Together, we have supported WESPAC through its 45th anniversary! Inspired by our rich history, and proud of our nurturing role, WESPAC serves a unique role as a hub for progressive organizing in the county. We connect people with each other, support a wide range of campaigns and strengthen movement building locally by developing long term relationships with grassroots leaders, workers and environmental groups.
Some of the highlights of this past year include our annual awards dinner with Marc Lamont Hill. His theme “radical imagination” explored the need for progressives to rise above social inhibitions and imagine true freedom, including freedom for Palestinians. He urged us to channel the bravery of abolitionists and enslaved “freedom fighters”:
“What happens to our politics when they get tested? What happens when something is on the line. When the job promotion is on the line, when your friendship network is on the line, when your TV job is on the line, … what are you going to sacrifice, what are you going to put aside for justice?”
Another highlight from this past year was the Westchester Social Forum. WESPAC continues to play a lead role in organizing the Westchester Social Forum, an annual gathering of social justice activists which grew out of the World Social Forum process, bringing together activists, organizers, people of color, working people, poor people, and indigenous people with the goal of building ties between organizations to help build a broader social justice movement.
Hundreds of Westchester activists and visionaries gathered in March to exchange ideas and information, foster solidarity and celebrate our work to create a more just and equal society. The current political climate has energized both seasoned and new activists who are working to build alliances and find solutions to pressing local issues.
WESPAC continues to work in coalition for racial equity and criminal justice reform with #FREEnewyork,Start SMART NY and the Antiracist Alliance; for renewable, safe energy and urgent climate action with Food and Water Watch, for immigrant protection with the New York Immigration Coalition, . WESPAC is also playing a key role in standing up for the civil and constitutional rights of all those who speak out for Palestinian freedom.
This past year, we have worked together with community partners to show up for our progressive values, as we experience increased levels of repression from the federal government, as we witness growing threats to the wellbeing of the planet and our communities, as profit is placed over people and land, and corporations, not people, control our democracy.
WESPAC continues to serve as a leading force for progressive social change in Westchester. We continue to educate and organize for a more just and peaceful world, an end to militarism and racism and a more fair economy that works for all. Our members continue to advocate for public policies that support immigrant rights, public education, worker rights, affordable housing, safe & renewable energy, LGBTQ rights and healthcare for all.
The only way we can continue our work is with your help. Dues are $100 per person annually, or $50 for students and persons with a fixed income. We are grateful for all levels of support and no one is turned away for lack of funds. Volunteer hours are welcome in lieu of payment and can be arranged with the office. Please make your tax-deductible contribution today via the donate button at wespac.org or by check in the enclosed envelope. We are asking for all dues to be received by September 30th.
We are proud of the role we play as a hub for grassroots organizing with a mission to strengthen movement building in the promotion of human rights and self-determination for all communities. We need your support now more than ever to make this cherished community institution stronger!
For the WESPAC Community,
Nada Khader, WESPAC Director
PS. Every tax-deductible donation you make goes directly to our critical work for social justice and peace. Please like our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter!
On September 20 people everywhere will walk out of their homes and workplaces to join young strikers in the streets. We know governments won’t deliver climate action and justice on their own, so we’re going on #ClimateStrike to show them what people power is capable of. #StrikeWithUs ClimateStrikeNYC.net
WESPAC is organizing a solidarity contingent to participate in the historic youth organized NYC Climate Strike on Friday, September 20th with Greta Thunberg who has just arrived in NYC from Sweden in an emission free racing yacht as she plans to speak at the UN on the urgency of climate change and the need to take action.
WESPAC Board Member Delia Marx will be our point person for the WESPAC solidarity contingent. On Friday, September 20th, she and others will catch the 10:41am train from White Plains arriving at Grand Central at 11:28am to then take the subway down to Foley Square which is the starting point for the Climate Strike. Please email Delia if you would like to be part of our contingent at [email protected]. If you are coming down on a separate train line and would like to ride down to Foley Square together, please let Delia know so that we can have a designated meeting point at Grand Central.
