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reflections

Nov 24, 2016 | 02:10 GMT

Lobbying for a Say in U.S. Foreign Policy

Lobbying for a Say in U.S. Foreign Policy
(MARK WILSON/Getty Images)
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump's mission to "drain the swamp" of lobbyists has come under increasing scrutiny over the past few weeks. But lobbying has already begun to gradually decline in the United States in recent years. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that has monitored domestic lobbying activities since 1998, the amount of money spent on lobbying in the United States peaked in 2009 at $3.5 billion. That figure has slowly dropped ever since, amounting to only $2.36 billion in 2016 as the year wraps up. Similarly, the number of lobbyists in the country has fallen, from 14,882 at its height in 2007 to only 10,882 today. The industry will no doubt continue to see cutbacks under the next administration, given Trump's vocal disdain for lobbyists, as well as his stated intent to impose a lifetime ban on executive officials lobbying on behalf of foreign governments and a five-year ban on executive officials who become lobbyists after leaving their government posts.

Naturally, much of the scrutiny trickling out of the Beltway-based media has come from those who make a living off lobbying and don't want to be the last ones standing. But there is also a growing concern that Trump — a self-ascribed "outsider" — may be depriving his administration of the tools and expertise needed to simply get things done in the bureaucratic maze of Washington. Whether that expertise should come from hired lobbyists, paid to advance special interests, or from other private-public partnerships is a legitimate question. Yet, as can already be seen in Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus' appointment as the next chief of staff, the more dramatic the policy intention, the more likely it is to eventually be tempered by reality.

Trump's war on lobbyists at home will not stop governments abroad from trying to bend his administration to their will, either. Even if formal lobbying organizations are shoved under the microscope, there are many other ways to subtly place agents of influence around high-ranking officials to try to shape policy. Trump's pick for national security adviser, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, is a case in point. Much has been made of Flynn's speech — paid for by the Kremlin — and seat next to Russian President Vladimir Putin at a banquet for Russian state-run media outlet RT last December. The event has led to speculation that Putin, through Flynn, now has the ability to sway the White House's policies in Russia's favor.

A good deal of attention has also been paid to Flynn's evolving views on Turkey and whether a lobbying contract between the Flynn Intel Group and the Dutch Inovo BV (a firm founded by the chairman of the U.S.-Turkey Business Council) has had an impact on Flynn's more recent views on U.S.-Turkey relations. Flynn has written and spoken extensively on his belief that the line between political Islam and extremism is a blurry one. According to this worldview, the United States would have reason to be wary of an Islamist leader such as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, particularly as he moves further down the path toward authoritarianism. But more recently, Flynn has publicly lauded Turkey as the United States' "strongest ally against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, as well as a source of stability in the region." He even went so far as to endorse Turkey's position that the United States should extradite Islamic cleric and alleged putschist Fethullah Gulen, likening the refusal to do so to harboring a terrorist like Osama bin Laden.

The details of lobbying contracts and dinner meetings such as Flynn's will continue to raise suspicions that Washington's foreign allies and adversaries will be able to somehow puppeteer its foreign policy at will. And certainly, efforts will be made by other governments to mold the views of the new U.S. president. But their success — and by extension, their impact on Washington's actions — may be much less dramatic than people think.

Consider Flynn. As national security adviser he will assume responsibility for decimating the most radical elements on the Islamist spectrum, including the Islamic State, regardless of how hard the Turks may try to lobby him to support their own ends. Achieving that objective will require him to maintain a strong relationship with the moderate Islamist government in Ankara, which has already established a foothold in northern Syria and is in the process of doing the same in northern Iraq. But working with Turkey does not necessarily mean subscribing to its preferred list of rebel partners, even if Ankara holds the ear of someone near the White House. At the end of the day, the United States needs its own proxies in the Middle East to fight against the Islamic State, and the Kurdish fighters Turkey so hopes to constrain will continue to belong to that group, in spite of Ankara's protests.

Meanwhile, Flynn's (and Trump's) hard-line stance toward Islamic extremists has been welcomed enthusiastically by the Israeli lobby, which hopes to persuade the next administration to adopt a much more assertive policy toward Iran than Obama's did. Yet while a Trump administration and Republican-led Congress will certainly be less tolerant of any perceived aggression or infractions by Iran, that may not translate into scrapping Washington's deal with Tehran over its nuclear program, or reopening another military front at a time when several other conflicts are consuming the United States' attention.

Russia, too, will try to exploit Flynn's contempt for Islamism for its own gain. Should the Trump administration be more selective in its support for the Syrian rebels, Washington could become more aligned with Russia — and move further apart from Turkey and its Gulf allies. But even as Washington and Moscow find some small patches of common ground on which to resume their dialogue, Russia will not expect the United States to make significant strategic concessions, especially when it comes to limiting NATO's reach in the former Soviet Union. Instead, Moscow will try to coax Washington into concessions where it can, all while proceeding apace with its own military buildup. This enduring threat will motivate the United States to keep its security umbrella in place over an increasingly fragmented Europe.

Regardless of who surrounds the next president, or which special interests get a seat at the table, there is only so much influence they can have in the face of the United States' most basic strategic interests. Lobbying, by its very nature, occurs in a vacuum where certain causes are promoted on behalf of particular parties. But U.S. foreign policy is not made in a vacuum. Competing interests overlap and collide in any number of ways, and each player involved is driven by the same goal: to maintain a balance while staying true to its own agenda. And though the Trump administration's foreign policy has not yet been made clear, it is sure to be far more complex than the result of hired lobbyists and external influencers bending the ear of a novice president.

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