Every once in a while during a crisis, the mask of ‘democracy’ slips off the face of US foreign policy, and we see how the federal government really works at its highest levels, using its heaviest hitters. Frank G. Wisner is just such a cleanup batter. His mala fides were on display this morning in the press, as an envoy to teetering Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak from US President Barack Obama, who must salvage US ‘interests’ as one of the West’s favorite and most expensive regimes in the Middle East falls apart.
Wisner is exactly what the rest of the world thinks of as the US government, and his résumé explains why popular movements abroad try to steer clear of the American Embassy in their capitals. When a Third World situation gets tricky, and one of our allied dictators, such as Mubarak, faces charges of corruption, authoritarianism and human rights violations, Wisner is the man to call. He can mange the situation by speaking to the tired old monster “as a friend,” and showing him the exit.
Wisner, 72, has spent a career at the interstices of the State Department and multinational corporations that play fast and loose with investors’ money and the law. He has “served” as the United States Ambassador to Egypt (1986-91), the Philippines (1991-92) and India (1994-97), among other assignments.
As Ambassador to Egypt, Wisner became close friends with Shafik Gabr, the billionaire Chairman of ARTOC investments who partnered with Viktor Kozeny, a.k.a. “The Pirate of Prague.” Kozeny earned his moniker for ripping off the population of the Czech Republic with bogus privatization schemes in the early 1990s, netting roughly $1 billion for himself and his closest cronies. Gabr made a fortune with Kozeny in these endeavors.
While posted to the Philippines (1991-92), Wisner backed Enron’s negotiating position with the government for contracts to manage two power plants at Subic Bay. When he left his post in 1992, Enron had won the deal and took over the plants in early 1993. From there, the Ambassador took a short break and then moved on to India, where he secured additional lucrative deals for Enron. According to Vijay Prashad, in his book Fat Cats and Running Dogs, Wisner went so far as to boycott the "India Power '96” energy summit, although he was scheduled to deliver a speech there in order to pressure the Indian government to come through for Enron. After it seemed that Enron's place was secure there, Wisner left India in 1997 and joined the board of an Enron subsidiary.
Because board membership is not typically a full-time job, Wisner was also at the time the Vice Chairman for External Affairs at AIG. Among other accomplishments, he was largely responsible for pushing the Indian government in the 2000s to open the national insurance sector to foreign investment (i.e., AIG).
While at AIG, Wisner got in touch with his old friend Gabr – one of the Egyptian ‘businessmen’ surely booking flights for himself and his family from Cairo to somewhere else this morning (if he’s not gone already). He asked Gabr to vet an AIG/Kozeny investment in Azerbaijan, in the hopes that the corrupt business/political environment there would provide a tenfold return on a $25 million investment. AIG, with Gabr’s advice, made the investment, but, so far as we know, the windfall was not forthcoming. Wisner left AIG in 2009, after the meltdown. Presumably, he’s no longer working for Enron either.
Quite a résumé, isn’t it? Shafik Gabr, Viktor Kozeny, Enron and AIG? Compare it with The New York Times description of Wisner: “a respected elder of the foreign policy establishment.” Wisner is also characterized by that outlet as a “seasoned diplomatic troubleshooter.” And there is the problem: the use of a dubious business operator as a diplomat. The blurry lines between doing business, stealing money, holding power and managing foreign policy.
Maybe if people like Mr. Wisner and his cohorts weren’t so embedded in what the United States officially does abroad, there wouldn’t be quite so much trouble to shoot.
Beatrice Edwards is International Reform Director for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower advocacy organization.