Keene’s woke, enthusiastic proclamations about standing by the side of the wretched of Western Sahara is an instance of self-serving rage. It has nothing to do with humanitarian investment in the welfare of the others.
Rabat – It was a media bombshell, the news that stirred up policy circles in Washington DC, scandalizing some and pushing others to ask for accountability: Maria Butina, an alleged Russian spy, had unrestricted access to the most powerful conservative circles of American politics.
How a David Keene-led NRA helped Russia influence US elections
Faced with robust evidence from American intelligence, Butina pleaded guilty in late 2018, acknowledging that she used her solid relations with the National Rifle Association (NRA) to lay the groundwork for a more Kremlin-friendly US leadership.
The story reverberated in the entire American commentariat, shocking conservatives and outraging liberals. the Washington Post reported, Politico fumed, the New York Times pointed fingers, all of them sounding accusatory and slightly vindictive even as they strove to remain attached to objective and emotion-free reporting.
For a country like the US, known for its media deeply affected by the divisive dichotomy of conservatives vs. progressives, there was an unfamiliar aura of agreement to the NRA-Keene-Butina story.
Shying away from the usual Republican-Democrat ideological complexion of American politics, all major publications pointed out that David Keene, the former NRA president and still influential board member of the organization, was critical to the unfolding of the Butina scandal.
Keene was the focal point of the NRA’s romance with top Russian figures, including Alexander Torshin, the deputy governor of the Central Bank of Russia and Butina’s “handler,” according to reports.
In a lengthy investigative effort on the “decade-long Russian campaign to… influence the outcome of the US presidential elections,” Rolling Stone uncovered the centrality of Keene in paving the way for Butina and her “handler” to “infiltrate” America’s conservative circles.
“Leading the American cohort was the NRA’s president, Keene, who delivered his address promoting Russo-American unity,” the newspaper said of the high-profile inauguration ceremony of the Right to Bear Arms, Russia’s NRA-inspired gun-activism group that Burtina created prior to traveling to the US. But that was only 2013 and, as later events would reveal, the cozy relationship between top Russian figures and the Keene-led NRA was only beginning.
In December 2015, Keene, heading a delegation of senior Republicans, including some key figures of Trump’s presidential campaign, attended another Right to Bear Arms event in Moscow. The event came as a suggestion that a marriage between the two groups had, by then, been consummated. Keene reportedly requested John Bolton, who was then a top NRA official, serving as the body’s international affairs subcommittee, to record a supportive video for the event.
Burtina was indicted in July 2018, having pleaded guilty of using her NRA ties “on behalf of the Russian Federation,” using her guns-related activism to “tilt the Republican Party in a pro-Kremlin direction.”
Relevance to Moroccan interests
But, one may be tempted to ask, why does it matter to Morocco that Keene was part—supposedly unwittingly— of Kremlin-okayed operations to further Russian interests? How is an exclusively US domestic issue, or a potential feud with Russia, relevant to Morocco?
The answer, as suggested to the Daily Beast by a European intelligence officers in the wake of the Keene-Butina-Kremlin story, lies in the fact that Keene led a body, the NRA, whose influence is second to none in terms of setting America’s conservative agenda and sponsoring the political aspirations of most Republicans, be it for winning the White House or seats in both US congressional houses.
“The NRA is quite powerful, so when you look to influence US politics, you should consider them as a convenient target,” the anonymous European officer said.
Given the established influence that donor’s money has on Washington policymaking, $30 million says a lot about the type of clout that the NRA may have on the Trump administration, despite reports of minor signs of fissures after news emerged of the Russia-NRA story.
What makes the Keene story particularly salient to Moroccan interests is that in Keene’s eventful career as a Washington lobbyist, Algeria has featured quite prominently in the big picture.
When the Butina scandal broke out, Keene was already on Algiers’ payroll to advance Algerian interests in US policy circles.
The former NRA president is influential in the highest echelons of the governing Republican party. And with a $ 30,000 per-month contract, Keene is especially expected to influence the general narrative on Western Sahara in Algiers’ and Polisario’s favor, the central mission being to paint Rabat in as bad a light as possible. The strategy, usual in such cases, seeks to promote the legitimacy of the Polisario’s “victim” and “colonial occupation” narrative.
But can there really be a Keene effect on US’ Sahara position? Or has there already been one?
“President Trump,” Bloomberg recently reported, is a “big fan of the NRA.” While that is supposed to say a lot, there is a lot more to the story, judging by recent developments in Western Sahara.
In the latest UN Security Council voting on the mandate of MINURSO, the UN peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara, the council, reportedly upon US’ request, decided to renew the mission’s mandate by only six months. The move was unprecedented, as the usual renewal length was one year.
Later reports indicated that the until-then unheard-of-move to cut the MINURSO mandate may have been orchestrated by John Bolton. The New Yorker called it the “Bolton effect,” citing diplomats who endorsed the narrative that Bolton was indeed the mastermind of the US’ MINURSO move.
