense appropriations subcommittees. For example, as Taylor Giorno of OpenSecrets, a group that tracks campaign and lobbying expenditures, has found, “The 58 members of the House Armed Services Committee reported receiving an average of $79,588 from the defense sector during the 2022 election cycle, three times the average $26,213 other representatives reported through the same period.”

Lobbying expenditures by all the denizens of the MIC are even higher — more than $247 million in the last two election cycles. Such funds are used to employ 820 lobbyists, or more than one for every member of Congress. And mind you, more than two-thirds of those lobbyists had swirled through Washington’s infamous revolving door from jobs at the Pentagon or in Congress to lobby for the arms industry. Their contacts in government and knowledge of arcane acquisition procedures help ensure that the money keeps flowing for more guns, tanks, ships and missiles. Just last month, the office of Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) reported that nearly 700 former high-ranking government officials, including former generals and admirals, now work for defense contractors. While a few of them are corporate board members or highly paid executives, 91% of them became Pentagon lobbyists, according to the report.

And that feverishly spinning revolving door provides current members of Congress, their staff, and Pentagon personnel with a powerful incentive to play nice with those giant contractors while still in their government roles. After all, a lucrative lobbying career awaits once they leave government service.

Nor is it just K Street lobbying jobs those weapons-making corporations are offering. They’re also spreading jobs to nearly every Main Street in America. The poster child for such jobs as a selling point for an otherwise questionable weapons system is Lockheed Martin’s F-35. It may never be fully ready for combat thanks to countless design flaws, including more than 800 unresolved defects detected by the Pentagon’s independent testing office. But the company insists that its program produces no less than 298,000 jobs in 48 states, even if the actual total is less than half of that.

In reality — though you’d never know this in today’s Washington — the weapons sector is a declining industry when it comes to job creation, even if it does absorb near-record levels of government funding. According to statistics gathered by the National Defense Industrial Association, there are currently one million direct jobs in arms manufacturing compared to 3.2 million in the 1980s.

Outsourcing, automation, and the production of fewer units of more complex systems have skewed the workforce toward better-paying engineering jobs and away from production work, a shift that has come at a high price. The vacuuming up of engineering and scientific talent by weapons makers means fewer skilled people are available to address urgent problems like public health and the climate crisis. Meanwhile, it’s estimated that spending on education, green energy, health care, or infrastructure could produce 40% to 100% more jobs than Pentagon spending does.

Shaping the Elite Narrative: The Military-Industrial Complex and Think Tanks

One of the MIC’s most powerful tools is its ability to shape elite discussions on national security issues by funding foreign policy think tanks, along with affiliated analysts who are all too often the experts of choice when it comes to media coverage on issues of war and peace. A forthcoming Quincy Institute brief reveals that more than 75% of the top foreign-policy think tanks in the United States are at least partially funded by defense contractors. Some, like the Center for a New American Security and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, receive millions of dollars every year from such contractors and then publish articles and reports that are largely supportive of defense-industry funding.

Some such think tanks even offer support for weapons made by their funders without disclosing those glaring conflicts of interest. For example, an American Enterprise Institute (AEI) scholar’s critique of this year’s near-historically high Pentagon budget request, which, she claimed, was “well below inflation,” also included support for increased funding for a number of weapons systems like the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile, the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile, the B-21 bomber, and the Sentinel intercontinental ballistic missile.

What’s not mentioned in the piece? The companies that build those weapons, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, have been AEI funders. Although that institute is a “dark money” think tank that doesn’t publicly disclose its funders, at an event last year, a staffer let slip that the organization receives money from both of those contractors.

Unfortunately, mainstream media outlets disproportionately rely on commentary from experts at just such think tanks. That forthcoming Quincy Institute report, for example, found that they were more than four times as likely as those without MIC funding to be cited in New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal articles about the Ukraine War. In short, when you see a think-tank expert quoted on questions of war and peace, odds are his or her employer receives money from the war machine.

What’s more, such think tanks have their own version of a feverishly spinning revolving door, earning them the moniker “holding tanks” for future government officials. The Center for a New American Security, for example, receives millions of dollars from defense contractors and the Pentagon every year and has boasted that a number of its experts and alumni joined the Biden administration, including high-ranking political appointees at the Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency.

