Flacking for Dictators in the 21st Century | Freedom House

Flacking for Dictators in the 21st Century

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Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasango
Photo Credit | Department of State

Back in the 1980s, a Washington attorney named Paul Reichler generated some controversy when he signed on to represent the Sandinistas in various legal conflicts with the American government. Having led a successful guerrilla war against the longtime dictator, Anastasio Somoza, the Sandinistas had quickly moved to consolidate a system akin to a Marxist one-party state. From day one, the Sandinistas embraced an anti-Yankee rhetoric and committed themselves to the anti-imperialist struggle in the Americas. The United States responded by working to undermine Sandinista rule through, among other things, supporting the insurgent movement known as the contras.

Reichler was by no means the first American to serve as a representative of an anti-democratic government. Another Washington hand, Edward von Kloberg III, flacked for Saddam Hussein, Samuel Doe, and Nicolae Ceausescu, among others. There were other lawyers and public relations people who represented various military strongmen and juntas. They apparently believed, as von Kloberg put it, that political pariahs, like criminal defendants, have a right to legal counsel. Reichler, however, was the first, or among the first, to work on behalf of an anti-democratic government that was also openly hostile to the United States.

Conditions have changed considerably since policy toward the Sandinistas roiled American politics. With the collapse of communism, there are fewer absolute dictatorships today and nothing resembling the Soviet empire. But there are still an ample number of regimes that as a matter of policy rig elections, stifle press freedom, imprison and torture critics, and treat the rule of law with contempt.

And, of course, Washington continues to boast a booming population of PR consultants who are willing to argue the case for just about any aspiring dictator or leader for life. The principal difference is while in the 1980s there was a brigade of mercenary shills in the service of regimes that ranged from distasteful to downright evil, today that brigade has metastasized into an army. An army of 21st century “image enhancement specialists,” trained to promote the interests of 21st century authoritarians.

To be sure, global politics today is less black-and-white than in the past. Aside from North Korea and Cuba, illiberal regimes have not isolated themselves from the rest of the world; in many cases, they have become important participants in the global economy. In the post-communist era there are no more “friendly dictators” favored by the American government; there are instead a sizable collection of ugly regimes that remain in good odor with the democracies for strategic and/or economic reasons. Only a handful of governments are referred to as adversaries—Iran, Syria, North Korea, Cuba—while others, like Russia, which embrace anti-Americanism as a core principle of governing strategy, are spoken of as “partners” or occasionally as “strategic allies.”

Still, there is something truly squalid in well-educated Americans—people whose successful careers have been made possible by democratic freedoms—enriching themselves by polishing the images of thoroughly objectionable regimes.

There are several features that distinguish today’s lobbying-for-dictators industry from past practices.

First, both the opportunities and the industry itself have grown exponentially. An easy majority of the countries that Freedom in the World ranks as Not Free have representatives in Washington, and some have multiple representatives: attorneys for trade issues, advertising types to prepare written propaganda, former members of Congress to explain why leaders who imprison critics are actually forward-thinking reformers.

Second, while lobbyists prefer to represent major, and wealthy, authoritarian powers—China, of course, but also energy-rich states in Eurasia and the Middle East—they are also perfectly willing to sign up with odious regimes whose strategic significance is considerably below that of Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, or Saudi Arabia. Lanny Davis, who began his political career as a reform-minded aide during George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign, has in recent years taken on as clients the former president of Côte d’Ivoire, Laurent Gbagbo (now facing charges before the International Criminal Court), and Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, the ruthless, longtime dictator of Equatorial Guinea. Prior to his downfall, Libya’s Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi employed an imposing stable of well-connected American PR specialists to interpret his policies and curry favor from politicians, academics, and the business community.

Third, despite the well-publicized polarized state of American politics, lobbying for authoritarians stands as an island of bipartisan collaboration. Thus during the furor over the Egyptian authorities’ raid on American NGO offices (Freedom House among them), the Egyptian justification of the affair was relayed to members of Congress by a lobbying coalition that included former Republican Representative Bob Livingstone and former Democratic Representative Toby Moffett. The lobbying entity, the PLM Group, insisted that it had done nothing more than deliver Egyptian government talking points to Capitol Hill. Eventually, the PLM Group found it necessary to end its contract with Egypt due to the controversy.

Finally, lobbying today is distinguished by its “holistic” quality. Where in the past it was sufficient to twist the arms of critically placed congressional committee chairmen and newspaper editorialists, in today’s environment it is imperative to cast a much wider net. Given the enhanced importance of social science research on issues like economic liberalization, corruption, and gender equality, forward-looking despots will seek to broaden their lobby campaigns to include academic specialists, think tank intellectuals, and diaspora communities. This is a dimension of authoritarian lobbying that is particularly worrying. While we’re accustomed to a cynical view of the legislative process, we assume that the conclusions that emerge from university campuses and research institutes reflect the honest judgments of experts. In fact, forces that range from Arab royalty to Eurasian potentates are shoveling millions of dollars into universities while China is establishing Confucius Institutes, designed to convey Beijing’s version of events, on campuses throughout the world.

The prospect of a more sophisticated version of PR influence peddling working its way into the educational system of the democracies is troubling. There will be more on this subject in this space in future weeks.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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