In the US, youth and adults, institutional and grassroots organizations, climate-focused and social justice groups, are coming together as a unified front to demand the change we need to save our future. The youth have been leading the way and demanding bolder action, and now it’s time for everyone else to back them up.
To accomplish this, a youth climate strike coalition has come together to collaborate on the campaign. The youth strike coalition, coordinated by Future Coalition, includes national youth-led groups such as Zero Hour, Earth Uprising, Fridays For Future USA, Sunrise, US Youth Climate Strike, and Extinction Rebellion Youth.
The climate crisis is the largest threat of our time, and we’re counting on our collective power to demand immediate and decisive action. This is our opportunity to move beyond the traditional climate bubble and expand the table of who is involved in this movement. It is time to lift up the voices and stories of young people on the frontlines of this crisis and ensure we are creating an intergenerational and intersectional climate justice movement. To join the New York Climate Strike, please click here.
WESPAC has confirmed a coach bus for the Saturday, September 21st March in Washington, DC https://wethepeoplemarch.org/. We are departing from the North White Plains train station (free parking all day located at 1 Haarlem Avenue in North White Plains, NY 10603) promptly at 6am and leaving DC to return the same day at 5pm.
We have already received requests for discount tickets. If you are not able to travel but would like to help a student, fixed income or unemployed attend, please make your contribution here: https://wespac.org/donate/ and write Sept. 21 bus to DC in the memo section. You may also send in a check to WESPAC Foundation, 77 Tarrytown Rd, Suite 2W White Plains, NY 10607.
On Monday, May 13 2019, advocates from around the state will be gathering in Albany for the NYCLU’s statewide Day of Action. Register NOW to be at the forefront of transforming New York’s policies. We are showing up to demand a New York that protects the civil liberties of all New Yorkers.
Our Day of Action is a great way to get involved in the legislative and advocacy work of the NYCLU. There will be workshops, lobby visits, and activities to help encourage our elected officials to take action on the issues that matter most to us.
Join us as we stand up for immigrants, fight hate, protect democracy and defend justice. We will provide transportation, meals and there will be NYCLU giveaways.
Register now to secure your spot, and we will be in touch with further details, including transportation information. Please register even if you are “just thinking about it”! Y para gente que habla español, haga clic aqui. For more info contact us at: [email protected] 914-997-7479
Pete Seeger, one of the most influential artists in American history, would be 100 on May 3, were he still alive.
Pete provided much of the soundtrack for the political awakening of several generations of activists. The songs he wrote, including the antiwar tunes, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” “If I Had a Hammer” and “Turn, Turn, Turn,” and those he has popularized, including “This Land Is Your Land” and “We Shall Overcome,” have been recorded by hundreds of artists in many languages and have become global anthems for people fighting for freedom. He introduced Americans to songs from other cultures, like “Wimoweh” (“The Lion Sleeps Tonight”) from South Africa, “Tzena, Tzena” from Israel (which reached number two on the pop charts), and “Guantanamera” from Cuba, inspiring what is now called “world music.”
Thanks to Seeger’s influence, protest songs — via folk, rock, blues, and soul genres — became popular and even commercially successful. He recorded over eighty albums — of children’s songs, labor, civil rights, and antiwar songs, traditional American folk songs, international songs, and Christmas songs. Among performers around the globe, Seeger became a symbol of a principled artist deeply engaged in the world.
Yet even during the height of the 1950s and 1960s folk revival and the popularity of protest music, Seeger was blocked from network TV and the media spotlight because of his left-wing politics. Millions sang his songs without knowing his name.
Seeger’s life and legacy offers some clues for working through perennial riddles faced by American socialists and radicals. How to make use of a relatively privileged background to promote social justice — rather than be paralyzed by guilt? How to create a popular art that doesn’t succumb to banality, cynicism, or spectacle, but that helps inspire activism?
Seeger came of age during the 1930s, when many artists, playwrights, novelists, filmmakers, and musicians aligned themselves with the upsurge of worker militancy and protest. His father, Charles Seeger, and his stepmother, Ruth Crawford Seeger, were leaders in these efforts. Charles, a well-known composer and musicologist, helped create a collective of radically minded composers during the Depression, hoping (and largely failing) to invent a revolutionary proletarian music.