But for all Bolton’s seemingly pro-Polisario sentiments, he cannot, as a US official, cross some sensitive thresholds. Morocco is a strong US ally and, between allies, some things never change, no matter who is in power.
But Keene can cross such dangerous thresholds, the heart of a typical lobbyist lying where the funds lie, even if that means, as the Butina case has shown, going against US interests for personal gains.
Meanwhile, Keene was virtually left untouched, even if few in Congress have called for “deciphering” and giving more resonance and a broader platform to exposing how lethal a number of his actions have been US interests while he keeps on adorning his public persona and statements with patriotic and “American values”-laden tropes.
A history of dubious claims
Most importantly perhaps, at least as far as Rabat is concerned, Keene’s recent contract with Algeria is hardly the first time that the veteran Republican influencer has expressed sympathy for the Sahrawi “cause.”
In December 2010, Keene penned an op-ed on supposed misconduct by Moroccan security forces in a “peaceful refugee camp” in Western Sahara. “Guns blazing,” Keene said in the piece, “Moroccan forces broke up a peaceful encampment of Western Saharans.”
Morocco’s Western Sahara claims, he went on to argue, constitute “a less-than-accurate narrative” solely convincing “as long as those to whom it is sold don’t discover that it is little more than fiction.”
The article unsurprisingly struck an emotional chord, garnering tense reactions.
Among the flurry of responses, both pro and anti, one pointed out that, as a veteran Washington lobbyist, Keene has few qualms about “seriously distorting [the] truth” when money, in this case his huge paycheck from Algiers, is involved.
But even more challenging to Keene’s article was a December 9, 2010, New York Times report.
“A fog of rumors and propaganda has helped obscure the fact about what happened here last month,” the Times wrote, referring to claims like Keene’s that Moroccan security officers had stormed a refugee camp and killed dozens.
“The truth, it soon emerged,” the Times report continued, “was virtually the opposite: knife-wielding gangs from the camp attacked unarmed Moroccan officials, killing 11 of them.”
The sweeping-under-the-rug-style of denial seems to be a favorite Keene trope, for that is exactly how he reacted to the responses to his 2010 op-ed. Even though the reality on the ground did not support the narrative his piece had sought to promote, Keene’s response was as brazen as it was audacious.
Keene denied being a pro-Algeria lobbyist. But, as far as post-2007 developments in Western Sahara are concerned, Keene’s denial of his lobbying for Algeria was hardly the most critical part of his response.
“The World Court and the United Nations agree with Algeria and the Western Saharan position on this question,” he wrote. The statement was downright ignorant to the fact that Morocco’s 2007 Autonomy Plan had by then been welcomed by the UN Security Council, especially France and the US, as “serious and credible.”
Jibing at Morocco in his Hill op-ed, Keene remarked: “Controlling the narrative becomes even more important when few Americans are familiar with the facts.” Perhaps Keene was talking more about his own relationship with the facts than he was about Morocco’s supposed game of twisting the reality in Western Sahara, a Moroccan official who requested anonymity told Morocco World News.
Whereas PR gurus like Keene are more concerned with cherry-picking and fact-twisting to “control the narrative,” Morocco is convinced that it has to proceed smoothly and patiently to win as much international support as needed to make its position prevail, the source continued.
But where does Morocco get that confidence, the assurance that even an impeccably well-paid aggressive PR giant like Keene will not prevail? “Because historical evidence is on our side, and more and more countries are waking up to the reality that Morocco’s autonomy plan is serious and the only politically feasible alternative,” the source argued.
This optimism may have been buttressed by the “good news” that recently came from Washington, with President Trump signing a Morocco-friendly 2019 spending bill. Most recently, there have been subsequent reports that the Washington and the Trump administration do not in any way plan to torpedo the strong, strategic alliance with Morocco.
Highly paid lobbyist or humanitarian crusader?
However, Washington is yet to go beyond a verbal, in principle support of Morocco’s stance, and a shrewd lobbyist like Keene is bound to take this to that mean US support for Morocco is far from a foregone conclusion.
Between December 2018 and April of this year, Keene and his wife and business partner, Donna Wiesner, “met with the who’s who of GOP decision-makers.”
According to lobbying disclosure forms from the Department of Justice, Keene attended a sizable number of Republican political events in that period, meeting with as many as 40 members of the highest echelons of America’s governing party. Predictably, among the GOP figures Keene met are Patrick Lehay and Senator Inhofe, two of the US’ most strident, loudest pro-Polisario voices in the US Senate, in addition to some members of the Trump administration.
But also central in Keene’s contract with Algiers is writing articles and issuing press content to “facilitate a greater understanding of Algeria’s concerns and positions on various issues.” This is a coded way of saying that Western Sahara is the piece de resistance of Keene’s pro-Algeria lobbying.
Through rebranding, or agenda setting, or narrative claiming, the point of such a mission is to launch venomous, ferocious attacks on the opposing side’s stance. More specifically, the endgame is to shift popular opinion around Western Sahara from UN-moderated territorial dispute to decolonization battle.
