US Domestic Politics

Will the Senate scrutinize Biden budget nominee Neera Tanden’s apparent pay-for-play foreign policy corruption?

As president of the Center for American Progress, Neera Tanden raked in whopping donations from repressive right-wing foreign governments while she advanced their hardline policy priorities in Washington. Will the Senate ask her about these sordid arrangements?

The US Senate will convene hearings on the confirmation of Neera Tanden to lead President Joseph Biden’s Office of Management and Budget this February 9. Tanden is a veteran Democratic Party operative best known for her intemperate online commentary, fanatical loyalty to Hillary Clinton, and visceral loathing of anything remotely affiliated with Bernie Sanders.

While Democrats are almost certain to support Tanden’s confirmation in lockstep, and Sanders might even raise an approving mitten, her long record of inflammatory attacks on the GOP will be a central source of Republican opposition.

Yet when Tanden appears before the Senate, members of both parties may ignore a much more salient issue stemming from her leadership of the Center for American Progress (CAP), the Democratic Party-affiliated think tank in Washington DC where she currently serves as President and CEO.

Under Tanden’s watch, CAP raked in hefty donations from foreign governments and their lobbying operations, while churning out policy papers and organizing events that furthered those donors’ interests inside the Beltway. In almost every case, the foreign states that pumped money into CAP’s coffers were right-wing US allies seeking a more militaristic line from Washington against their regional adversaries.

The donors included lobbyists for the apartheid regime of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who enjoyed a friendly public forum with Tanden; the permanent monarchy of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), whose ambassador to the US publicly thanked CAP for a favorable report it published on the Middle East following a series of substantial donations; the right-wing nationalist government of Japan, whose former Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, gained an audience with Tanden; and the administration of Taiwan, which apparently used CAP as a vehicle to campaign for a more hostile US policy toward China.

These apparent pay-for-play arrangements were defining features of Tanden’s time at the helm of one of the most heavily funded Beltway think tank operations. But strangely, as her confirmation to Biden’s OMB moves forward, even her fiercest adversaries in the Senate have not signaled any intent to scrutinize the ethical baggage she accumulated while pushing the Democratic Party to adopt a decidedly neoconservative foreign policy.

“Netanyahu was worth it”: Tanden crushes dissent to court Israel lobby donors

Among the most recent speaking fees listed on Neera Tanden’s public financial disclosure report was the $3,000 she received for a June 9, 2019 engagement with the American Jewish Committee (AJC). The AJC is an Israel lobby juggernaut that has hosted current and former Israeli government officials in Washington to defend scorched earth military campaigns against the besieged Palestinian Gaza Strip, and which equates Palestine solidarity activism with neo-Nazism. Tanden’s paid appearance before such an organization would have never taken place were it not for her years of catering to the Israel lobby’s interests and needs.

Tanden’s kowtowing to the Israel lobby began as early as 2010, when, according to journalist Glenn Greenwald, she gathered senior staff to ask why coverage of Israel-Palestine was not “off the table,” like other issues that risked irritating CAP donors.

Two years later, when DC-based Israel lobbyists launched a campaign against a handful of young CAP staffers blogging on foreign policy for the think tank’s in-house blog, Think Progress, Tanden worked to satisfy their demands. At issue was the bloggers’ heretical criticism of Netanyahu’s drive for a military assault on Iran, and their occasional willingness to scrutinize Israeli human rights abuses in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

A January 2012 email from Tanden to top CAP staff highlighted her zealous quest to please powerful pro-Israel groups. Ann Lewis, a longtime Democratic Party apparatchik now affiliated with the Democratic Majority For Israel, had sent an angry email to Tanden complaining of the “anti-Israel” coverage in Think Progress. In response, Tanden urged a clampdown on criticism of Israel and requested more material highlighting the supposed danger of a nuclear Iran.

Days later, at the apparent urging of Tanden, CAP censored an article by Eli Clifton and Ali Gharib documenting the role of an Israel-based religious nationalist advocacy organization, Aish HaTorah, in the production of a virulently anti-Muslim film called The Third Jihad. After the article’s publication, all references to Israel and the Israel lobby were removed without explanation.

In a February 1, 2012 email, CAP’s then-chief of staff Ken Gude detailed a meeting with AIPAC, the principal lobbying arm of the Israel lobby in the US, where he attempted to calm pro-Israel donors. According to Tanden’s underling, an AIPAC staffer “expressed the view that he felt we were now moving in the right direction.” Gude also mentioned “an effort to reach out to” the AJC – the Israel lobby powerhouse that later rewarded Tanden with a speaking fee.