Many participants, including Aaron Copland, Marc Blitzstein, and Earl Robinson, became major figures in classical music and musical theater. Charles eventually was drawn to the notion of creating a democratic popular songmovement by reviving the work songs, spirituals, ballads, and dance tunes of American racial, ethnic, and regional subcultures.
It was that vision that inspired the young Pete. During a visit to a folk music festival in North Carolina while still in high school, he heard bluegrass music played on a five-string banjo for the first time. When he returned home, he listened to records and learned to imitate what he heard. In 1938, he dropped out of Harvard in his sophomore year to try his own hand at changing society by becoming a banjo-picking itinerant folk musician.
A major influence was folklorist Alan Lomax, who produced recordings of politically conscious folk musicians like ex-convict Huddie Ledbetter (known as “Leadbelly”), Appalachian mineworker organizer Aunt Molly Jackson, and Woody Guthrie. Lomax hired Pete to work for him at the Library of Congress’s Archive of American Folk Song, where he learned many of the songs he would sing throughout his career.
Pete’s life mission was crystallized when he met Guthrie in March 1940 at a benefit to raise money for migrant farm workers. Pete was impressed by Guthrie’s ability to fuse folk melodies and lyrics about contemporary events. Guthrie had become a radio voice for the swelling Okie population of Southern California, singing about their plight, and developed close ties to union and Communist activists. Pete traveled with Guthrie, singing at migrant labor camps and union halls, and developing his performance skills.
In 1941, at age twenty-two, Seeger formed the Almanac Singers with Lee Hays and Millard Lampell, later joined by Guthrie, Bess Lomax, and others who rotated in and out of the group.
The Almanacs lived and worked collectively, playing at union rallies and left-wing benefits, composing songs they hoped would serve the organizing efforts of the time, including Guthrie’s “Union Maid” and Pete’s “Talking Union,” his first composition. Even Eleanor Roosevelt was a fan. But the Almanacs Communist affiliations made them a target of right-wing press red-baiting and FBI scrutiny. The group disbanded when Pete and Woody joined the armed forces in 1943.
Pete, Woody, and other left-wing musicians wrote a flood of patriotic songs. They hoped that the war against fascism would set the stage for a struggle to end racism in America. In the immediate aftermath of the war, a massive strike wave seemed to portend a progressive political movement to advance beyond the New Deal.
Targeted by the Red Scare
Filled with optimism, in 1946 Seeger led the effort to create People’s Songs, an organization of progressive songwriters and performers, dominated by but not confined to folk musicians, and People’s Artists, a booking agency to help members get concert gigs and recording contracts.
When former vice president Henry Wallace ran for president on the Progressive Party ticket in 1948, Seeger traveled with him, distributing song sheets at every meeting or rally so that sing-alongs, led by Seeger, would alternate with Wallace’s speeches.
That year, Seeger and Hays (both former Almanacs), along with Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman, formed the Weavers, hoping to continue what the Almanacs had started but aiming for more mainstream audiences. Their repertoire featured dynamic arrangements of American and global folk songs, with an occasional political song, that proved popular as a nightclub act.
Gordon Jenkins, a leading record impresario, saw them at the Village Vanguard and signed the group with Decca Records. They had several huge hits. In 1950 their recording of an Israeli song, “Tzena Tzena,” reached number two on the pop charts, and their version of Leadbelly’s “Goodnight, Irene,” reached number one and stayed on the charts for half a year. Other recordings — “On Top of Old Smokey,” “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” “Wimoweh,” and “Midnight Special” — also made the charts; their 1951 recording of Guthrie’s “So Long It’s Been Good to Know You” reached number four.
But the Weavers’ commercial success was short-lived. As soon as they began to be widely noticed, they were targeted by anticommunist witch-hunters.
Several former FBI agents founded the newsletter Counterattack in 1947 to expose Communism in American society. In 1950, the newsletter issued a special report, “Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television.” It listed 151 actors, writers, musicians, broadcast journalists, and others whom it claimed were part of the Communist influence in the entertainment industry — including Seeger and the Weavers. Hollywood studios, TV shows, and other venues blacklisted people who were named.
