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Foreign Cash in Washington: America's Self-Inflicted Hazard

Americans seem surprised to find out that foreign countries and the citizens of those countries have been seeking to send money to influence United States politics - targeting even political parties!

The Senate campaign-finance hearings have opened with charges that the government of the Peoples' Republic of China may have tried to contribute to the Democratic National Committee. Efforts to gain testimony from former Department of Commerce official John Huang center on donations from prominent Indonesians and the possible exploitation for business purposes of meetings and photographs with President Clinton.

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None of this is new. Nations and individuals from every continent have tried over many decades - with varying degrees of success - to buy influence in the US.

It is little wonder that foreigners get the impression that money leads to access and influence in the US. The American news media have aired the campaign-financing debate around the world. Americans in substantial numbers have solicited contributions from foreign sources. As resources for education and other institution-building in the US have declined, development officers of universities and think tanks have fanned out across the world seeking donations. Foreigners who expect rewards from gifts in their own countries can hardly be blamed if they see such approaches as opportunities for influence. Neither is it a big jump to assume that amounts contributed directly into the political process can bring results.

The decisions that emerge from that process are of tremendous importance to people around the world. They affect economic aid, military sales, trade relations, and often vital political support in international conflicts. The political fate of a nation's leader can be determined by the ability to obtain favors from Washington.

Governments, revolutionary groups, and foreign political factions, therefore, spend millions of dollars in the US. Money goes to lobbyists, think tanks, and advocacy groups organized to influence official attitudes and legislation. During the cold war, efforts focused on convincing Washington of the anticommunist credentials of nations and movements in Central America, Asia, and Africa. More recently, trade issues have come to the fore in the battles to influence government decisions.

A large part of the funds to support these activities, to be sure, is raised and spent legally by groups and individuals within the US. But it's hard to believe that before the current spotlight on campaign financing no foreign money found its way into the coffers of political parties and campaigns. Wider probing, however, seems unlikely. Public and congressional attention is primarily directed at those countries such as China and Indonesia already vulnerable to US criticism. Investigating sources of funds that support countries with strong constituencies on Capitol Hill is not politically rewarding.

Americans are equally naive to be surprised when foreigners who gain access to the White House exploit photographs with the president for their personal and business advantage. However a foreign country may regard America, the president of the US is seen as a person of unique power. The aura rubs off on those who can boast entree to the presidential circle.

The executive and legislative branches are justified in trying to determine whether illegal attempts have been made to influence political campaigns. If laws were broken, indictments should be brought through the normal judicial process. If the laws were insufficient, the facts should be obtained and the laws strengthened.

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The US has problems with China and Indonesia - human rights, trade practices, and, in China's case, weapons policies. These are genuine foreign policy issues. It would be unfortunate if, in the present atmosphere in Washington, the alleged efforts of these countries to influence US policies through financial contributions further complicate already complex relations.

The responsibility in these cases lies not with the countries or individuals, but with Americans who appear unable either to resist the temptation to accept such funds or to grasp the motives of those offering them.

* David D. Newsom, former undersecretary of state, is Cumming Memorial Professor of International Affairs at the University of Virginia.

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