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Brookings Responds to Tablet Piece on Qatar Funding

Strobe Talbott defends think tank; Lee Smith replies

The Editors
October 02, 2014
Vice President and Director of Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institute Martin Indyk, speaks on the first day of the US-Islamic World Forum in the Qatari capital Doha on June 9, 2013. (KARIM JAAFAR/AFP/Getty Images)
Vice President and Director of Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institute Martin Indyk, speaks on the first day of the US-Islamic World Forum in the Qatari capital Doha on June 9, 2013. (KARIM JAAFAR/AFP/Getty Images)

Two weeks ago, Lee Smith wrote a column saying that Martin Indyk, John Kerry’s Middle East peace envoy, in his capacity as vice president and director of the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, cashed a $14.8 million check from Qatar, a country which funds Hamas. The Brookings Institution’s president, Strobe Talbott, wrote a response to the article, which we’ve published below.

To the Editor:

“How Peace Negotiator Martin IndykCashed a Big, Fat $14.8 Million Check From Qatar,” a blog post written by Lee Smith and published on September 17, makes unfounded and false allegations about Ambassador Martin Indyk and the Brookings Institution. The piece also distorts facts to buttress a conspiracy theory that Indyk, in return for personal remuneration, sought to overthrow the very diplomatic effort to which he was committed as Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations.

The article’s contention that Dr. Indyk personally “cashed a big, fat … check” and that he “pocketed” money from Qatar is false. The $14.8 million in question is a three-year pledge that Qatar made to the Brookings Institution to support two projects—the Brookings Center in Doha and the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World—not to Indyk personally.

That Qatar is a significant donor to the Brookings Institution is not, as Mr. Smith contended, a “scoop” by the New York Times. Brookings has disclosed information on its donors publicly since 1983.

Our research is also public. A review of publications and media appearances by our scholars in Doha and in Washington—all of which are available at—demonstrate the same independence of thinking and objective, fact-based analysis about Qatar as on every other topic of our research. Our agreements with Qatar specifically protect the independence of our scholarship in all respects.

The allegation that Haim Saban took his name off the Brookings Center for Middle East Policy because of our relationship with Qatar is also false, given that both have been funding the Institution for more than a decade. The agreement to shift his funding to the annual Saban Forum long predated any controversy over the recent Gaza war.

Finally, it is worth stressing that all foreign government funding represents just 9 percent of the budget of Brookings, a nearly century-old institution that is fortunate to enjoy support from a broad range of philanthropic individuals, corporations, governments and foundations. The diversity and transparency of our funding are evidence of our independence, and also a means to sustain it.

Strobe Talbott
The Brookings Institution

Below is Lee Smith’s response:

Thanks to Brookings Institution President Strobe Talbott for his thoughtful comment on my article. However, his response does not satisfactorily address the key issues my article raises. Namely, has Qatar’s $14.8 million donation to Brookings influenced the think tank’s analysis of the Middle East, and did it impact the public statements and activities of Martin Indyk as mediator between the Israelis and Palestinians?

Mr. Talbott kindly includes a link to an archive of Brookings research papers and articles,, where readers looking to find “independence of thinking and objective, fact-based analysis” regarding, for instance, Qatar’s decision to host Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in a luxury villa, will be disappointed. Many of those who follow developments in the Middle East, especially the Arab-Israeli peace process, would presumably be interested in some “objective, fact-based analysis” of why Qatar, ostensibly an American ally, hosts the head of a group that has killed Americans, and waged war against U.S. allies. Readers might also benefit from a hard look at other terror-sponsoring activities that Doha is widely reported—by the U.S. Treasury Department, among other credible sources—to engage in. But I can find no mention at all of Doha’s close and comfy relationship with the head of a State Department-designated foreign terrorist operation anywhere on the Brookings site.

The absence of any such analysis cannot help but cause observers to wonder whether Qatar’s close relationship with the Brookings Institution is influencing Brookings’ analysis. Under Mr. Talbott’s direction, Brookings opened a branch in Doha in 2007, and cashed a $14.8 million check from the Gulf sheikdom last year. A visit to the Brookings Doha website shows that the center’s advisory board is co-chaired by Mr. Talbott and Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani, Qatar’s former prime minister, as well as a direct descendent of the country’s founder—which doesn’t exactly sound like a recipe for objective analysis. The bio of the director of Brookings Doha, Salman Shaikh, notes his service as policy director in the “Office of Her Highness, Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al-Missned, the Consort of the former Emir of Qatar.” Again, not exactly the kind of resume that suggests a passion for fact-based, objective analysis of Qatari foreign policy.

More to the point, Mr. Talbott, deputy secretary of state in the Clinton administration, fails to address whether Qatar’s donation to Brookings influenced Martin Indyk’s work representing the United States government as special envoy to the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. The fact that Ambassador Indyk’s employer raised $14.8 million from the same Arab regime that funds Hamas, a mortal enemy of the two parties—Israel and the PA—whose negotiations he was to mediate, should have been enough to tell Secretary of State John Kerry that Dr. Indyk would be, at the least, a questionable choice for the job. This judgment might have been further supported by Mr. Indyk’s strange demeanor in casting Israel, both anonymously in news articles and publicly in hotel bars, as solely responsible for the failure of peace talks.

Why Ambassador Indyk veered so widely from the normal practices of statesmanship is unclear. Perhaps he thought his own behavior to be above reproach, even when others might say it violates commonly accepted norms, and creates the appearance of a conflict-of-interest so glaring that it would be legible to a nine-year-old. Or perhaps one of the most influential think tanks taking money from one of the leading state sponsors of terrorism was taken as a sign that the rules of the Washington DC foreign policy influence-peddling game have changed, and become even more gross and venal?

From the editors of Tablet Magazine.