The efforts to mollify big Israel lobby donors did not stop there. Between 2011 and in 2015, CAP published a major two-part report on a network of right-wing organizations propagating Islamophobic politics whose leadership happened to be intimately enmeshed in the wider web of Israel lobbying. The second edition of the report, published in 2015, contained a lengthy chapter on then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s secret NYPD spying operation which had targeted Muslims across the country in collaboration with federal law enforcement.

Bloomberg happened to be a major donor to CAP, and was apparently upset about the unflattering portrayal. So Tanden’s team snapped into action and presided over another blatant act of censorship. Yasmine Taeb, a former CAP staffer who co-authored the report, told the New York Times she was ordered to remove the chapter “because of how it was going to be perceived by Mayor Bloomberg.”

Tanden was so determined to rake in pro-Israel money that she openly courted one of President Barack Obama’s most vicious international antagonists, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. On November 11, 2015, Tanden appeared inside CAP’s offices before an audience of Israel lobbyists for a closed-door tete-a-tete with Netanyahu. Her discussion with the Republican-aligned prime minister was a calculated lovefest devoid of critical questioning and punctuated with eruptions of nervous laughter by Tanden.

Afterwards, Tanden composed an email to CAP founder and Hillary Clinton campaign manager John Podesta arguing that the meeting ensured “we will never be called anti-Semitic again,” and it “may have sealed the deal with a new board member.” Days later, Tanden chirped to Podesta, “Jonathan Lavine… Is joining the board. So Netanyahu was worth it :)…”

As Phil Weiss reported, Lavine was a Bain Capital executive and major Israel lobby donor.

Under Tanden’s leadership, most of the CAP staffers targeted by the Israel lobby were gradually pushed out. (Taeb was an exception, leaving after the publication of the report she managed). Having grown her stable of pro-Israel donors, Tanden’s think tank was free to court an oil-rich permanent monarchy engaged in a burgeoning alliance with Netanyahu’s Israel.

A “progressive” think tank becomes a Gulf monarchy’s de facto lobbying arm

In October 2016, a month before Hillary Clinton’s expected coronation as president and commander in chief, the Center for American Progress issued a report proposing an aggressively interventionist agenda in the Middle East. With its fulsome praise for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, its call for using military force to affect regime change in Syria, and portrayal of Iran as the irredeemable source of all problems in the Middle East, the paper read like a wish list for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

That same month, CAP convened an event to impress the need for a Gulf-centric Middle East policy on the Clinton campaign, where Tanden was serving as transition co-chair. Seated on the panel was Yousef Otaiba, the UAE’s ambassador to Washington. “Thank you for the report on the Middle East, which I happen to completely agree with,” Otaiba told his hosts.

A darling of the Beltway press corps and Washington political elite, Otaiba was hardly a neutral observer offering his country’s perspective on various crises in the Middle East. In fact, his government was one of CAP’s top donors, having funneled between $500,000 and $1 million into the think tank’s coffers in 2014, and $699,000 the year CAP produced its Middle East report.

Further, as former CAP blogger Eli Clifton discovered, the report praised by Otaiba was co-authored by Muath Al Wari, a former employee of the UAE’s embassy in DC who also advised the country’s Supreme National Security Council. In other words, CAP’s Middle East report had been bought and paid for by a tyrannical Gulf monarchy and was being advanced under Tanden’s watch to influence a future Clinton administration.

The warm ties between CAP and the UAE carried over into the Trump era, as one of the Tanden’s top staffers, Brian Katulis, bonded with Otaiba over their mutual support for the hyper-repressive junta of Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. In an April 2017 email entitled “that was fun,” Katulis offered Otaiba advice on how to work with the Trump administration to foster closer ties between Egypt and Washington.

Even after bad press prompted CAP to publicly distance itself from the UAE, announcing that it would no longer accept donations from the kingdom, Katulis continued to meet privately with the UAE’s top lobbyist in Washington, Richard Mintz of the Harbour Group.

Meanwhile, Tanden and her team filled the gap in lost Emirati contributions by soliciting money from right-wing East Asian governments lobbying for a more militaristic US stance toward China.

Pushing a hard line against China, shilling for Taiwan and Japan

Throughout 2019 and 2020, Center for American Progress fellows published a flurry of articles urging closer ties with Taiwan to roll back Chinese influence throughout the Pacific Rim.

