Opinion

How exposing corrupt regimes can serve US security

Foreign corruption undermines development, US interests, and ultimately US security. The fight against foreign corruption and the success of US policy are linked. That's why the US needs to implement country reports on corruption to increase transparency and encourage change.

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Corruption in many foreign countries, ranging from Pakistan to Mexico, directly threatens American security interests. It's high time for the US government to recognize this and attack the problem head on, starting with the issuance of annual country reports. Like the widely praised US Department of State country reports on human rights, the corruption summaries would name names and detail abuses. Some foreign leaders will object, but this risk is worth running.

The fight against foreign corruption and the success of US policy are linked.

In Afghanistan, the legitimacy of President Hamid Karzai is undermined by a half-brother who is said to be a drug lord and crooked power broker.

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In Pakistan, President Asif Ali Zadari has only a tenuous hold in part because of his notoriety for greed. In one case, he reportedly obtained a $200 million kickback from Dassaut Aviation, and in another, a Swiss court convicted him of money laundering.

In Libya Muammar Gaddafi draws on a vast, ill-gotten fortune to import mercenaries.

Drug cartels challenge governance in Mexico by corrupting police and officials as they dominate the illicit wholesale drug trade in Mexico and into the United States.

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The 2010 Transparency International index of corruption perceptions reveals a striking correlation. Places where US troops are fighting and dying, or where America faces serious nuclear threats, are among the most corrupt. Of 178 countries ranked, the bottom one-fifth includes: Pakistan, Iran, Libya, Russia, Venezuela, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

How country reports will help US interests

How can country reports on corruption serve US interests?

First, exposing corruption may reduce security risks. If over the years more had been done to unveil corruption in Pakistan and Afghanistan and help those countries to develop and reform, conflicts there might be diminished.

In Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, a flood of illicit trade helped stalemate peace negotiations, and war between Russia and Georgia followed in August 2008. Trade in "blood diamonds" has funded civil conflict in Angola, Liberia, Sierra Leone, the Ivory Coast, Zimbabwe, and both Congos.

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Second, uncovering corruption may inspire those seeking freedoms. WikiLeaks revelations of US embassy assessments of corruption in Tunisia and Egypt – seen as credible – helped spur protesters who toppled their autocrats.

Third, greater transparency will highlight waste, capital flight, and flows of "black money." Banks that facilitate the looting of national treasuries will be bared. Dubai is a haven for those shunting billions into lavish lifestyles. For example, the flight of money from Russia, much of it tarnished, reduces domestic investment.

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Fourth, transparency will shed more light on how dictators stay in power. Mr. Gaddafi has a praetorian guard backed by billions of dollars in hoarded gold. In Nigeria, the Abacha regime has funded authoritarian, sometimes brutal rule by stealing from the country's oil industry.

Fifth, naming names will inform public debate and perhaps bolster consensus to combat the theft of public resources. Anti-corruption gains in Ghana and steps in Brazil and Chile to open government procurement processes raise expectations.

In Russia, a report by former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, now a dissident, is catalyzing debate about corruption involving Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Information on corruption worldwide that abets trafficking in humans, for example, will encourage public outcry against this travesty.

A better method for data collection and sharing

Elevating anti-corruption in US foreign policy requires sharing more information to help people demand accountability from their governments. Yet US data on corruption is often a step-child, a by-product of information gathered for other purposes.

Instead, collecting and analyzing corruption data, as well as following money trails, should be a mandate for the national security community. As with human rights, every US embassy ought to designate an officer responsible for reporting on corruption.

Annual country reports will supplement other anti-corruption tools. Washington should freeze assets not only for politically exposed persons who loot their countries' resources but also, when merited, against dictators who violently suppress their own people.

The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act forbids US firms from paying bribes overseas. Although it has cost them some business, the Act and the threat of shareholder lawsuits are healthy deterrents.

Corruption reports will shine light everywhere and ought not to disadvantage American companies. Thirty-eight countries adhere to the anti-bribery convention of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, but most are already among the least corrupt.

Fighting corruption must become a priority for US foreign policy. Given its corrosive impact on American interests and on international security and development, foreign corruption should no longer be swept under the rug to preserve diplomatic nicety.

William Courtney was US ambassador to Kazakhstan and Georgia. Louise Shelley is university professor and director of the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption center at George Mason University. Kenneth Yalowitz is director of the Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College and was US ambassador to Belarus and Georgia.

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