The Qatari government defended its work with Biden administration nominee Tamara Cofman Wittes in an unsolicited letter to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, saying it was “proud” of its financial contributions to Wittes’s former employer, the Brookings Institution.
The letter from Qatar’s ambassador, obtained by the Washington Free Beacon, is unlikely to alleviate Republican concerns about Wittes’s role at the Brookings Institution think tank, which raked in at least $22 million from Qatar during her employment.
It also indicates that Doha, the capital of Qatar, is going on the offensive in response to renewed public scrutiny into its funding for U.S. think tanks and Washington policy leaders. Earlier this month, Brookings Institution president and retired general John Allen resigned amid a federal investigation into his alleged work as an unregistered lobbyist for Qatar.
Wittes, the nominee for assistant administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, has denied that her policy work was influenced by the funding. But Senate Republicans grilled her over her pro-Doha statements and positions during a hearing last Thursday, during which Sen. Ted Cruz said Qatar put its “damn logo on the cover” of a Brookings policy report co-published with Wittes.
Qatar’s ambassador to the United States said he was offended by the term “damn logo” in the letter to Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez (D., N.J.) last Thursday.
“I watched with interest the Committee’s proceedings today to consider nominations,” wrote Qatar’s ambassador to the United States, Sheikh Meshal Bin Hamad Al-Thani, noting that Cruz “questioned [Wittes] about Qatar’s past charitable contributions to support research at the Brookings Institutions, where Dr. Wittes previously served.”
“I consider it unworthy of your distinguished committee when a member chooses an expletive to refer to the national emblem or flag of a sovereign state,” wrote Al-Thani. “If the flag of the United States was similarly described by a government official in a foreign capital, I am confident that Senator Cruz would feel as I do about this incident.”
Al-Thani added that he “would be happy to meet with any member of your committee to address questions about Qatar’s charitable contributions in the United States. We are proud of this work.”
Wittes served as director of the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy when it published a paper with the Qatari Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2017 titled “Islamism After the Arab Spring: Between the Islamic State and the nation state.” Wittes was listed as a member of the steering committee overseeing the paper, and her center’s logo appears next to the Qatari Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the cover page.
“We would like to take this opportunity to thank the State of Qatar for its support in convening the forum with us. In particular, we are grateful to His Highness the Emir for his generosity in enabling us to come together for these three days of candid discussion,” wrote the paper’s co-author William McCants in the introduction.
Wittes was also director of the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy when it published another report with the Qatari Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2012, which discussed international assistance to Arab countries. That paper included the foreign ministry’s logo on the cover as well.
Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which will need to approve Wittes’s nomination before a final floor vote can be scheduled, are seeking more information on Wittes’s involvement in foreign fundraising while at the Brookings Institution.
“The president of Brookings has resigned over this, but you ran the Middle East Center at Brookings,” said Cruz during the hearing last Thursday. “Should the American taxpayers be concerned that President Biden wants to put in charge of distributing millions of dollars of taxpayer money someone who has spent years being funded by a foreign nation who is not our friend?”
Wittes said she had “no knowledge of any of these disturbing allegations regarding General Allen.” She said she attended one fundraising meeting in 2012 with Qatar alongside former Brookings vice president Martin Indyk, during which they asked the Qatari government to extend its funding.
Wittes has also written positively about Qatar, a repressive nation that discriminates against gays, lesbians, and transgender individuals. Wittes described Qatar’s capital city Doha as a “global gathering place for dialogue” and amplified Qatari leaders’ claims that they support human rights and oppose “extremists who exploit religion to incite violence.”
Neither Cruz nor Wittes responded to a request for comment.
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