Shaping the Public Narrative: The Military-Entertainment Complex

Top Gun: Maverick was a certified blockbuster, wowing audiences that ultimately gave that action film an astounding 99% score on Rotten Tomatoes — and such popular acclaim helped earn the movie a Best Picture Oscar nomination. It was also a resounding success for the Pentagon, which worked closely with the filmmakers and provided, “equipment — including jets and aircraft carriers — personnel and technical expertise,” and even had the opportunity to make script revisions, according to the Washington Post. Defense contractors were similarly a pivotal part of that movie’s success. In fact, the CEO of Lockheed Martin boasted that his firm “partnered with Top Gun’s producers to bring cutting-edge, future forward technology to the big screen.”

While Top Gun: Maverick might have been the most successful recent product of the military-entertainment complex, it’s just the latest installment in a long history of Hollywood spreading military propaganda. “The Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency have exercised direct editorial control over more than 2,500 films and television shows,” according to Professor Roger Stahl, who researches propaganda and state violence at the University of Georgia.

“The result is an entertainment culture rigged to produce relatively few antiwar movies and dozens of blockbusters that glorify the military,” explained journalist David Sirota, who has repeatedlycalled attention to the perils of the military-entertainment complex. “And save for filmmakers’ obligatory thank you to the Pentagon in the credits,” argued Sirota, “audiences are rarely aware that they may be watching government-subsidized propaganda.”

What Next for the MIC?

More than 60 years after Eisenhower identified the problem and gave it a name, the military-industrial complex continues to use its unprecedented influence to corrupt budget and policy processes, starve funding for non-military solutions to security problems, and ensure that war is the ever more likely “solution” to this country’s problems. The question is: What can be done to reduce its power over our lives, our livelihoods, and ultimately, the future of the planet?

Countering the modern-day military-industrial complex would mean dislodging each of the major pillars undergirding its power and influence. That would involve campaign-finance reform; curbing the revolving door between the weapons industry and government; shedding more light on its funding of political campaigns, think tanks, and Hollywood; and prioritizing investments in the jobs of the future in green technology and public health instead of piling up ever more weapons systems. Most important of all, perhaps, a broad-based public education campaign is needed to promote more realistic views of the challenge posed by China and to counter the current climate of fear that serves the interests of the Pentagon and the giant weapons contractors at the expense of the safety and security of the rest of us.

That, of course, would be no small undertaking, but the alternative — an ever-spiraling arms race that could spark a world-ending conflict or prevent us from addressing existential threats like climate change and pandemics — is simply unacceptable.

How the Saudi lobby wields power in Washington

Princess Reema bint Bandar Al-Saud, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the U.S., was on the hot seat. In early March 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic swept the world, oil prices collapsed and a price war broke out between Saudi Arabia and Russia, leaving American oil and gas companies feeling the pain. As oil prices plummeted, Republican senators from oil-producing states turned their ire directly on Saudi Arabia. Forget that civil war in Yemen — what about fossil-fuel profits here at home?

To address their concerns, Ambassador Bandar Al-Saud agreed to speak with a group of them in a March 18th conference call — and found herself instantly in the firing line, as senator after senator berated her for the Kingdom's role in slashing global oil prices. "Texas is mad," Senator Ted Cruz bluntly stated. As the ambassador tried to respond, Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan retorted, "With all due respect, I don't want to hear any talking points from you until you hear from all [of us], I think there's 11 or 12 on the call."

The Saudi lobby in Washington was similarly flailing in its reaction to the anger on Capitol Hill. Hogan Lovells, one of the Kingdom's top lobbying firms in the nation's capital, was spearheading the response, emailing staffers in the offices of more than 30 members of Congress. Its message couldn't have been clearer: "Saudi Arabia has not, and will not, seek to intentionally damage U.S. shale oil producers."

However, its efforts were apparently falling on deaf ears, as some of Washington's most-lobbied policymakers remained furious at Riyadh for slashing oil prices. Even after being personally phoned four times by Hogan Lovells lobbyists between March and April, according to a Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) filing made by the firm, Senator Sullivan called for the Trump administration to place tariffs on Saudi oil imports. Other Republican senators, who had previously supported billions of dollars in arms sales to the Kingdom, now threatened to upend the entire American alliance with Saudi Arabia. North Dakota Senator Kevin Cramer, for instance, warned that the Kingdom's "next steps will determine whether our strategic partnership is salvageable."