The Weavers survived for another year, but the escalating Red Scare caught up with them. Their contract for a summer television show was canceled. They could no longer get bookings in top nightclubs. Radio stations stopped playing their songs, their records stopped selling. They never had another hit record.
Seeger left the Weavers to pursue a solo career, but he was blacklisted from the early 1950s through the mid-1960s. In 1955 he was convicted of contempt of Congress for refusing to discuss his political affiliations at a hearing called by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, basing his refusal on the First Amendment. It took seven years for the courts finally to overturn that conviction and validate Pete’s stance.
Even as the McCarthyist fever was lifting, Seeger was kept off network television. In 1963 ABC refused to allow him to appear on Hootenanny, a weekly show that owed its existence to the folk music revival Seeger had helped inspire. Joan Baez and other young folk singers boycotted the show, but Seeger advised them instead to use the opportunity. Ironically, “hootenanny” was a word that Seeger and Guthrie had popularized, using it to label the free-form folk music concert/parties that were spreading around the country.
During the blacklist years, Seeger made a living by giving guitar and banjo lessons and singing at the summer camps, churches, high schools and colleges, and union halls that were courageous enough to invite the controversial balladeer.
In 1966, he hosted a folk music program on a New York City’s nonprofit UHF TV channel, Rainbow Quest. His guests comprised a racially and musically diverse group of veteran and newly emerging country, bluegrass and folk singers, including Johnny Cash, Doc Watson, Roscoe Holcomb, Judy Collins, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, the Clancy brothers, Elizabeth Cotton, Rev. Gary Davis, Len Chandler, Tom Paxton, Bernice Reagon, Jean Ritchie, and Patrick Sky. The station had a limited viewership at the time, but the programs were taped; some can be viewed on YouTube and bought on DVD.
Out From Under the Blacklist
Despite his exclusion from mainstream media, Seeger’s cultural significance grew enormously in the sixties.
In the 1960s he sang with civil rights workers at rallies and churches in the South and at the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Along with the Highlander Center’s Guy Carawan, he popularized the song “We Shall Overcome” among civil rights activists and at concerts in the United States and around the world.
He invited the Freedom Singers — a group of SNCC activists — on stages and supported their efforts. He got a Carnegie Hall audience to sing songs of the Southern freedom movement, just when these songs were on the lips of teenagers being hosed down in Birmingham. In a letter to Seeger, Martin Luther King Jr thanked him for his “moral support and Christian generosity.”
As the anti-Vietnam War movement emerged, Pete and banjo were frequently seen on protest front lines. In the process, Pete’s youthful hope of helping foster a movement that sings was coming true.
Pete began to break through the mainstream media blacklist. He signed a contract with Columbia Records, which promoted his growing number of albums, filled with labor, civil rights, and peace songs as well as special songs for children, including the popular “Abiyoyo.” In 1966, Seeger recorded an antiwar anthem, “Bring ‘Em Home.” “If I Had a Hammer,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and “Turn, Turn, Turn” became major hits for other artists like Peter, Paul, and Mary, the Byrds, Trini Lopez, and even Marlene Dietrich.
One of the most popular network TV shows in the late 1960s was a variety program hosted by the wise-cracking, folk-singing Smothers Brothers. In September 1967 Tom and Dick Smothers defiantly invited Seeger onto their CBS show, the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, to challenge the blacklist. True to his principles, Seeger insisted on singing a newly composed antiwar song, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.”
CBS censors refused to air the song, but public outrage forced the network to relent and allow him to perform the song on the show a few months later, on February 17, 1968. The audience for that show — 13.5 million households — was even larger than Seeger’s appearance five months earlier.
Two days after Seeger sang “Big Muddy,” CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite — perhaps the nation’s most trusted person — called on President Lyndon Johnson to withdraw American troops from Vietnam. On March 31, Johnson — facing strong opposition from antiwar candidates Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy — announced he would not seek reelection that year. Quite possibly Pete’s lyrics about the “big muddy” and the “big fool” had something to do with LBJ’s political demise.
