More Than a Good Feeling
Why are so many oligarchs, royal families, and special-interest groups giving money to the Clinton Foundation?
Here is a thought experiment that does not take very much thought. Picture, if you will, Hillary Clinton facing a foreign-policy conundrum. With whom will she discuss it first and most intently: with her president or her husband? (I did tell you that this wouldn't be difficult.) Here's another one: Will she be swayed in her foreign-policy decisions by electoral considerations focusing on the year 2012, and, if so, will she be swayed by President Barack Obama's interests or her own?
The next question, and I must apologize in advance for once again making it an un-strenuous one, is: Who else will be approaching Bill Clinton for advice, counsel, and "input" on foreign affairs? It appears from the donor list of the Clinton Foundation that there is barely an oligarch, royal family, or special-interest group anywhere in the world that does not know how to get the former president's attention. Just in the days since the foundation agreed to some disclosure of its previously "confidential" clients—in other words, since this became a condition for Sen. Clinton's nomination to become secretary of state—we have additionally found former President Clinton in warm relationships with one very questionable businessman in Malaysia and with another, this time in Nigeria, who used to have close connections with that country's ultracorrupt military dictatorship.
The Nigerian example is an especially instructive one. Gilbert Chagoury is a major figure in land and construction in that country and has contributed between $1 million and $5 million to the Clinton Foundation as well as arranged a huge speaking fee for President Clinton at a Caribbean event and kicked in a large sum to his 1996 re-election campaign. In return for this, he has been received at the Clinton White House and more recently at Clinton-sponsored social events in New York and Paris. This may have helped to alleviate the sting of Chagoury's difficulties in Nigeria itself. As a close friend of the country's uniformed despot Gen. Sani Abacha, he benefited from some extremely profitable business arrangements during the years of dictatorship but was later compelled, after an investigation of his transactions, to return an estimated $300 million to the Nigerian treasury in exchange for a plea-bargaining arrangement by which his bank accounts could be unfrozen.
Aha, you say, there's no evidence of any quid pro quo here. (Or, in other words, Chagoury gives a fortune to Clinton because he, too, wants to "fight AIDS.") Of course, this may only be seed money for a later "quid" oreven "quo" that hasn't yet materialized. And if Chagoury or anyone else had ever received the impression that the Clintons would play for pay, it's easy to see how he got the idea. (See my Nov. 24, 2008, Slate column on the investigations of the Clinton campaign-finance scandals and the shenanigans surrounding the Marc Rich pardon.)
But does a contribution to Bill Clinton's foundation get you any traction with Sen. Clinton, at least in her political and official capacity? Let's see. A recent story in the New York Times managed to begin with some very crisp and clear and fact-based paragraphs:
An upstate New York developer donated $100,000 to former President Bill Clinton's foundation in November 2004, around the same time that Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton helped secure millions of dollars in federal assistance for the businessman's mall project.
Mrs. Clinton helped enact legislation allowing the developer, Robert J. Congel, to use tax-exempt bonds to help finance the construction of the Destiny USA entertainment and shopping complex, an expansion of the Carousel Center in Syracuse.
Mrs. Clinton also helped secure a provision in a highway bill that set aside $5 million for Destiny USA roadway construction.
Why should anyone doubt, then, that in small matters as well as in large ones, the old slogan from the 1992 election still holds true? As Bill so touchingly put it that year, if you voted for him, you got "two for one." What the country—and the world—has since learned is a slight variation on that, which I would crudely phrase as "buy one, get one free."
The deal struck by the wide-eyed incoming Obama administration is that the list of donors to the Clinton Foundation will be reviewed once every year and that only the new donations from foreign states—which already include an extraordinarily large number from Gulf sheikdoms—will be scrutinized by administration lawyers. How would we react if we read that this was the rule for the Vladimir Putin government, say, or former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's regime in Germany? Before me, for example, is the report of a pledge of $100 million to the Clinton Foundation's Clinton Giustra Sustainable Growth Initiative by a set of companies based in Vancouver and known as the Lundin Group. The ostensible purpose of this mind-boggling contribution is stated in the usual vacuous terms of "sustainable local economies," chiefly in Africa. All I know for sure about the Lundin Group is that it does quite a lot of business in Sudan. And all I can think to ask—as perhaps some senator might think to ask—is why such a big corporate interest doesn't just donate the money directly, rather than distributing it through the offices of an outfit run by a seasoned ex-presidential influence-peddler. What do they and the other donors suppose they are getting for their money? A good feeling?
That was another no-brainer question I just asked. So let me stop insulting you, dear reader, and pose a question to which we do not have any obvious answer. Why is Sen. Clinton, the spouse of the great influence-peddler, being nominated in the first place? In exchange for giving the painful impression that our State Department will be an attractive destination for lobbyists and donors, what exactly are we getting? George Marshall? Dean Acheson? Even Madeleine Albright? No, we are getting a notoriously ambitious woman who made a fool of herself over Bosnia, at the time and during the recent campaign, and who otherwise has no command of foreign affairs except what she's picked up second-hand from an impeached ex-president, a disbarred lawyer, and a renter of the Lincoln Bedroom. If the Senate waves this through, it will have reinforced its recent image as the rubber-stamp chamber of a bankrupt banana republic. Not an especially good start to the brave new era.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photographs of: Bill Clinton by Mike Clarke/AFP/Getty Images; Hillary Clinton on Slate's home page by Brennan Linsley/AP Photo.