The mighty dollar at Brookings


In September, news that Martin Indyk, a director of the prestigious Brookings Institution, former U.S. ambassador to Israel and U.S. Mideast peace negotiator, had accepted a $14.8 million gift from Qatar on behalf of Brookings raised the question of foreign-influence peddling in Washington.

At the time, critics of the gift pointed out that Qatar funds Islamist fighters in Syria and supports Hamas in Gaza. But Qatar, which seems to want to be friends with everyone, is also home to the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East and is one of the few Arab states with official relations with Israel (albeit at a low level). Indeed, because Qatar plays so fast and loose with its allegiances and relationships, it is sometimes difficult to tell whose side Qatar is on other than its own.
Now a recent Washington Post study raises the question of whether donor money influences the policy recommendations made by Brookings, whose reputation for academic independence and influence in setting government policy is unparalleled among think tanks.

The Post noted Brookings’ growing reliance on donations, “powered by a new era of corporate influence in Washington, in which wealthy interests outside government are looking for new avenues to reach policymakers on the inside.” It cited “a few key issue areas” in which “Brookings’s public seminars, research papers, congressional testimony and op-eds often correspond to the interests of donors.” It named “heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune” and energy companies as two groups that have made donations to Brookings programs that support their views.

Indyk, like many in Washington, appears to work through a revolving door – today, he might function as a high-level government negotiator, and tomorrow, he will appear as a high-level think-tank policy adviser, offering suggestions to the administration. Were it not for the influence of money in the process, such a state of affairs might not be so bad and would mirror the similar revolving door between government service and private enterprise that marks many other K Street industries, including law firms, lobbying shops and other influence peddlers. But things get a lot more complicated when money and outside forces influence the development and execution of America’s foreign policy – a dangerous arena, where the lives of millions are potentially at stake.

Although Indyk and others at Brookings can argue that outside funds do nothing to sway their academic judgments, the new revelations in The Post challenge that view and are troubling. One of the outcomes of the Watergate scandal more than 40 years ago was a national discussion on the limits that should be imposed on the influence of money in domestic elections. Perhaps it’s time to have a similar discussion on the propriety of foreign powers and their agents having significant influence on how the United States engages the rest of the world. Our country’s foreign policy is not for sale. We need to make sure that stays a guiding principle.

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