That spring oil dispute was far from the first setback the Saudi lobby had faced in Washington in recent years. From the disastrous Saudi war in Yemen to the brutal murder and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, Congress had ample reason to turn its back on that country. Perhaps not so surprisingly, then, in a series of bipartisan bills that passed the House and the Senate, Congress sought to end America's military involvement in the Saudi-led coalition's brutal war in Yemen and halt arms sales to the Kingdom. Fortunately for the Saudi lobby, it had President Donald Trump, long wooed by the Kingdom's royals in the most personal of ways, as a safety net to veto those bills and protect them from punishment for their many misdeeds.

Yet, in 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic ravaged America, it became increasingly clear that Trump's reelection prospects were dimming and, with them, that guarantee of eternal protection.

And so, the question arose: What was an authoritarian government with oodles of lobbying money but dwindling influence in Washington to do as the prospect of a Joe Biden presidency and a Democratic Congress rose? The answer, it turned out, was to move its influence operation from the Beltway to the heartland.

The Saudis Shift to the States

Since becoming ambassador in February 2019, Princess Bandar Al-Saud found herself spending ever more time with people outside the Beltway, particularly in states that were reputed to have deep ties to Saudi Arabia. From Maine to Iowa to Alaska, the Saudi ambassador began a campaign of courting Main Street America.

In July 2020, she spoke at a virtual event hosted by the Greater Des Moines Partnership, the Des Moines International Trade Council, and the Iowa Economic Development Authority. In attendance were many prominent local business leaders like Craig Hill of the Iowa Farm Bureau and Jay Byers, CEO of the Greater Des Moines Partnership. The event also included some modest star-power, featuring a speech by Hall Delano Roosevelt, the grandson of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the CEO of the U.S.-Saudi Business Council. (He would soon after publish an op-ed in a Maine newspaper urging local lobstermen to build ties with the Kingdom.)

Not surprisingly, the main focus of Ambassador Bandar Al-Saud's speech was "the importance of the 75-year relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States." She also highlighted major changes she claimed were underway in Saudi Arabia, thanks to that country's "Vision 2030," a plan sponsored by Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, also known as MBS, the son of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and the power behind the throne there. At least in theory, Vision 2030 was aimed at modernizing and diversifying Saudi Arabia's oil-based economy.

Such presentations by the ambassador would soon become a pattern. She would, for instance, make a similar argument later in 2020 to Iowa's Siouxland Chamber of Commerce's Women Mentoring and Networking Committee.

And it wasn't just Iowa. She began giving similar speeches across the country. In July, she spoke at a virtual event hosted by the Maine World Affairs Council. It would be attended by more than 70 members of the Maine business community and former Democratic Congressman Mike Michaud. In early October, again virtually, she addressed the Wyoming Global Technology Summit and more than 80 business and political leaders. They included Governor Mark Gordon (whom she even gifted with two pieces of art) and Cynthia Lummis, who, the next month, would be elected to the Senate. Later in October, the princess would speak to more than 50 local business leaders at the Alaska World Affairs Council.

Ambassador Bandar Al-Saud's road show would only sweep on, right past the election and inauguration of President Joe Biden. In late January, she would be at the World Affairs Council in Dallas/Fort Worth and, in March, the Houston World Affairs Council. As always, attending would be business leaders from the area, including (you won't be surprised to learn) prominent oil executives. Whatever local issues she might focus on in such talks, the ambassador always kept the main focus on the splendors of MBS's Vision 2030 plan and just how important it was to strengthen the decades-long relationship between the two countries.

Oh yes, and each of these events had one other thing in common: they were all organized and promoted by Saudi Arabia's registered foreign agents.

Despite appearances, such events weren't the product of meticulous planning by Saudi diplomats or Ambassador Bandar Al-Saud herself. Instead, the Saudis have done what many foreign governments do here to make their message heard. They hired lobbyists and public relations firms. In this case, one firm has largely been responsible for the way the Saudis have gotten the word out so far beyond the Beltway: the Larson Shannahan Slifka Group.