Perhaps to Pete’s surprise, mainstream America eventually acknowledged his cultural role and moral stature during the final two decades of his life. In 1993, he received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. A year later, he was honored by the Kennedy Center and President Bill Clinton presented him with the National Medal of Arts. In 1996, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2009, he and Bruce Springsteen sang at Barack Obama‘s inaugural celebration at the Lincoln Memorial — leading more than half a million people on the mall and millions of people watching on TV in a rendition of “This Land is Your Land.”
Pete told his own story in a kind of narrative songbook, Where Have all the Flowers Gone? in 1993. He also became the subject of several biographies, including David King Dunaway’s How Can I Keep from Singing? The Ballad of Pete Seeger, Alec Wilkinson’s The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger, and Alan Winkler’s To Everything There Is a Season: Pete Seeger and the Power of Song, and several books for children. Folk historians Ronald D. Cohen and James Capaldi edited a book of articles about him called The Pete Seeger Reader, and in 2007 PBS broadcast Jim Brown’s documentary, “Pete Seeger: The Power of Song” as part of its American Masters series.
Late in life, he welcomed Rob Rosenthal, a Wesleyan University sociologist, and Sam Rosenthal, a musician and writer, to dig through his extensive writings — letters stored for decades in his family barn, notes to himself, published articles, rough drafts, stories, books, poems, and songs— to produce Pete Seeger: In His Own Words, published in 2012
Some of the nation’s most prominent singers recorded songs honoring Seeger, including Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions. On his ninetieth birthday in May 2009, more than 15,000 admirers filled New York City’s Madison Square Garden for a concert honoring Seeger. The performers included Springsteen, Baez, Tom Morello, Dave Matthews, Emmylou Harris, Billy Bragg, Rufus Wainwright, Bela Fleck, Taj Mahal, Roger McGuinn, Steve Earle, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Dar Williams, Ani DiFranco, and John Mellencamp.
Throughout his life, Seeger believed that his mission that was not just about injecting politically conscious songs into the musical mainstream. He sang plenty of songs supporting particular causes and campaigns, but that was not his essential purpose. His ultimate goal, one that he learned from his father, was to help inspire and sustain democratic action.
The best testament to this vision can be seen in his public performances and in the way he lived his life. He wanted people to make their own music, and realize their own power, rather than be passive consumers or docile citizens.
Pete was an outstanding musician, inventive and skillful with the five-string banjo (which he brought out of obscurity) and the twelve-string guitar (which he learned to play from Leadbelly). His voice was a serviceable if cracked tenor. But people didn’t go to a Seeger concert to watch him play and sing — nor did he want that. Instead, he wanted people went to participate.
His concerts and records taught audiences songs to take away and sing on their own. He carefully crafted a stage persona that inspired audiences to join him. Every Seeger concert involved a lot of group singing, including multipart harmonizing of South African chants, gospel hymns, rounds, and anthems — which Pete would elicit with patient insistence.
He introduced audiences to song-makers like Leadbelly and Guthrie from his earlier days, and in so doing revealed song treasures and life stories that have become integral to American culture. He sang new songs by writers that his audiences may never have heard of. He was one of the first to perform Dylan’s early songs. He taught audiences songs about workers, draft resisters, civil rights activists, and Wall Street Occupiers. He taught the world “We Shall Overcome,” and asked British folksinger Billy Bragg to write new words appropriate to Tiananmen Square and incidents of nonviolent resistance.
Seeger was an organizer as well as an artist. He organized the Almanac Singers and People’s Artists. In 1950, he helped found and sustain Sing Out! magazine, which has served as a primary folk music source ever since. In 1959, he helped launch the Newport Folk Festival, which brought together on a shared stage the practitioners of every kind of roots music, and is still going on.
In 1969, he started the nonprofit group Clearwater, near his home in Beacon, New York, that included a newly built sloop and an annual celebration dedicated to cleaning up the polluted Hudson River. The effort, at first written off as simplistic and naive, helped inspire the environmental movement. The Hudson, once filled with oil pollution, sewage, and toxic chemicals, is now swimmable.