“If Americans knew more about what Jim Baker, John Bolton, and elected officials like Senator Inhofe have learned about the ongoing human disaster in the Western Sahara,” Keene wrote in his latest tirade against Morocco, “all of Rabat’s lobbyists and diplomats would lose their ability to keep the US from stepping up pressure to force their country to live up to its promises.” The piece, published in the American Spectator, a conservative outlet, is a passionate vindication of Algeria-backed secessionism in Western Sahara.
He continued: “The problem is that few Americans even know that Africa’s last colony exists. After discussing the issue recently during a radio interview, my host broke in to say, ‘I’ve never heard anything about this until today.’ He will hear far more about it in the future …”
At its most profound, the substance of Keene’s visceral anti-Rabat rhetoric, his vow that his radio host “will hear far more about it [Western Sahara] in the future” is a faithful echo to the faux humanitarianism of most of Polisario’s American friends, most notably including Keene himself and Senator Inhofe, whom he tirelessly mentions in his Western Sahara hit pieces.
Reading through that recent Morocco-bashing piece from Keene, there is a glaring silence on the latest, significant breakthroughs accomplished in the past months under Horst Kohler’s supervision. Oblivious to what many observers have acknowledged as impressive socio-economic transformations in regions like Laayoune and Dakhla, Keene presents the whole of Western Sahara like some godforsaken corner left, unchallenged, at the mercy of Morocco’s colonial greed and expansionist ambitions.
What about the deep history of the disputed territory? What of the overwhelming consensus over the seriousness and feasibility of Morocco’s autonomy plan? What does keene have to say to those whose support for Morocco is entrenched in their fear of the inescapable security and stability challenges associated with secessionism in a region known to be on the radar of terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State?
But asking such questions is to invite Keene to provide the kind of answers he has no intention of engaging with. For the very fiber of his lobbyist, financial interest-driven thinking is to do what is needed to keep his contract, to accumulate financial incentives from his public pronouncements of passion for or genuine interest in “just causes.”
It is easier, more convenient to throw in Morocco’s way the most classical pro-Polisario tropes like “occupation” or “Africa’s last colony” than admit the contradictions of Polisario’s “Sahrawi nationalist cause.”
At the same time, while it is often warranted to reproach Morocco its suspicion of “journalists, academics, and NGO activists who may hold pro-Algeria secessionist views on Western Sahara,” the painful truth is that Keene’s advocacy solely hinges on the economic benefits he gets from throwing Morocco under the bus. Money, not a heartfelt interest in the painful lives of Tindouf camp refugees, is the distinctive benchmark of Keene’s publicly expressed passion for Western Sahara, of his espousal of the “Sahrawi cause.”
When discrediting Morocco, Keene is faithful to the pro-Polisario propensity of embracing the woke, third-worldist enthusiasm about saving “the wretched of the earth,” or the downtrodden of Western Sahara. Undergirding this ubiquitous rhetorical tool among advocacy specialists is the effectiveness of alarm sounding in the form of a boiling sense of rage, or the undimmed outrage of a stouthearted people battling against the disastrous yoke of colonial occupation.
“Over the years dozens of U.S. Congressional and Senate delegations have visited these camps and come away convinced that the promised referendum is the Sahrawi’s only hope of ever regaining their homeland and freedom,” Keene said of the pervasive misery in Tindouf in his American Spectator piece.
He explained his own espousal of the pro-Polisario narrative as an intimate act of rebellion, a genuine interest in the welfare of Tindouf refugees. “I first visited the camps fifteen years ago and my daughter served for about six months as a volunteer in them a few years later.”
Further: “My concern for what I saw then and have learned since has led me to agree to work with the Algerian government on this and other issues of concern to Algiers because through the years Algeria, while eschewing any interest in the Sahrawi land, has hosted their refugees and worked with the parties to support their desire for the right to determine their own future.”
This is effective as an agenda setting, a public action galvanizing device in a global affairs environment more driven by perceptions than facts, whether they be historical or present.
But it goes without saying that Keene’s affection-cloaked proclamations are more about performance than personal affiliation: The moment Algeria finds a more effective lobbyist and terminates its contract with Keene, the former NRA president will most probably throw himself in the embrace of the next bidder, his next client–rather than continue the fight for the cause of his professed “friends in the desert.”
Keene’s sincere-sounding concern would have been defensible, even admirable had he been a pro bono lobbyist for a cause he dear to his heart, to his socio-political identity. As a lobbyist who makes his living by taking on another’s burden and concerns and making them his (as long they are bound by a client-advocate covenant), however, Keene’s every move in the Western Sahara case most likely follows the “what will I get in return” mindset.
For all his self-righteous finger-pointing and lamentations about “Moroccan occupation,” Keene sees Algeria, Polisario, and “the Sahrawi” as his clients–and nothing else. Keene’s, fundamentally, is a self-serving rage that has very little to do with a disinterested investment in bettering the painful lives of the subjugated other.