Ever since leaving office, Bill Clinton has adamantly refused to reveal the donors to his philanthropic organization, the William J. Clinton Foundation. This week’s disclosure of more than 200,000 donors to the foundation – part of a deal with President-elect Barack Obama to allay concerns about possible conflicts of interest should Hillary Clinton be confirmed as secretary of state – suggests a reason for the secrecy. Among those who’ve made a total of $492 million in contributions to the Clinton Foundation are several troubling figures and governments – including supporters of the terrorist group Hezbollah, and the rulers of Saudi Arabia – whose identities the former president would have preferred to keep private.
Notable on the disclosure list is that the foundation has received between $1 and $5 million from entrepreneur, politician and philanthropist Issam Fares, a former deputy primer minister Lebanon. In the United States, Fares is best known as the CEO of the Wedge Foundation, a Houston-based investment firm. In his native Lebanon, however, Fares may be better known as an outspoken supporter of Hezbollah and an apologist for the Syrian dictatorship’s previous military occupation of his country. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, for instance, Fares insisted that “it is a mistake to make a comparison between the al-Qaeda network” and Hezbollah. The latter was actually a “resistance party fighting the Israeli occupation,” Fares informed Agence France-Presse, explaining that “Hezbollah did not carry out any resistance operation against American interests in Lebanon or abroad and did not target civilians in its resistance activities as happened on Sept. 11 at the World Trade Center.” In fact, Hezbollah carried out the 1983 bombing of the Marine Corps barracks in Beirut, killing a total of 241 American Marines, Navy, and Army personnel.
Nor was this a rare unguarded moment for the Lebanese politician. During a September 2004 address to the United Nations, Fares voiced support for Hezbollah on an international stage, describing the terror group as a “national resistance movement.” “It is…the policy of Lebanon to support the National Resistance Movement which has played an important role in forcing Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon,” Fares said. In the same speech, Fares condemned “Israeli forces” for their presence on the Lebanon’s border with the Golan Heights, while managing to excuse Syria’s far more brutal occupation of Lebanon. “There are Syrian forces in Lebanon,” Fares acknowledged. But he insisted that “these forces are on our territory upon the request of the Lebanese government” and that “Lebanon considers the presence of these troops dependent on security conditions in the region.” Fares’s stint as deputy prime minister ended the following year, with the fall of the pro-Syrian government of Prime Minister Omar Karami; Syria’s military occupation ended shortly thereafter. Fares’s services to the Syrian regime have not gone unnoticed. He has received the Syrian decoration of St. Ephrem, promoting him to the honorary rank of commander.
Clinton’s Kingdom Come
One of the Clinton Foundation’s largest donors is the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Disclosure forms indicate that of all government donors, the Saudi regime was the most generous, contributing between $10 and $25 million to the president’s foundation. This financial relationship has grown despite the fact that the home of the 9/11 hijackers remains the world’s leading financier of terrorism, including al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Testifying before the Senate Finance Committee this April, Treasury undersecretary Stuart Levey observed that “Saudi Arabia today remains the location where more money is going to terrorism, to Sunni terror groups and to the Taliban than any other place in the world.” Besides topping the list of terror-sponsoring states, Saudi Arabia continues to rank at the bottom by almost every measure of political freedom. A 2008 Freedom House survey placed Saudi Arabia among the least free county’s in the world, just a notch above Chinese-occupied Tibet and the war-torn Russian puppet state of Chechnya. The key Clinton foundation contributor also has the dubious distinction of being one of only seven countries in the world that punishes homosexuality by death.
Friends in Low Places
Direct contributions are just one source of financing that the foundation draws from the Saudi government. The foundation has also received between $1 and $5 million from the pro-Saudi advocacy group, Friends of Saudi Arabia (FSA). Launched in 2005 and supported by the Saudi royal family, the group acts as a kind of public relations agency, protesting what it considers the country’s unfair portrayal in the U.S. and otherwise working to “dispel misconceptions” about the kingdom. Among these supposed “misconceptions” is Saudi Arabia’s association with terrorism. Prior the release of the 2007 film “The Kingdom,” for example, FSA executive director Michael Saba wrote a letter to the chairman of Universal Studios expressing his concern “that the movie might present negative stereotypes about the people of Saudi Arabia.” Never mind that the film was loosely based on the very real May 2003 terrorist bombings of an American compound in Riyadh that killed 34 and injured over 200. Not content to criticize a still-unreleased film, Saba noted that the FSA “would like to review the script and see an advanced viewing of the movie.” (In his zeal, Saba had apparently confused the U.S. for Saudi Arabia, whose Islamist censors let no film, song, or article circulate without alteration.)
Given his Saudi sponsors, it comes as no surprise that Saba himself is an anti-Israel zealot and conspiracy theorist. His 1984 book, The Armageddon Network, alleges widespread Israeli espionage at the highest level of the U.S. government, complete with a Justice Department cover-up. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the book has found its most devoted readership in the Islamic world. Today, Saba continues to see a hidden Israeli hand in international affairs. Rehearsing a favorite theme in 2004, he claimed – on the basis of no evidence whatsoever – that Israeli interrogators played a role in the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison.
In the company of fellow Gulf States Oman, Kuwait and Qatar, the United Arab Emirates is another rich source of the Clinton Foundation’s funds. Thus the president’s group has received between $1 and $5 million from the Dubai Foundation. Headed by Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the foundation’s goals include improving education and creating jobs in the Middle East. But Sheikh Maktoum’s interests frequently run in a very different direction. In the past, the Sheikh has reportedly donated at least 1 million United Arab Emirate (UAE) dirhams (approximately $270,000 on the current exchange rate) to “the families of the Palestinian martyrs” – that is, Palestinian terrorists killed in action. More recently, in November of 2006, the sheikh sponsored a concert by Lebanese songstress Julia Bourtos in honor of “Lebanese Martyrs” in Hezbollah.
Sheikh Zayed is just one of the Clinton Foundation’s prominent supporters in Dubai. The foundation has also received between $1 and $5 million from the Zayed family, the UAE’s Abu Dhabi-based royal family. That is not, however, the family’s most famous philanthropic outlet – a description more fitting for the now-defunct Zayed Center for Coordination and Follow-Up. Founded in 1999 and funded by Abu Dhabi’s later ruler, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the center was intended to serve as a kind of “think-tank” for the Arab world. Instead, the center became a notorious platform for anti-Semites, Holocaust deniers and supporters of terrorism. Typical of the center’s activities was an October 11, 2001, report titled “The Zionist Movement and Its Animosity to Jews” that likened Zionism to Nazism. Ironically, among the last speakers hosted by the Zayed Center prior to its August 2003 closure was anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist Michael Collins Piper, who took advantage of the occasion to posit a Jewish conspiracy behind everything from Watergate to the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
President Clinton would no doubt reject the extreme views of such donors. But the irony of this week’s disclosure is that it raises as many questions as it answers. For instance, given his foundation’s declared mission to promote “racial, ethnic, and religious reconciliation,” how can he justify his willing association with governments that routinely abuse human rights and fuel sectarian violence? Further, in light of the Clinton foundation’s dependency on such donors, what assurances will Hillary Clinton provide that her husband’s philanthropic interests will not stand in the way of the nation’s diplomatic priorities?
At least when it comes to the second question, critics have a ready answer. Assuming she’s confirmed, the former first lady should begin her tenure at the State Department by taking a tough stand against some of the Clinton’s foundation more prominent funders. At that point, perhaps, the millions in Saudi donations really will have done some good.