An Authentic, Radical Life
Seeger owned much of his success to his wife Toshi Ohta Seeger. Although Harold Leventhal was Pete’s professional manager, Toshi was the one who organized his personal and political affairs. The couple, married in 1939, lived most of their life together in a log cabin close to the river, a place they built and developed with their own hands and where they raised their children. Toshi died in July 2013; Pete died six months later at age ninety-four.
To honor the hundredth anniversary of his birth, his fans will be sponsoring many concerts, tributes, publications, and, in May, a comprehensive six-CD set, Pete Seeger: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection, which includes twenty previously unreleased recordings, accompanied by a two hundred page book.
Pete Seeger’s life is one worth examining. Very few people in American history have lived more authentic and morally radical lives.
Dick Flacks is emeritus professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His most recent book (co-authored with Mickey Flacks) is Making History / Making Blintzes: How Two Red Diaper Babies Found Each Other and Discovered America. His weekly radio program, “Culture of Protest,” has been heard for thirty-five years at www.kcsb.org. He co-authored, with Rob Rosenthal, Playing for Change: Music and Musicians in the Service of Social Movements.
Peter Dreier is the E.P. Clapp distinguished professor of politics at Occidental College. His most recent book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame. His next book, We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism — American Style, a collection of essays co-edited with Kate Aronoff and Michael Kazin, will be published in 2020 by The New Press.
Washington DC, April 23 — Last week, the redacted text of the Mueller Report dropped—into a Capitol Hill that will spend much of the rest of the present Congressional session dealing with its fallout.
Robert Mueller’s investigation was into allegations only of Russian interference in U.S. politics. But at one point his report highlights some highly questionable (Russia-related) contacts that people close to Trump’s transition team had with representatives of another government that has intervened massively in U.S. policymaking in recent years: the United Arab Emirates.
The UAE is a small but very wealthy federation of seven tiny emirates (princedoms) strung out along the coast of the Gulf. Through the wily hawkishness of its powerful Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ), the UAE has played a major role in prolonging the war in Yemen, fomenting and supporting the conflicts in Syria and Libya, overthrowing (in 2013) the elected government in Egypt—and in persuading Pres. Trump to walk out of the key de-escalation/denuclearization deal the United States concluded with Iran in 2015.
MBZ may have only the title of “crown prince”, but he has dominated the UAE’s policymaking for more than a dozen years now. And back in early 2015, when the ageing King Salman became king of neighboring Saudi Arabia, MBZ reportedly played a big role in boosting the elevation of one of Salman’s younger sons, Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), to the powerful role of crown prince… and we have seen some of the ruthlessness that MBS brought to that role.
Like MBS, MBZ doubtless views himself as a very “modern” crown prince. As part of that, his pursuit of his chosen, ultra-hawkish policies in the Middle East has been accompanied by massive lobbying efforts in Washington, designed to try to keep the world’s sole remaining (if somewhat fading) superpower on his side. So if the Justice Department and relevant congressional committees want to investigate interventions that foreign entities have been making in the US political process, then the role of the UAE government– as well as the Saudi and Israeli governments—should certainly also be examined.
Muzzling the discourse
“Interventions”, in this sense, should include not only direct lobbying for or against various policies but also the attempts these outside actors make to frame, skew, or on occasion outright muzzle the elite discourse in this country. These actors accomplish this in a number of ways, including by hiring PR firms and through the investments they make in various think-tanks… those specifically Washington institutions that generate and support “experts” whose analyses and views then—if the think-tank is successful—get widely quoted in the corporate media, thus becoming part of the country’s “conventional wisdom.”
Over the past decade, the UAE became a big player in the think-tank scene in Washington DC, which had previously been dominated, on matters Middle Eastern, by the large ranks of big, pro-Israeli American funders like Haim Saban—and to a lesser extent by the Saudis.
In the early 2000s Saban, an Israeli-American entertainment mogul (and close Clinton buddy), used his money to take over the previously professional Middle East studies department at the Brookings Institution, which renamed it the “Saban Center”. Saban was the guy who once told an audience in Israel that the “three ways to be influential in American politics,” were “make donations to political parties, establish think tanks, and control media outlets.” He has also repeatedly said, “I’m a one-issue guy and my issue is Israel.”
