In Washington, it can be impossible to discern what is on the level and what is not, what is paranoia and what is justified. Did a bunch of conservative bloggers suddenly develop opinions about the Malaysian regime in 2011 out of sincere conviction, or because they were being paid off? (It turned out to be the latter.) Why did several prominent think tanks suddenly hold discussions and publish reports in favor of Norwegian oil drilling? (They were getting millions of dollars from the Norwegian government, according to a New York Times investigation.)
Foreign propaganda, which is legal lobbying as long as it’s disclosed, pokes into everyday life in odd ways. A few years ago, numerous D.C. buses and Metro stations were suddenly festooned with an awareness campaign for a decades-past war crime in Azerbaijan, the Khojaly Massacre. Regular D.C. commuters were left to wonder what the posters were about—in this case, the geopolitical rivalry between Azerbaijan, an oil-rich dictatorship, and its politically powerful neighbor, Armenia. According to a public-relations staffer whose firm turned down the work, the campaign actually had a primary target audience of one: the wife of a top official in Azerbaijan’s government, who frequently came to D.C. for shopping trips.
Certain countries’ ambassadors are D.C.-famous for their socializing—these days the master is Yousef Al Otaiba of the United Arab Emirates, whose country’s oil wealth bankrolls star-studded galas, donations to charities and think tanks, and constant schmoozing at the highest levels. In 2013, Otaiba threw a 50th birthday party for the MSNBC host Joe Scarborough; this January, he hosted an Alfalfa Dinner after-party at Cafe Milano whose attendees included Rex Tillerson, Jeff Bezos, presidential adviser Gary Cohn, and multiple members of the Cabinet and Congress. Those who have taken his private-jet junkets to the Formula One Grand Prix in Abu Dhabi include a former Air Force chief of staff.
“They’re all being wined and dined, it’s incredibly glamorous, and he has put himself in a position of getting extraordinary access to all kinds of information,” a prominent D.C. socializer and sometime Otaiba guest told me, on the condition his name not be used. “The influence is palpable, but people don’t want to see it, because they enjoy the largesse.” Otaiba’s web of connections is obviously aimed at improving his country’s stature and relations with the U.S.; it is also alleged to have influenced American policy in the Mideast. If you are a D.C. climber, you can hardly do better than to be on his invitation list.