Also known as LS2, Larson Shannahan Slifka describes itself as a "bipartisan public relations, government affairs, public affairs, and marketing firm headquartered in Des Moines, Iowa." It boasts an impressive collection of clients, including Walmart and the Ford Motor Company. Absent from its website, however, is any hint of the extraordinary amount of work it's done to boost the Saudis nationally since signing a contract with the Kingdom in November 2019 worth $126,500 a month. In its FARA filings, that firm has reported conducting more than 1,600 political activities on behalf of the Saudis — more, that is, than all the other firms working for the Saudis combined in 2020, according to a soon-to-be-released report on the Saudi lobby from the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy, where we work.

Add in one more factor: unlike other firms that lobby for Saudi Arabia, LS2's work has taken place almost exclusively outside of Washington, D.C. They've reached a remarkably sweeping set of state and local influencers on behalf of the Saudi royals, including small businesses, local politicians, nonprofit companies, small-town media outlets, synagogues, and even high-school students.

And whether any of those Americans realized it or not, they were being swept up in a campaign to give the Saudis local clout nationally and so pave the way for a Saudi public relations rehabilitation campaign in Washington, D.C., itself.

Creating American Grassroots for a Gulf Monarchy

There's a fairly simple pattern to the way the Saudi lobby has been wooing the states to woo Washington. First, Larson Shannahan Slifka launches a local campaign, including hundreds of calls and emails to state legislators, chambers of commerce, university professors, small businesses, and just about anything or anyone you can imagine in between. Some of those ties, in turn, create opportunities for influential media moments such as, for example, when Saudi embassy spokesman Fahad Nazer — a former FARA-registered Saudi agent — conducted interviews with South Dakota Public Radio last October and Michigan's Big Show this February.

Other lobbying activities have led to crucial Saudi outreach events, filling the seats (or Zoom invites) at think-tank discussions, business forums, or even interfaith dialogues. For example, when Ambassador Bandar Al-Saud delivered a keynote "fireside chat" at the annual Wyoming Global Technology Summit, John Temte, who leads the business network that hosts the forum, introduced the princess and moderated the question-and-answer discussion, a role likely arranged in the course of LS2's six calls and emails to him over the preceding two weeks. Five days later, addressing the Siouxland Chamber of Commerce's Women Mentoring and Networking Committee, the ambassador was introduced by Linda Kalin, the director of the Iowa Poison Control center, and another frequent LS2 contact. In this way, the firm effectively continues to turn local entrepreneurs and public-health officials into community ambassadors for the Kingdom.

And understand this as well: such events aren't just a way for Saudi bureaucrats to meet local business leaders. They also provide the perfect opportunity for Saudi-backed lobbyists to begin rebuilding ties in Washington hurt by those falling oil prices, the devastating civil war in Yemen, and the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. Consider this the second part of the Kingdom's faux-grassroots campaign and, for this, one of the Saudis' key lobbying groups in Washington, Hogan Lovells, took over.

Its relationship with Saudi Arabia can be traced back at least to 1976 when the firm's predecessor, Hogan and Hartson, first signed a contract with the Kingdom. Now, in addition to spinning a Saudi narrative about the disastrous war in Yemen, that firm has been working to convert LS2's state and local efforts into political capital in Congress. Armed with glowing one-page summaries of such dialogues from Maine to Alaska, the firm has been promoting a vision of grassroots American support for the U.S.-Saudi relationship inside the Beltway. The event descriptions it sends around highlight many of the same people that Larson Shannahan Slifka had first contacted.

Its emails are tailored to each Congressional office it contacts, mentioning issues and local stakeholders relevant to the intended senators and House members. For example, an email to the staff of Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine touted Bandar Al-Saud's July forum at that state's World Affairs Council, described the ambassador's interest in a Saudi contemporary art exhibit displayed by local Bates College, and noted that former Democratic Congressman Mike Michaud attended the event. This February, after Bandar Al-Saud addressed the World Affairs Council of Greater Houston, Hogan Lovells emailed Republican Senator John Cornyn's office to underscore her remarks on U.S.-Saudi cooperation on energy, technology, and space exploration in his home state.

While describing audiences in such local forums as responding with "overwhelmingly positive feedback" to the Kingdom's messaging, one key fact is always omitted: that the events themselves were orchestrated by the Saudi lobby. Reading the glossy accounts of them, members of Congress and their staff normally have no idea that the meetings — and not just the press releases they're receiving — were products of that very lobby. In other words, by omitting such details, the Saudi lobby has effectively launched an astroturfing campaign to influence Congress when it comes to future relations with the Kingdom.

