David vs. Goliath: The Greek vs Turkish lobby
by Georgia Logothetis, HALC Managing Director
In A Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde wrote that there is no “good influence” because one who is influenced “does not think his natural thoughts, or burn with his natural passions. His virtues are not real to him…He becomes an echo of someone else’s music, an actor of a part that has not been written for him.”
In the policy context, it’s lobbyists who are such composers and playwrights influencing policy, and Turkey’s lobbyists are some of the most successful on Capitol Hill.
There is perhaps no starker example of a politician influenced by lobbying money than former Democratic U.S. House Majority Leaders Dick Gephardt. In Congress, Gephardt was a champion for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide — the Ottoman Empire’s campaign of starvation and murder of the vulnerable Armenian populations in the early 1900s (a campaign which was not limited to Armenians but including Greeks and Assyrian Christians in Asia Minor). He cosponsored resolutions, wrote letters and otherwise indicated that he was an ally in the fight for truth and justice on this important issue.
Upon leaving Congress, Gephardt was hired to lobby on behalf of the government of Turkey. No sooner did the checks clear from the Turkish government than he became “an echo of someone else’s music,” changing his tune on the Armenian genocide and being instrumental in killing the bill each time it’s been introduced over the past 12 years. In return, his firm has been paid millions of dollars.
It’s not simply the wheels of progress on the genocide issue which have been mucked up by millions in Turkish lobbying funds. On other black-and-white issues, from the illegal occupation of Cyprus to Turkey’s war on journalists and political opposition, Turkey’s lobby has successfully muddied the moral waters.
According to ProPublica, Turkey is one of the top foreign lobbying interests in Washington, ranking in the top list with the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and others.
Through various contracts and subcontracts, the roster of those officially lobbying on behalf of the Turkish government has been impressive: former CIA Director Porter Goss, Dick Gephardt, former Republican congressman Jim McCrery, former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a firm that employed former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, former Minnesota Republican congressman John Vin Weber, and more. And of course, perhaps the most high-profile fighter of Turkish interests in DC was former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, who retroactively registered as an agent of Turkey.
All of this has made the Turkish lobby one of the most powerful paid foreign interest lobbies in Washington. The official Greek lobby, for its part, pales in comparison.
The officially registered lobbyists are but one part of Turkey’s influence equation. There is a vast network of advocacy and community organizations which work daily to promote Turkey’s agenda at the local, state and federal level. Such advocacy groups are typical in diaspora communities, but Turkey’s use of such groups is on a different level entirely.
Both groups advancing the Turkish government’s agenda as well as those advancing the agenda of the opposition Gulenist movement spent untold amount wooing state lawmakers and others, whisking them away on lavish trips to Turkey under the pretense of improving Turkish ties.
In Texas, state lawmakers have for long enjoyed these trips on the Turkish groups’ dimes, trips which have included “a yacht trip on the Bosporus strait, a balloon flight and shopping in the city’s famous bazaars.” Texas is one of the states with the most chartered schools, and in Texas, a disproportionate number of them are owned and operated by affiliates of the Gulen movement.
When the Turkish government targeted the Gulen movement for the failed coup in 2016, it followed up by filing a complaint with the Texas Education Agency asking for the agency to look into alleged financial and management improprieties at the Gulen-linked schools. The attorney for the charter school network, Robert Schulman, said “I’ve never seen anything like this. Registered foreign agents are using the TEA’s complaint mechanisms to malign the largest charter school system in the state of Texas.”
Who would have thought Texas schools would become a proxy battleground for the war between Erdogan’s government and the Gulen movement? This is what happens when foreign interests gain influence at the state and local level. Turkey, by the way, has “also hired Amsterdam and Partners LLP, an international law firm that specializes in ‘political advocacy and cross-border disputes,’ to pursue investigations into U.S. schools connected to the movement.”
It’s not just Texas, of course. The Center for Public Integrity has investigated the matter and found that in “151 state legislators from places like Idaho and Texas accept[ed] subsidized junkets”:
The Center for Public Integrity documented the extent of the trips and found that some state lawmakers who attended them later introduced resolutions supporting Gulen’s controversial Hizmet movement. And some have even supported [Turkish] charter schools that are part of a network from Washington, D.C., to California of roughly 160 taxpayer-funded schools run by friends of the movement. […] 151 state legislators from 29 states who toured Turkey between 2006 and 2015 thanks to more than two dozen nonprofits associated with the Gulen movement.
And those are just the reported trips. As we’ve seen with the delayed revelations in the Flynn case, the possibility of unreported lobbying on behalf of Turkish interests certainly exists.
Whether it’s the Turkish government or Turkish groups aligned with the Gulen movement, one thing is certain: Turkish interests are spending millions to advance their agenda at the local, state and federal level, and are doing so in a diverse fashion — be it officially registered foreign agent lobbying, grassroots lobbying through advocacy groups, or influence peddling through nonprofits.
It’s no secret that on the Hellenic side of the equation, the numbers are dwarfed by Turkey’s fistful of money and outsized policy reach. Grassroots groups like HALC and others do a tremendous amount of education and advocacy, and official lobbying on Capitol Hill also plays an important role in advancing the Hellenic agenda. The Hellenic lobby has always been one of persuasion of a position that is both moral and consistent with the interests of the United States. On the Turkish side? Not so much.
The Hellenic lobby has fought tirelessly on issues such as ending the illegal occupation of Cyprus, demanding a growth program for Greece, calling for protection of religious minorities in the Middle East, holding Turkey accountable for undemocratic behavior and more. In other words, the focus of the Hellenic lobby can be said to be one that prioritizes stability and promotes progress and growth in the region, certainly items of great important to US foreign policy in Europe the Middle East. It is, above all, a positive, forward-looking agenda.
From a bird’s eye perspective, given the massive amount of influence on the opposite side of the ledger, it is quite remarkable that Greek and Cypriot aligned groups have been able to simply keep Hellenic issues from fading from the policy agenda. The Greek government certainly isn’t shuttling state lawmakers to Greek islands by the planeful (nor could it afford to), and the media’s cyclical interest/disinterest in the Greek economic and refugee crisis does little to keep those issues on the front policy burner.
Rather, it’s the steady, behind-the-scenes, daily labor of advocates like you that is pushing forward and pushing back against the Turkish lobby. It’s why the work of HALC and others is so important. It’s also why we ask that you become an official HALC member today to support our effort to advance a positive Hellenic agenda: