Thomas B. Edsall, an otherwise respected political analyst, carries the ball for the Democrats in their continuing quest to spin the DeLay saga into a broader attack on conservatism, in Sunday’s Washington Post. Edsall writes:
For years, the Heritage Foundation sharply criticized the autocratic rule of former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, denouncing his anti-Semitism, his jailing of political opponents and his “anti-free market currency controls.”
Then, late in the summer of 2001, the conservative nonprofit Washington think tank began to change its assessment: Heritage financed an Aug. 30-Sept. 4, 2001, trip to Malaysia for three House members and their spouses. Heritage put on briefings for the congressional delegation titled “Malaysia: Standing Up for Democracy” and “U.S. and Malaysia: Ways to Cooperate in Order to Influence Peace and Stability in Southeast Asia.”
Heritage’s new, pro-Malaysian outlook emerged at the same time a Hong Kong consulting firm co-founded by Edwin J. Feulner, Heritage’s president, began representing Malaysian business interests. The for-profit firm, called Belle Haven Consultants, retains Feulner’s wife, Linda Feulner, as a “senior adviser.” And Belle Haven’s chief operating officer, Ken Sheffer, is the former head of Heritage’s Asia office and is still on Heritage’s payroll as a $75,000-a-year consultant.
Edsall’s implication is clear — Heritage changed its tune on Malaysia because Feulner and his wife had profitable relationships with Malaysia. With the implication made, Edsall unleashes the Democratic talking points: Feulner’s wife worked for Alexander Strategy Group, which is run by a former chief of staff to Tom DeLay. DeLay went on the August 30, 2001, trip to Malaysia. Allegedly corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff was “indirectly paid” by Malaysian business interests. DeLay knows Abramoff. Therefore, DeLay is in bed with the Malaysian business community because he knows Abramoff who took money, but only indirectly, and DeLay went on a trip to Malaysia paid for by the Heritage Foundation whose President has a separate business that has ties to the Malaysian business community (note: not the Malaysian government) and whose wife also works for a company that is operated by old DeLay employees and that company also has ties to the Malaysian business community. The only connection Edsall does not make is that these same individuals are six degrees or less away from Kevin Bacon. No doubt his editor cut that bit.
about all this, let’s move on to Massimo Calabresi, writing over at Time. Calabresi writes:
On Aug. 30, 2001, then majority whip Tom DeLay, his wife, his staff and two Florida Republican House members arrived in Malaysia on what was billed as an educational trip. After a day of informal meetings and a fancy dinner given by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in Kuala Lumpur, they decamped to the Datai Hotel, whose promotional material describes it as located on “a mystical island of wild scenic beauty.”
Says Heritage Foundation president Edwin Feulner, whose organization was the official sponsor of the trip: “I sat by the pool while they played golf.”
But who really paid for the Malaysia trip? A Heritage senior fellow who was on the trip tells TIME that it wasn’t Heritage. He says that Belle Haven Consultants, a for-profit, Hong Kong-based firm linked to the Malaysian government, played a key role. “Heritage had nothing to do with it,” says the senior fellow, former Wyoming Senator Malcolm Wallop. “Belle Haven did.” It would be a violation of House ethics rules if a group other than the official sponsor paid for a trip for a member of Congress. DeLay’s spokesman Dan Allen insists, “Heritage sponsored, organized and paid for the trip,” and Heritage spokeswoman Khristine Bershers said documentary proof exists in storage but was not immediately available.
While Calabresi does a much better job of laying out the supposed nefariousness of Heritage’s deed, we are still left with this confusion:
was trying to mend relations with Washington, poisoned by the jailing of his deputy and rival Anwar Ibrahim, and had hired a flock of high-powered lobbyists. Among those was Jack Abramoff, who attended the dinner thrown for DeLay. Abramoff had not registered his work for Malaysia either as a foreign agent or under the lobbying disclosure rules of Congress.
DeLay attended a dinner and Abramoff was there. Clearly this is prima facie evidence that DeLay was on a trip with Abramoff who, we all know the media thinks is corrupt and therefore is corrupt, and because DeLay was there and Abramoff was there DeLay must also be corrupt. Perhaps if DeLay and Heritage had been caught on videotape raising campaign contributions from Buddhist monks the media would be less likely to jump to the conclusion that something was afoot.
With the media failing to do much homework, let’s focus on two points.
First, is it not interesting that on April 17, 2005, both Time and the Washington Post seize on the DeLay trip to Malaysia and the Heritage angle? In politics and media there are very few coincidences. It is hard to believe that Calabresi and Edsall just happened to come up with some very tangentially related pieces of information and both compile the loosely related tangential data into stories of DeLay corruption connected to Abramoff and Heritage. Take this as strong evidence indeed of collaboration between Democrats and a media willing to swallow partisan talking points and come up with conjectures of scandal. Take this also as proof that if the Democrats can do no better with the willing cooperation of Time and the Washington Post, DeLay, for his part, has nothing to worry about here.
Second, consider how weak the talking points are on Heritage. Edsall, who goes so far as to question whether Heritage can keep its tax exemption, premises his story on the idea that Heritage changed its tune on Malaysia only after Feulner started getting paid. It’s a premise worth checking: which came first — Heritage’s tone on Malaysia or Feulner’s payments from Malaysia?