The Consequences

Of course, there's nothing new about such lobbyists hired by foreign countries touting trade with the U.S. or anything necessarily unethical about promoting such ties. However, even as the Saudi lobby has eagerly peddled a rose-tinted story of the Kingdom's increasingly diversified economy, expanding women's rights, and exciting tourism opportunities (despite the pandemic moment), policymakers and the media that cover them should remember that such a narrative is, at the very least (and to put the matter as politely as possible), incomplete.

While, in the context of Prince Salman's Vision 2030 plan, selling future economic opportunities to Iowa farmers, South Dakota manufacturers, and Maine lobstermen, LS2, Hogan Lovells, and other such firms ignore the most crucial aspects of the U.S-Saudi relationship in the present moment: the staggering levels of U.S. arms sales to the Kingdom, the devastating war in Yemen that Prince Salman and crew continue to fight, the targeting of Saudi dissidents and women's rights groups, and MBS's complicity in the brutal murder of Khashoggi (as laid out recently in an intelligence report released by the Biden administration). These are real-world consequences of a partnership that has often escaped serious scrutiny, shielded by past presidents of both parties more concerned with protecting access to cheap oil and combating their definition of terrorism.

By enlisting trusted community members across the U.S. to help peddle the best possible version of the Kingdom, the Saudi lobby has given its brand a homegrown, American-as-apple-pie shine. At a moment when the Biden administration and Congress are weighing the future of the U.S.-Saudi partnership, the value of such an image shouldn't be underestimated. As lawmakers look more skeptically at claims that American and Saudi security interests are still aligned, the Saudi lobby promises shared future profits in factsheets and emails that hail the historic trade ties between Michigan and Saudi Arabia or characterize the Kingdom as "South Dakota's fastest growing export partner."

In reality, however, even if a promised future economic boom between the two countries were to materialize, it would hardly ameliorate the Kingdom's many negatives, from the catastrophic famine it continues to stoke in Yemen to its blatant human rights violations. Members of Congress and local public servants alike should beware. What may seem like a spreading grassroots show of support for the Kingdom could, in fact, be just another mirage in the desert.

Copyright 2021 Brian Steiner, Leila Riazi, and Ben Freeman

Ben Freeman is the director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy (CIP) and author of a report on the Saudi lobby that will be released in early May 2021.

Brian Steiner is a researcher with the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative (FITI) at the Center for International Policy.

Leila Riazi is a researcher with the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative (FITI) at the Center for International Policy.

The foreign-policy money trail in Washington: How Middle Eastern powers fund government think tanks — and influence US legislation

The 2016 elections awakened Americans to a startling reality: the country’s political system is ripe for foreign interference. The Russians took full advantage of social media with bot armies and through unregistered foreign agents. While their influence garnered considerable attention and has led to increased enforcement of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), one area has remained largely off the congressional and media radar screens. Yet it remains a vital part of the way other governments try to influence policy in this country: the foreign funding of think tanks.

Keep reading...Show less

Here's How Saudi Money Keeps Washington at War in Yemen

It was May 2017. The Saudis were growing increasingly nervous. For more than two years they had been relying heavily on U.S. military support and bombs to defeat Houthi rebels in Yemen. Now, the Senate was considering a bipartisan resolution to cut off military aid and halt a big sale of American-made bombs to Saudi Arabia. Fortunately for them, despite mounting evidence that the U.S.-backed, supplied, and fueled air campaign in Yemen was targeting civilians, the Saudi government turned out to have just the weapon needed to keep those bombs and other kinds of aid coming their way: an army of lobbyists.

Keep reading...Show less

Here's How Saudi Arabia Took Donald Trump for a Ride

It’s another Trump affair -- this time without the allegations of sexual harassment (and worse), the charges and counter-charges, the lawsuits, and all the rest. So it hasn’t gotten the sort of headlines that Stormy Daniels has garnered, but when it comes to influence, American foreign policy, and issues of peace and war, it couldn’t matter more or be a bigger story (or have more money or lobbyists involved in it). Think of it as the great love affair of the age of Trump, the one between The Donald and the Saudi royals. And if there’s any place to start laying out the story, it’s naturally at a wedding, in this case in a tragic ceremony that happened to take place in Yemen, not Washington.

Keep reading...Show less
@2022 - AlterNet Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. - "Poynter" fonts provided by