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David Rothkopf Continues To Promote Himself as a “Democracy” Advocate While Taking Millions From Oppressive Gulf Dictatorship
From Rothkopf to CSIS to the Atlantic Council, one simple way those worried about "democratic backsliding" can fight authoritarianism is to stop cashing checks from authoritarians.
There’s been a lot of worry of late—sometimes earnest, often understandable given the Republican Party’s now open embrace of election stealing—about so-called “democratic backsliding” in the U.S. and elsewhere. It’s the trendiest of political concerns, leading to countless Atlantic think pieces, New York Times articles, Atlantic Council papers, and hand wringing from centrist and liberal Serious Thinkers. While there is an urgent conversation to be had about eroding democratic norms stateside, when this conversation is projected overseas it very quickly turns into yet another selective, self-serving mechanism of U.S. meddling and liberal negative rights concern trolling. Take, for example, one of the most prominent and prolific high-profile pundits—featured on CNN and MSNBC, and very popular on liberal Twitter—talking about the risk to the cause of capital D Democracy: David Rothkopf.
Rothkopf is former editor and CEO of FP Group, which oversees Foreign Policy Magazine, best-selling author of Traitor: A History of American Betrayal from Benedict Arnold to Donald Trump, columnist at The Daily Beast, contributor to USA Today, host of the popular podcast “Deep State,” and frequent cable news guest who rubs elbows with some of the most prominent names in liberal foreign policy circles. He has what Politico calls a “Twitter bromance” with Biden White House Chief of staff Ron Klain. Put simply: He matters, he has influence, he is considered a leader on the subject of American power and the urgent need to “protect democracy.” His preening podcasts and articles lamenting threats to “democracy” often go viral and are shared by a who’s who of liberal foreign policy types.
Rothkopf also moonlights as a very well paid registered agent for the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates. His P.R. firm, The Rothkopf Group (TRG), recently re-upped its contract with the Gulf monarchy. In 2018 Rothkopf signed a contract for $50,000 a month to represent the UAE, which was renewed this past September for $1.6 million ($540,000 over three years).
Rothkopf’s role is particularly damaging because the UAE is invested in representing itself as one of the more tolerant and progressive Gulf monarchies, when it is anything but. The country is known for unjustly imprisoning human rights activists and dissidents, holding them for long stretches of time in squalid conditions, subjecting them to torture and isolation (abuse that is also prevalent in the U.S.), and denying prisoners treatment for HIV and AIDS. Among those detained is rights activist Ahmed Mansoor, who was arrested in 2017 for publishing “false information that harms national unity” on social media. The UAE is also known for its abusive treatment of migrant workers, who comprise more than four fifths of the population, including widespread wage theft and binding workers to their employers. Women have few rights and protections, and LGBTQ people, as well as people who have sex outside of their marriage—or are merely suspected of this—face dire punishment and criminalization.
Rothkopf has addressed this blatant hypocrisy one time before, in Oct 2018, after close UAE ally Saudi Arabia murdered Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, prompting criticism of Rothkopf from then-Intercept columnist Glenn Greenwald. Rothkopf insisted in his cursory Twitter thread that his taking over $800,000 a year from the Gulf monarchy didn’t affect his “independence,” as if this was the problem. Rothkopf was cheerleading Trump’s cynical UAE-Israel “peace agreement” last year and has soft-pedalled the UAE Yemen siege, but even if he didn’t, the issue of “influence” is a non sequitur. Everyone who takes large checks from suspect sources—whether weapons makers, dictatorships, or billionaires—claim they are, in fact, rogue independents unaffected by the money.
The charge isn’t that Rothkopf is secretly being paid to pepper his commentary with pro-UAE talking points. It’s that he openly works doing PR for a horrific regime. This is bad in and of itself. In addition to wildly overcharging to make a podcast no one listens to for the UAE foreign minister, one of Rothkopf’s tasks over the past few years was helping the UAE map out the P.R. for their “50th anniversary celebration,” while UAE-supported Saudi bombing campaigns continued to level Yemeni school buses. Here’s Rothkopf in his own words in 2018 explaining to the U.S. State Department his role working for the UAE regime:
At the same time, Rothkopf—while occasionally hand-wringing about the destruction of Yemen—was part of the liberal foreign policy blob that largely Both-Sides-ing the conflict to death, which protected the status quo destruction of Yemen.
In many ways, there’s a gentleman’s agreement in U.S. media to overlook those on the dole of dictatorships, so long as those dictatorships are US allies. Here at The Column, and elsewhere, analysts have shown CNN is clearly cashing large checks from the UAE and the story mostly goes nowhere. VICE takes significant money from Saudi Arabia while publishing self-righteous claptrap about freedom fighters in Cuba, and the former is met with a yawn. The Atlantic Council, whose major funders include absolute dictatorships Bahrain and the UAE, runs the “Democratic Order Initiative,” which “aims to reenergize American leadership and strengthen democratic cooperation to defend democracy and reaffirm support for the core principles of a free world.” The influential think tank hosts countless symposiums lamenting the “rise of authoritarianism” ands runs the DFRLab that supposedly seeks to fight undue influence online. But it appears to have no problem directly taking cash from anti-democratic states IRL, again, so long as they’re U.S. allies. The major funders of Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) include Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and that think tank, as well, constantly laments about the “Backsliding of democracy” and hosts dozens panels and papers worrying about “rising authoritarianism.” Supposedly respectable media watchdogs like Columbia Journalism Review and the sprawling “fact checking” industry are nowhere to be found. There’s virtually no mainstream reporting on this gross hypocrisy, no one is outraged about it, despite these countries' horrific and well-documented record on human rights abuses and grossly anti-Democratic posture.
The New York Times today had a widely circulated, front-page story documenting the supposedly sinister influence of China on Youtube travel bloggers while the outlet’s own “national security” reporters routinely, and without disclosure, cite Saudi and UAE-funded think tank “experts” from CSIS and Atlantic Council pushing pat, pro-war arguments. Where’s the front-page story on this banal, everyday “influence operation”? Presumably these pro-U.S. dictatorships fund these institutions out of the goodness of their heart, not to leverage any influence.
Rothkopf’s brand exists comfortably within this media milieu. Baddie countries' money corrupts, but allied dictatorships’ money is mostly fine and simply not talked about. Again, just imagine the outrage if it was revealed that dozens of think tanks and “experts” and liberal “Democracy” advocates were on the payroll of China or Iran or Russia. There would be a weeks-long meltdown. But because allied dictatorships spread their money so pervasively and it’s simply The Way Things Are, no one cares. Rothkopf can spend all day breathlessly and unironically tweeting about the threats to democracy and the dangers of “authoritarianism” at home and abroad, while he racks up $50,000 a month doing P.R. for one of the most repressive countries on earth and no one, at all, seems to mind.
Perhaps, one way to stem the “democratic backslide” abroad would be for liberal American institutions, think tanks, media outlets, and high-profile pundits to formally and clearly refuse to take large checks from an absolute dictatorship that tortures reporters, holds fake elections, kidnaps its own daughters, criminalizes dissent, and outlaws homosexuality. Perhaps those in the “democracy”-defending world should clean their houses first, then maybe they’d have the credibility to go around seeking dark and sinister anti-democratic influences elsewhere.