Just a day after reports that the FBI discovered nearly 14,900 emails that Clinton should have turned over as work-related emails to the State Department (she turned over 30,000 and marked the rest as private), the Associated Press reported on Tuesday afternoon that, in an analysis of 154 private individuals that Clinton met while secretary of state, 85 of them were at least one-time donors to the Clinton Foundation, an international health charity organization — if true, that means that around 55% of her meetings with non-government and non-foreign officials were with Clinton Foundation donors.
First, it’s unlikely that Clinton, in four years at State, met just 38 people on average annually from the private sector, so there’s so doubt about whether the AP’s denominator is accurate. Secondly, without any other proof, a meeting is not anything more than just a meeting, especially after a thoroughgoing investigation from the US Federal Bureau of Investigation almost certainly reviewed the question of quid pro quo corruption. Third, it’s credible that many private-sector actors (especially wealthy individuals with storied careers in academia, finance, technology or otherwise) might have given money to a high-profile charity like the Clinton Foundation. Finally, and most importantly, while Clinton is not exactly a paragon of government ethics, it beggars belief that she would sabotage her own obvious 2016 presidential hopes by engaging in crude pay-to-play corruption.
It’s true that both Hillary Clinton and her husband have both shown ridiculously poor ethical judgment when entrusted with power, and it was only in July that FBI director James Comey (narrowly) declined to recommend criminal charges for Clinton’s handling of classified information on a home server that she used for email while at State. Both Clintons, already wealthy from book royalties, have also shown reckless greed in taking millions of dollars in speech fees from corporate and foreign interests since leaving office.
But short of one truly horrific example, and a particularly immature staffer in Doug Band, there’s not a lot of scandal involving the Clinton Foundation. (The example, reported last year to surprisingly little fanfare, involves a murky Canadian financier named Frank Giustra, a leading figure in a sale of a uranium company, Uranium One, that won approvals from State and numerous other US agencies. The deal, ultimately, handed over rights of one-fifth of US uranium reserves first to Kazakh and then to Russian control).
By and large, the Clinton Foundation a charity that leverages the Clinton family’s name and experience toward better global health outcomes. In that sense, it’s no different, really, than the Carter Center or any other private-public effort that a former US president undertakes.
In politics, though, especially in the crucible of US election-year politics less than 80 days from a presidential election, reality is less important than perception. And Clinton most certainly has a perception problem with the Clinton Foundation and the idea that it’s become a pay-for-play racket. Moreover, the Clinton Foundation gets generally great marks from charity scorecard watchdogs like Charity Watch. Despite the phony statistics of right-wing news media, the Clinton Foundation spends an admirably 88% of donations on programming.
But the most especially ridiculous aspect of the latest uproar over the Clinton Foundation is that one of those 85 individuals that Clinton met is Muhammad Yunus, the former head of Grameen Bank. Frankly, it would have been diplomatic malpractice not for Clinton to have met Yunus during her time at State, when Yunus was increasingly under attack from his own government.
By 2011, Bangladesh’s increasingly autocratic and corrupt leader, Sheikh Hasina, had expelled Yunus and fully expropriated Grameen Bank. Though the Bangladeshi government once tried to accuse Yunus himself of embezzlement, it eventually ousted him from Grameen on the basis that, then at age 72, he exceeded the retirement age.
it’s important to understand just how important Grameen Bank has been. For a country (once East Pakistan) born out of violence and poverty in 1971, Grameen might honestly be the brightest export in independent Bangladesh’s short and too often tragic history. Yunus returned to the country from a comfortably academic perch in Tennessee to found the bank in 1976, and it became synonymous with the microcredit movement that, in particular, provided funds to empower those in extreme poverty, especially the rural poor and especially women. For a lot of reasons, microfinance isn’t quite the star of the development and public aid world that it was a decade ago.
So it would have troubled any top American diplomat, but especially one like Hillary Clinton, well aware of Yunus since the 1980s and well aware of what microcredit has done for impoverished women, in particular, to take notice of the ominous judicial machinations in Bangladesh, which, it’s worth noting, is ranked 139th (out of 168) in the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index.
But there’s no disputing the impact that Yunus and Grameen Bank had, first in Bangladesh and around the world (including in rural Arkansas, when a much younger then-governor, Bill Clinton, invited Yunus to his state for an American experiment in microcredit). It was enough to win Yunus and his bank the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. So it’s balderdash to assume that Yunus ‘bought’ access to Clinton as a donor to the Clinton Foundation.
The story, for Bangladesh, is even more tragic five years later, though none of that is of much interest to American readers or to anyone viewing the story through the narrow and too-often contentless prism of contemporary American politics.
Hasina, the head of the Bangladesh Awami League (বাংলাদেশ আওয়ামী লীগ), continues to rule Bangladesh today, with the implicit support of Indian leaders of all stripes, each of whom mistrust the more Islamist-friendly opposition. Hasina won ‘elections’ in January 2014, despite the boycott of the vote by her rival of 30 years, Khaleda Zia, who heads the more conservative and more Islamist-friendly Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP, বাংলাদেশ জাতীয়তাবাদী দল). Shortly after that victory, Hasina began a crackdown on the political opposition that, for a time, led to Zia’s own house arrest. By reintroducing the death penalty in a special tribunal for war criminals (almost all of them Muslims) from the 1971 fight for independence, Hasina has unleashed increasing polarization that’s led to a reactionary rise in Islamic radicalism and a spate of brutal murders of liberal bloggers, journalists and LGBT activists. Though Zia and the BNP are hardly models of good government, Hasina has essentially transformed Bangladesh into a one-party state.
All of that context, of course, is missing in the AP’s sensational report and the 11 paragraphs it devotes to Yunus as a supposed example of the Clinton Foundation’s alleged influence on the Clinton-era State Department. It will certainly be missing in the venomous Through-the-Looking-Glass world of American politics in 2016, where truth is so easily obscured by outrage and emotion.
Hillary Clinton now finds herself accused of corruption, on the basis that she looked out for a Nobel Peace laureate and globally recognized champion of microcredit, who was in 2010 and 2011 losing a battle to one of the world’s most corrupt governments.
There are many reasons to doubt Clinton’s judgment, especially on ethics and especially on foreign policy. But her resounding support for Yunus isn’t among them.