Winning over the Washington policy establishment is an art mastered by certain clever foreigners over the years. It requires basic charm and wit, a convincing narrative, understanding the Beltway worldview, mastering its lingo and skills to communicate it effectively. After fulfilling their agenda in the U.S. capital, these masters often move on and evolve according to political convenience, even turning on their friends in Washington if required.
An outstanding example is Ahmed Chalabi, whose influence was critical to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. He also raised millions of dollars from American taxpayers for his Iraqi National Congress. Now back in his native-Iraq, this Macchiavellian political survivor has re-invented himself as a staunch Shiite advocate and close ally of Iran. A sense of betrayal overwhelms many of his original supporters in Washington.
Another recent convert to the chameleon cause is Anwar Ibrahim. From 1993-98, Mr. Anwar served as Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia. After losing a power struggle with Prime Minister Mahatir Mohamad, Anwar was removed from power and imprisoned. During his years of incarceration, Anwar became a cause célèbre for human rights advocates. After his release in 2004, Anwar hit the international circuit, which included stints at the World Bank and lecturing positions at Oxford University, Johns Hopkins and Georgetown. His official bio on one website described him as “one of the forefathers of the Asian Renaissance”, “a leading proponent of greater cooperation among civilizations” and “an authoritative voice in bridging the gap between East and West.”
Anwar has returned to Malaysian politics and serves in the opposition. While the foreign policy of Malaysia’s current government is fairly in tune with U.S. and western policy, Anwar has decided that pro-Western sentiment does not serve his current political interests. He has begun preaching a conspiratorial rhetoric of anti-American and anti-Semitic nature. Particularly since the Malaysian government hired an American communications firm, Anwar has suggested that Israeli spies are directly involved in the running of the Malaysian government. He claims that the recent meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia was arranged by the influential “Jewish-linked” company which has resulted in Malaysia subservience to the U.S.
These statements will obviously shock Mr. Anwar’s supporters in the West, which include former Vice President Al Gore. They will provoke questions: have Anwar’s words been taken out of context? Perhaps they can be subject to interpretation? Is one failing to read between the lines?
Anwar’s statements are blatantly clear and direct. His rhetoric represents an unmistakable case of raw political opportunism and much more. Although opportunism is an inevitable fact of politics, it also has its limits. Particularly when degenerating into unacceptable demagoguery with obvious racist overtones.
How did Anwar’s transformation from reformer to rabble-rouse occur? The reality is that he probably always held these views. Over the years, he just simply tailored his message to different audiences according to necessity. After all, Anwar served for five years as Deputy Prime Minister to Mahatir Mohamad, renowned for his anti-Western and anti-Semitic tirades. This alone should have immediately raised red flags and serious questions about his ideological allegiances. It is not uncommon for the Washington establishment to be ill-informed, naively overlook significant facts, or willingly brush them aside. In the international realm, the Beltway Bubble often prevails.
In future, greater caution and prudence is required when endorsing foreign champions, particularly those eagerly preaching a message favorable to Washington. Furthermore, the tendency to confer automatic sainthood and infallibility on the persecuted, or those claiming persecution, must be tempered. Pry more and do not give an easy ride. After all, Washington will inevitably see the likes of more Chalabis and Anwars.
Marco Vicenzino is director of the Global Strategy Project in Washington, D.C. He provides global political risk analysis for corporations and regular commentary on foreign affairs for publications/media outlets worldwide. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.