Not surprisingly, when MBZ wanted to “be influential in American politics”, he followed as much as he could of Saban’s playbook. Not being an American citizen meant that following some of Saban’s three paths to success was a little harder and more complex—but he had two trusty lieutenants to help him out.
George [not Ralph!] Nader
One was George Nader, a veteran Lebanese-American fixer who has worked for MBZ for many years and who is also a close associate of big GOP fundraiser– and Trump buddy– Elliot Broidy. Section IV (B) 2 of Volume 1 of the Mueller report described how, just a week before Trump’s inauguration, Nader and MBZ had set up a meeting in the Seychelles between Putin intimate Kirill Dmitriev and Blackwater founder Erik Prince, whom Nader thought was close to the Trump transition (and who anyway had a long history of working with MBZ in the UAE.) But Erik Prince apparently demurred from playing any immediate further role in establishing a secret Trump-Putin “back channel.”
Back in the 1980s, I knew Nader as an ambitious young man who cut quite a figure as the editor and publisher of a very glossy, Washington DC-based magazine called Middle East Insight. It carried intriguing interviews with a broad range of movers and shakers in Middle Eastern politics (and was suspected by many of us actual journalists in Washington of being a CIA front.) He and the magazine then dropped out of sight. Child pornography charges were reportedly involved. Years later, he resurfaced in the Czech Republic having been convicted there on several charges of child molestation… More recently, he resurfaced again as a key bagman for MBZ, including in relation to some non-trivial arms dealing.
Last year, after investigators on Mueller’s team subpoenaed the contents of Nader’s phone, he began to sing. (Scores of the footnotes to the relevant section of Mueller’s report are attributed to texts found on Nader’s phone.)
In April 2017, however, Nader was still busy doing his influence-peddling for MBZ. As the AP would later report, that was the month that Nader wired $2.5 million to Elliott Broidy through a company in Canada. The AP’s sources indicated that Nader sent the money to underwrite efforts to win US support for the campaign Saudi Arabia and the UAE were launching against Qatar. Those efforts included a Broidy-funded, anti-Qatar conference held by the ultra-right-wing think-tank, the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, and campaign donations of nearly $600,000 that Broidy made to anti-Qatar political bodies and campaigns.
Another, even higher-level US bagman for MBZ has long been the UAE ambassador in Washington, Yousef al-Otaiba. He has also worked diligently to follow the Haim Saban playbook for how to win friends and influence policy in Washington—including the campaigns to control think-tanks.
Otaiba was named ambassador in March 2008. Just one month later an associate of Amb. (retd.) Wendy Chamberlain, the head of Washington’s venerable Middle East Institute think-tank, reportedlyreached out to ask Otaiba to support a major MEI capital campaign. Eight years later, Ms. Chamberlain finally got her reply: a $20 million donation from the UAE, which has now nearly finished completion of a large-scale refurbishment of its headquarters.
The past twelve years have seen numerous examples of such think-tank investments being made by rich Arab states—especially by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar. Sometimes, these states followed the path of “capturing”—or, heavily investing in—existing think-tanks, as Saban had at Brookings and Otaiba did with MEI. Or sometimes, they followed the path pioneered in the 1980s by the big, pro-Israeli donor Barbi Weinberg, who worked with former AIPAC staffer Martin Indyk to create her own, wholly new think-tank: the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The Center for Responsive Politics reports that the FARA-reported influence operations of these three Arab states in 2017-2018 totaled $90.3 million, compared with $63.5 million reported by Israel. Influence operations funded by Israel are of course generously supplemented by those funded by US individuals and entities deeply supportive of Israel, like AIPAC. On many issues, including Iran, the campaigns of Saudi Arabia and the UAE push in the same direction as those of Israel.
In the case of the big Gulf-Arab donors, their battle for influence heated up considerably in mid-2017, after MBZ and MBS decided to try to knock the Emir of Qatar off his throne and divvy up the $320 billion-worth of assets of Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund that he controlled. By then, Qatar’s own pet DC think tank, the Arab Center of Washington, was already well established. But Saudi Arabia (which had also invested in MEI, and which also owned and controlled a couple of smaller think-tanks in town) and the UAE then created two entirely new think-tanks to combat Qatar: the Arabia Foundation, and the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. The battle of narratives was royally joined!
