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Syrian President Bashar Assad rolled out the red carpet for Lebanese billionaire Issam Fares during his most recent visit to Damascus on March 15, and for good reason. Fares, a close associate of Syria's military intelligence chief in Lebanon, Maj. Gen. Ghazi Kanaan, has cultivated a network of connections with senior American officials that Beirut's Daily Star once said "would make most people blush with envy." If preliminary indications of the new American administration's policy toward Damascus are accurate, Fares has served his master (if not his country) surprisingly well.
Few Americans had heard of Fares until early January, when the Jerusalem Post, revealed that Colin Powell received a large some of money (later confirmed to be $59,500) from Fares for a November 2 speech he gave at Tufts University. The speech was delivered just days before the US presidential election, when it was widely assumed that he would be appointed secretary of state in the event of a Bush victory.1
Powell quickly responded to the report in statements broadcast by CNN. "I've given many, many such speeches, and there should be no concern in anyone's part that it influences me in any way," said Powell. "I was a private citizen at the time. It was before the election, and I had accepted the speech even before the primaries . . . once I was announced to be secretary of state, I stopped giving all speeches." Powell nevertheless went out of his way to put in a good word for Fares, adding that "it's really quite sad that this gentleman's name would be sullied in [newspaper] articles."2
|Bush Sr. and Fares, in 1994|
Later that month, documents released by Bush's Presidential Inaugural Committee listed a $100,000 donation from Fares. While Federal law forbids foreign nationals from contributing to election campaigns, these stipulations do not apply to the inauguration. However, since the committee had previously stated that it would apply the same donation limits observed during the campaign, the contribution caused an uproar. "This is someone with a very clear political objective looking ahead at a new administration and trying to make a friendly gesture," said Larry Makinson, a senior fellow with the Center for Responsive Politics, adding that "it could affect America's foreign policy."4
Committee spokesman Ed Gillespie quickly announced that the listing was in error and that the money had been donated by Fares' son, Nijad, a businessman in Houston who is a Lebanese citizen with permanent resident status in the US (which entitles him to make campaign donations). The committee also received a second $100,000 check from Nijad Fares' Houston-based company, Link Group LLC, a manufacturer of components for water storage tanks.5
Even after this "clarification" was released, the Washington Post characterized the issue as follows in a lead editorial: "The rules may be porous enough that the son could make campaign contributions even if the father could not. But the principle is the same. A senior official of a foreign government with a major interest in U.S. foreign policy makes or has made in his name a contribution sufficiently large that there is no way it can be forgotten - and indeed, that has to be part of the intent. He sinks a hook in the people about to run the US government."6
Fares, who heads a large conglomerate of banks and companies in the Middle East, US, and Europe, has a long history of contacts with high-ranking Republicans friendly to the Syrian regime. In October 1994, Fares paid former President George Bush to give a similar speech at Tufts. Not surprisingly, Bush took the podium and effusively praised Fares as an "exceptional man and worldwide benefactor" who "has been doing much for his homeland," while emphasizing that "Syria's role is important to American interests, in particular regarding the regional peace we are endeavoring to achieve." In October 1996, former Secretary of State James Baker, a close friend and key advisor to George W. Bush, followed suit in a similar speech paid for by Fares, telling the audience that "had it not been for Syria's approval and the positive position adopted by President Assad, the peace process would not have been launched."
In addition, Bush flew on Fares' private jet when he visited the Persian Gulf several years back. Last year, Fares was a guest at Bush Sr.'s Gridiron dinner. When Baker visited Lebanon last summer, he stayed at Fares' home.
Fares also has strong ties to another official in the new Bush administration, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham. Over the course of the last three election cycles, Nijad Fares and his wife donated $17,000 to Abraham's electoral campaign and political action committee. Moreover, the American Task Force for Lebanon, a lobbying group of which he was president, donated $7,500 to Abraham.7 Interestingly, Issam Fares' ties to the Energy Department run even deeper. His main US business holding, a Houston-based company called the Wedge Group, is headed by William White, formerly the number two official at the Energy Department during the Clinton administration.
Nijad Fares has made no secret of his intentions to influence US policy toward Syria and Lebanon. In a 1996 opinion piece, he wrote that "even modest contributions help ensure that Members of Congress and their staffs take phone calls and are more responsive to requests. Furthermore, the contributor must make explicit an interest in Middle East-related issues."8
Notes1 See Janine Zacharia, "Powell received large lecture fee from top Lebanese official," The Jerusalem Post, 7 January 2001.