July 25, 2013

A world where everything is for sale

Those who prostitute their high offices

By Hossein Askari

While growing up, I thought certain things in life were not for sale - that no amount of money could buy them. These included a democratic country? its national interest and its highest offices, the reputation of internationally admired men and women, Nobel laureates, institutions of higher learning and on and on.

Boy, was I naive, Today, it would appear that everything is for sale, even if it belongs to nations. Maybe, just maybe, it has always been so but I was blind.

To my mind, it is not in the United States' long-term national interest to support dictators in the Middle East. If the US supports oppressive, corrupt and incompetent rulers, it is to the detriment of the general citizenry of these countries.

Who would want to live under oppressive rulers who bleed their country dry for their own personal wealth, run their economy into the ground and don't allow their country to flourish? Foreigners who support these rulers hardly endear themselves to the general population. So why do the great powers, today especially the United States, support dictators?

If you ask US government officials, you get answers such as: stability, strategic national interests, regional interests, realpolitik, etcetera. Of course, you would expect there to be short-run stability when those opposed to the regime are jailed, tortured and killed and the population is terrorized. But eventually this state of affairs will give way to a much greater explosion than what might have been had there been no outside support to keep oppressive rulers in power for years and decades. The latest example of this is Egypt.

Why does the US really support these rulers, and why does it risk turning the population of these countries against the US? The answer is invariably because of short-term personal and corporate interests in the US. The corporate interests are obvious, but the personal ones require a little explanation.

Some former leaders of important Western countries, such as US presidents and cabinet members, prime ministers of the United Kingdom, French presidents, German chancellors and the like, have received significant direct and indirect remuneration as high-priced consultants, speakers, representatives of corporate interests and foundations established in their names to support those in power in the Middle East and elsewhere where dictators flourish.

They are in fact glorified influence peddlers and pay little attention to the national interest of their own country (and of course no attention at all to the interests of the exploited countries). Instead, they do all they can to support their benefactors in the Middle East, helping them hang on to power no matter what the consequences for their country.

Although these former Western leaders and so-called dignitaries have a lucrative international market for the public office they once held, their domestic market may be even bigger. They give 45-minute talks that can fetch up to US$200,000 or $300,000. But what is it they say to investor groups or automobile dealers that is worth that kind of money? What are they really selling?

To my mind, what they are selling is the name of the national public office that they once occupied. They took an oath to defend that office and to carry out their duties faithfully according to the laws of the land but now they are cashing in. They get a hefty retirement and could earn an "honest" living on top of that but it would appear that they need more, so they peddle the name and influence of the office they once held, something that does not belong to them but to their nation.

To my mind there is something unseemly in all this, especially when I hear from prominent foreigners that Western leaders and countries are mercenaries. They make this accusation and point to the liberation of Kuwait - all paid for by Arab countries of the Persian Gulf. When I was a student at a US university, we were urged to enter public service as a higher calling; we were told that this was self-sacrifice, pursuing the greater good for the nation and for humanity. But our ex-leaders, those we once hailed as great public servants, seem to quickly forget their higher calling and cash in as soon as their "service" is done. Where's the sacrifice? Has public service become yet another path to amass a fortune.

I have always admired Nobel laureates for their exceptional contributions to humanity. But in recent years I have started to have my doubts. It seems that some Nobel laureates in economics are rushing to cash in on their prize. Just look at the Astana Economic Forum held in Kazakhstan for the past six years and chaired by its longstanding oppressive dictator, Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Why do so many Nobel economics laureates go there year after year? Is it for an important exchange of ideas? Is it to learn about President Nazarbayev's great programs and achievements? Is it to meet famous figures such as Dominique Strauss-Khan (one of the touted invitees in 2013)? Or is it to get a big time "honorarium" for lending their names, or more correctly the name of the award they won?

You be the judge. The Astana Economic Forum's purpose is to show global support for President Nazarbayev's policies - but is it really fair for Nobel laureates to use the name of their award to give credibility to a dictator in office? They won the award but they don't own the franchise. Perhaps the Nobel Foundation should continue to award the prizes but withhold the cash award, donating it instead to needy causes? Perhaps the Nobel Foundation should also put restrictions on award recipients' use of their honor for commercial purposes?

Unfortunately, as academics Nobel laureates receive a terrible example from where most of them work, namely universities. Universities seem willing to do anything for a donation. They will bend the rules and admit unqualified students whose parents have given money or might give money to them. They will lend their names to unseemly rulers who boost their endowments with big gifts.

For example, just look at some of the most famous US universities who have opened satellite campuses in Qatar. Why do they go to Qatar? The answer is simple: big donations. Universities lend their names to Qatar's dictatorial regime, a regime that takes national oil/gas revenues for its own benefit at the expense of the general citizenry and all future generations, and imprisons a poet to life imprisonment for criticizing the ruler (later reduced to 15 years).

Universities educate Qataris who could easily afford to go abroad for an education, but their educational offerings are much more needed in poorer countries. Ah yes, but those countries don't have the money to make big donations! So why should you expect anything more from academics when their universities are such mercenaries?

Whenever I talk of my disgust of those who are selling things that don't really belong to them, I am told that this is the market system. No one is forcing anyone to buy the "services" that are being offered, thus I must be against the market and the free enterprise system.

My comeback is to refer them to Adam Smith, the father of the Western market system. Smith preached morality for all market participants in his book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which preceded his now more famous The Wealth of Nations. The market system works well when its rules and regulations are respected, and when those who are buyers and sellers imbue it with a good dose of morality.

Hossein Askari is Professor of Business and International Affairs at the George Washington University

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