(MBZ and MBS overlooked the fact that the largest number of US troops anywhere in the region are deployed in two massive bases in Qatar, and the Pentagon definitely doesn’t want to remove them. So though Pres. Trump expressed some initial support for the Saudi/Emirati plan to unseat Qatar’s Emir, the US government as a whole never followed through.)
Controlling the narrative on Yemen
All these shenanigans on the behalf of the Gulf-Arab super-rich are important– for a number of compelling reasons. First, the investments that all of them have made, over the past several years, have had a strong effect on public understanding of key issues in the Middle East, and on policy. As noted earlier, these issues include Yemen, Syria, Libya, and Iran.
Of these issues, Yemen is the one regarding which these Gulf Arabs have—recently—been least successful in controlling the narrative. Their argument that the Houthi alliance that has controlled the capital, Sanaa, and considerable surrounding areas for many years is illegitimate, is totally controlled by Iran, and is solely responsible for the country’s suffering—and that therefore Americans and everyone else should support the Saudi/UAE alliance that has been battling the Houthis, has finally been exposed on every count. Just last week, finally, the US Senate supported a resolution to end the support the US military has been giving to the Saudi war effort in Yemen. That was a real victory for the antiwar forces. Trump vetoed the resolution, but Sen. Sanders is hoping to win enough support to over-ride the veto. Stay tuned…
But MBS (help from MBZ and the Pentagon, under Obama) launched Saudi Arabia’s large-scale military push into Yemen back in March 2015. It has taken four years for the US Senate to get to where it is on the Yemen issue, which is a shockingly long time. In the meantime, more than 70,000 Yemeni civilians have been killed, and millions more face imminent threats of cholera and starvation.
Secondly, the capture by these ruthlessly ideological forces of so many of the Washington think-tanks that previously had long reputations for fair-minded, objective research means it is almost impossible these days for anyone reading their output—whether directly, or indirectly, through the way they get quoted in the media—to get anything like an accurate picture of the situation in the countries being described.
This applies particularly to Syria, where since 2011 the bought-and-paid-for think-tanks have rigidly suppressed any viewpoints that challenge the view that Pres. Bashar al-Asad is uniquely evil and has to be overthrown. As someone who has worked on Syria-related issues since the 1970s, I have seen this happen at first hand. In my last appearance at an MEI event on Syria, in summer 2011, I pointed out that Pres. Asad still retained considerably more support from Syria’s citizens than the “regime change” crowd claimed, and that the “opposition” was splintered and in disarray. I was right. But MEI notably never invited me back and even refused to host other experts on Syria whom I had suggested for their programing.
Bottom line: If you read something from someone billed as a “think-tank expert” look carefully at their institution’s funding before you judge the value of their work.
And a final takeaway from the whole sorry saga of these Gulf states’ ridiculously large investments in think tanks? Consider the opportunity costs involved. Imagine if these states had spent this amount of money funding some of the sorely-needed debates, studies, or other interventions on the Palestine Question! (Imagine what Mondoweiss, or Just World Educational, or Palestine Legal could do with $20 million…) But no. The institutions that have received hefty Gulf-Arab funding have done pitifully little programing on Palestine, leaving that “field of discourse” open for the Zionists’ continued domination.
So George Nader may have been just a minor bit-player in the Mueller investigation’s saga. But the phenomenon of Gulf-Arab intervention in US politics and discourse that he represented was a much more serious matter.
Helena Cobban is the President of Just World Educational (JWE), a non-profit organization, and the CEO of Just World Books. She has had a lengthy career as a journalist, writer, and researcher on international affairs, including 17 years as a columnist on global issues for The Christian Science Monitor. Of the seven books she’s published on international affairs, four have been on Middle Eastern topics. This new series of commentaries she’s writing, “Story/Backstory”, will have an expanded audio component published in JWE’s podcast series. They represent her own opinion and judgments, not those of any organization.