In 1998, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad jailed pro-American Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. Heritage, at the time condemned the action, but rightly put it in perspective. Malaysia was undergoing serious economic difficulty and the Prime Minister, seeking to distract from a two month vacation during the crisis, jailed Ibrahim, who had acted as Prime Minister during that vacation. Though Heritage condemned the arrest and subsequent beating of Ibrahim, Heritage maintained that the Clinton administration should engage Malaysia.
January 1999 found the Heritage Foundation looking at America’s priorities in the world, including the need to keep Southeast Asia, including Malaysia, engaged in market based reforms — something Mahathir Mohammad opposed. In February of that same year, Ed Feulner testified before the House International Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on Asia. Feulner dared to praise Al Gore:
Vice President Gore made an impressive defense of freedom in Malaysia last November by speaking out for America’s friend, Anwar Ibrahim.
At the same time, Feulner continued Heritage’s theme of engagement with Malaysia and Southeast Asia:
Another cause for pessimism is that some in Asia are learning the wrong lessons from this crisis. At one extreme is Malaysia, which has imposed a ban on trading in its currency outside Malaysia as a means to protect its markets from volatility. At the same time, Malaysia directed its banks to ease credit in a move both to prime its economy and to help politically connected businesses. Malaysia is gambling that a return of growth can preclude the need for real reform and financial transparency. A lack of financial transparency, and a structure of outmoded bankruptcy laws that facilitated poor lending for the politically connected, is at the root of the financial crisis in Thailand and Indonesia. Real confidence in their financial markets will not return until there are serious reforms in these areas.
Interestingly, Edsall cites Feulner’s remarks praising Al Gore, but completely ignores Feulner’s call for engagement with Southeast Asia to foster free market reforms.
The year 2000 found Heritage calling on the United States to actively engage Southeast Asian countries, including Malaysia, to combat piracy at sea — an increasingly common crime that was driving up business and insurance costs.
After 2001, all that changed. While Heritage had actively encouraged U.S. engagement with Malaysia in the area of economics, the think tank began aggressively pushing engagement with Malaysia to combat terrorism. On October 23, 2001, Dana Dillon and Paolo Pasicolan wrote a Heritage paper entitled “Southeast Asia and the War Against Terrorism.” In it, the Heritage scholars noted that Malaysia was on the front lines of the war on terror:
[T]he Malaysian government has arrested 10 people under its Internal Security Act, but they have yet to be charged with a specific terrorist-related crime. The police claim that these people are members of a militant Islamic group. Perhaps significantly, at least four of the people arrested are from the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, the largest opposition party to the government of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.
By 2003, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad was on his way out of government and on an anti-semitic tirade. As Dana Dillon stated in a Heritage web memo:
Without question Mahathir’s speech in front of the OIC contained some of the most outrageous arguments yet from a man infamous for his inflammatory remarks. The allegation that the Jews control the world and that Israel and the Jews are the enemy of the 1.3 billion down trodden Muslims is inexcusable. Afterward, Mahathir not only did not apologize for his words, but also declared that the international protests of his speech were “proof” that the Jews controlled the world.
There are many adjectives to describe Mahathir’s speech, including disgraceful. Nevertheless, despite Mahathir’s excesses, Malaysia has been a model friend to the U.S. in Southeast Asia and the Congress must bear in mind the future of U.S.-Malaysian relations.
In that memo and in a followup piece later that year, Dillon argued that despite Mahathir’s blatant anti-semitism and “blame America” attitude, the U.S. should not adopt a spending amendment offered by Senator Mitch McConnell that would have cut off all military aid to Malaysia. Dillon’s point, based on sound realism, was that Malaysia was on the front lines of the war on terror. The Bali bombing was only a few hundred miles from Malaysian territory. Cutting military assistance would have been disastrous policy. On this, Edsall writes:
ist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Malaysia faced major hurdles in its dealings with the United States. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad had trampled human rights, jailed political opponents and made repeated anti-Semitic comments. . . . In May 2002, when Mahathir visited the United States, Edwin Feulner hosted a dinner honoring the prime minister at Washington’s Metropolitan Club. According to news accounts, it was attended by prominent foreign-policy opinion leaders, including Lawrence S. Eagleburger, former secretary of state; Charlene Barshefsky, the former U.S. trade representative; former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Jeane J. Kirkpatrick; and retired Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, former national security adviser.
Edsall’s statement is misleading at best and an intentional misrepresentation at worst. Mahathir’s widely reported anti-semitic comments did not occur until October 2003, well after the May 2002 dinner and shortly before Mahathir left office. While he may have said similar things in the past, the American press did not actively pursue the story until Mahathir’s statement in front of the OIC in 2003.
While Edsall tried to make the case that Heritage was paid off by Malaysia in 2001, the evidence from Heritage’s own website seems pretty compelling. Heritage has always supported active engagement to expand the free market in Malaysia. It would make sense that when Malaysian businesses wanted to improve relations with the United States they would seek out those individuals that believed the same thing. The businesses found Edward Fuelner. In the end, that transaction and chain of events makes much more sense that Thomas Edsall’s strange story trying to hit the favorite targets of the American left: Heritage, Fuelner, and Tom DeLay.