The Obama administration wants Americans to believe that it is fiercely anti-corruption. “I've been shocked by the degree to which I find corruption pandemic in the world today," declared Secretary of State John Kerry at last week’s Anti-Corruption Summit in London. Kerry sounded like the French detective in Casablanca who was “shocked” to discover gambling. Six years ago at the United Nations, President Obama proclaimed that the US government is “leading a global effort to combat corruption.” Maybe he forgot to send Kerry the memo.
Or maybe Kerry lost the memo. By the time he got to Egypt on Wednesday, judging by his public comments, he seems to have forgotten about corruption despite standing in one of its capitals.
Much of the teeth-gnashing at last week’s summit involved tax evasion. Politicians pledged to share more data on tax records and corporate ownership to help boost government revenue around the globe. Summit attendees castigated hidden offshore tax havens — ironically, the same type of accounts used by both British Prime Minister David Cameron and Kerry. A joint communique solemnly pledged to “driv(e) out those lawyers, real estate agents and accountants who facilitate or are complicit in corruption.”
But the summit largely ignored how corruption is fueled by western governments, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Foreign aid has long been notorious for breeding kleptocracies — governments of thieves. Economic studies have revealed that corrupt governments receive more foreign aid. Fourteen years ago, President George W. Bush promised to reform foreign aid: “We won’t be putting money into a society which is not transparent and corrupt.” (He probably meant “corruption-free.”) But US aid programs — which cost taxpayers more than $40 billion a year — continue to bankroll many of the world’s most crooked regimes (according to ratings by Transparency International) — including Uzbekistan, Haiti and Kenya.
The Obama administration has valiantly resisted congressional efforts to stop payouts to political bandits abroad. In 2011, when a House committee sought to curb the abuse, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that restricting handouts to nations that fail anti-corruption tests “has the potential to affect a staggering number of needy aid recipients.”
Since Obama took office, the US government has provided more than $50 billion in foreign aid to Afghanistan — even though that nation’s president, Ashraf Ghani, admitted last week that his nation is "one of the most corrupt countries on earth." Seven years ago, Obama reportedly gave his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, a six-month deadline to eradicate corruption. Obama’s imperative only accelerated the looting by Afghan government officials and their cronies.
Pervasive corruption is a major reason why the Taliban is re-conquering more of that nation each year. At Afghanistan’s premier military hospital, some wounded Afghan soldiers starved to death because they could not afford to bribe the hospital staff for food. Much of the Afghan Army is practically bootless because of crooked contracts that deliver shoddy footwear that literally falls apart the first time soldiers wear them.
Kerry promised that the US would help fund a Global Consortium of Civil Society and Investigative Journalists against Corruption. But on the home-front, the Obama administration has scourged individuals who disclosed federal abuses. Obama’s Justice Department launched more than twice as many federal prosecutions for Espionage Act violations as all previous administrations combined. When Obama took office, the US was ranked as having the 20th most-free press in the world, according to the Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index — in the same league as Germany and Japan. By 2016, it had fallen to 41st — worse than South Africa and barely ahead of Botswana.
Kerry joined foreign chieftains in calling for more transparency to fight corruption but he forgot to notify his own State Department. Three days before Kerry’s speech, the State Department confirmed that it had “lost” all the emails of I.T. technician who set up the private email server that Hillary Clinton used to potentially illicitly keep her correspondence secret (and to ignore federal law on classified information). Nor have we learned the shady details behind our former secretary of State shoveling out scores of billions of dollars and special treatment to foreign governments at the same time the Clinton Foundation collected millions of dollars from some of the beneficiaries.
In his London speech, Kerry boasted of US government plans “to put $70 million into additional integrity initiative to help with local police training” to curtail “opportunity for bribery and graft.” Unfortunately, the Obama administration will continue fueling police graft here in the US Obama’s Justice Department recently resumed a widely-denounced program to reward local and state law enforcement agencies for confiscating the property of hapless citizens who have been convicted of no crime. Government agencies routinely keep most of the money they confiscate, sometimes using it to pay bonuses to the lawmen who plundered private citizens. Federal law enforcement agencies used asset forfeiture programs in 2014 to seize more property from Americans than all the burglars stole nationwide.
Each summit attendee issued a statement “setting out the concrete actions they will take in order to tackle corruption.” Among other pledges, the US government promised to conduct “Stronger Security Assistance Oversight” including “ensuring that our security assistance also addresses governance goals.” Tell that to the downtrodden Egyptians. The Obama administration continues providing more than a billion dollars a year to the Egyptian military — despite their role in toppling Egypt’s elected president in 2013 (a coup which Kerry bizarrely praised for “restoring democracy”) and slaughtering hundreds, if not thousands, of protestors. On the same day as Kerry’s speech, the Government Accountability Office reported that the State Department may persistently violate federal law by providing military equipment to the Egyptian government and largely ignoring the requirement to track “gross human rights violations” by Egypt.
Perhaps Americans should count their blessings that this particular international summit is not likely to spur a new war. Kerry and President Obama are correct that corruption is a pestilence ravaging much of the planet. But the administration’s credibility would be boosted if it had not worsened the problem at home and abroad.
James Bovard, author of Public Policy Hooligan, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors.
Reprinted with permission from USA Today.