CAP fellows Melanie Hart and Kelly Magsamen (now the chief of staff for Biden’s Department of Defense) issued a hardline policy paper in April 2019 that called for a great power competition with China and urged heightened preparations for a hot war in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea. Strikingly, the CAP paper advised Congress to review its 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, assessing whether the “expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means” was still an acceptable guideline. The authors’ implication seemed to be that it was not, and that the US should initiate a major arms build-up in Taiwan.

A September 2019 paper by CAP senior fellow Michael Fuchs contained an assortment of familiar human rights accusations against China and recommendations to “impose targeted costs” which are commonplace in Beltway foreign policy circles. Fuchs’ paper also emphasized ” integrat[ing] Taiwan into broader regional and global networks.”

Next, in March 2020, CAP senior fellow Trevor Sutton published an homage to Taiwan in the Washington Monthly, painting it as a plucky democracy and strategic bulwark against China. According to Sutton, the US should make the deepening of ties with Taiwan “a strategic and moral priority.”

Left unmentioned in each of these articles was the fact that the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO) – the de facto embassy of Taiwan in the US – was one of CAP’s most generous funders. In 2019, TECRO contributed between $250,000 and $500,000 to Neera Tanden’s think tank.

The financial relationship between CAP and the Taiwanese government was also left undisclosed when Tanden partnered with another Beltway think tank funded by TECRO, the neoconservative Hudson Institute, to host Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen in August 2020.

Tanden instead introduced Tsai, who won office with a pledge to “resist China,” with gushing praise for her progressive domestic policies. “Now more than ever, our two countries need to stand together,” Tanden proclaimed. “We need to stand together for progressive values and for democracy.”

During her address, Tsai boasted that she had authorized an unprecedented surge in arms purchases: “I am pleased that in working with our legislature last year, we have unveiled our largest ever defense budget, reaching 2.3 percent of our GDP. I fully expect that this number will continue to grow.”

In the past, CAP has accepted support from arms manufacturers like BAE Systems, Northrup Grumman, and Lockheed Martin. Today, CAP hosts two former Raytheon vice presidents as a senior fellows, and has provided a revolving door for senior fellow Rudy De Leon to circle between the think tank sector and arms industry.

China announced sanctions against Lockheed Martin in July of 2020 after the defense giant entered into a $620 million arms deal with Taiwan brokered by the Pentagon.

Meanwhile, CAP has reaped financial support from the government of Japan, which has also positioned itself as a forward operating base for US plans to counter China. The Tanden-led think tank listed the embassy of Japan in the US as a top donor in 2019, with contributions ranging from $100,000 to $500,000.

As with Israel, the UAE and Taiwan, the hefty donations have translated into a steady stream of policy papers and articles by CAP senior staff, as well as CAP events, pushing closer cooperation between the US and Japan, from enhanced trade ties to increased transfers of tech and advanced military hardware to Tokyo.

Tanden has been among the most vehement advocates of closer ties with Japan, traveling to Tokyo in 2015 hold court with its then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and hailing his “innovative ideas.”

Perhaps the most ideologically right-wing leader in post-war Japanese history, Abe has repeatedly visited the Yasukuni Shrine, which is home to 14 Japanese military officers who committed Class A war crimes in China and Korea. In fact, Abe’s maternal grandfather presided over the forced labor system in Japanese-occupied Manchuria and narrowly escaped prosecution for war crimes. As Prime Minister, Abe worked to whittle away civil liberties while beefing up the country’s military in near-violation of Article 9 of Japan’s constitution.

His leadership has been compared to that of another right-wing nationalist who enjoyed an audience with Tanden: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The whopping donations CAP has raked in from foreign governments are complimented by financial support from corporations like Google, Goldman Sachs and Walmart that benefit directly from the maintenance of a global sphere of American dominance backed up by hard military power.

When Tanden appears before the Senate for her February 9 confirmation hearing, she may come under heavy scrutiny for the incendiary diatribes she has launched against political opponents and her outrageous behavior – including fabricating an email and physically attacking a CAP staffer who questioned Hillary Clinton over her support for the Iraq War.

But behind Neera’s tantrums lies a more sordid story of foreign policy corruption that has infected her think tank and the Democratic Party it advises. If her nomination to manage Biden’s budget slides through, it will be because pay-for-play arrangements like those she presided over at CAP are seen as business as usual in Washington.

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