PHNOM PENH -- Bretton Sciaroni, an American expatriate and former ideologue of Ronald Reagan's White House, makes a most unusual power broker in contemporary Cambodia. The portly Sciaroni is an official advisor to the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen, a one-time Khmer Rouge cadre. The Cambodian government has bestowed on Sciaroni the titles Minister Without Portfolio and His Excellency. From his office in an exclusive section of the city -- neighbors include the president of the ruling party -- he runs a consulting firm that brokers business deals on behalf of foreign investors -- deals that often benefit well-connected companies and individuals like Sciaroni himself.
Sciaroni also appears to be a chief intermediary between the U.S. government and Cambodia, which has emerged in recent years as an unlikely American ally. The U.S. cut most assistance to Cambodia in 1997 after Hun Sen staged a coup but resumed aid a decade later. Competition with China for influence in the region and growing trade ties -- the United States buys more than half of Cambodia’s apparel production, its primary export -- are the primary factors behind the political warming. It probably didn’t hurt that Cambodia struck oil and Chevron got a stake in the most promising field. Today Cambodia is the third-largest recipient of U.S. aid in Southeast Asia, after Indonesia and the Philippines. And Brett Sciaroni is, at least politically, the biggest American in the country.
Earlier this year Sciaroni met me for drinks at the Elephant Bar of the Raffles Hotel. Wearing a light-colored jacket and yellow tie and sporting gold-rimmed glasses and a thick gold bracelet, Sciaroni offered an upbeat view of his adopted country.
“This is very much an emerging economy and democracy,” he said while sipping from a glass of Chateau Batailley, a French Bordeaux. “There’s been a lot of political progress. The ruling party no longer intimidates the opposition.” He describes his own work in Cambodia in altruistic fashion, saying, “This is a country where you can make a difference. If you make a suggestion to a government official and he likes it, it will happen.”
Most independent observers have a different view of Cambodia under Hun Sen, who has held power since a 1997 coup. Forty percent of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day, and groups like Human Rights Watch and Global Witness have documented large-scale corruption and political repression.
“Cambodia is run by a kleptocratic elite that generates much of its wealth via the seizure of public assets, particularly natural resources,” Global Witness said in a 2007 report. According to opposition parliamentarian Son Chhay, Sciaroni “covers up the government’s bad practices and uses his connections to convince the U.S. to keep [supporting] the government.” And Dana Rohrabacher, the conservative California congressman who says he personally likes Sciaroni, told me Hun Sen had no genuine legitimacy and that “Brett has become part and parcel of a clique of the Cambodian elite that is neither democratic nor honest."
Reagan's flimflam man
How did a fervent right-wing anti-communist and old pal of Ollie North’s end up in Cambodia as the chief foreign advocate for a man who fought as a Khmer Rouge guerrilla against a U.S.-backed government before becoming head of the Vietnamese puppet regime that overthrew it? That was a big ideological leap, but Sciaroni’s chief talent -- performing intellectual acrobatics for his paymasters, whoever they might be -- has served him equally well in Washington and Phnom Penh.
(I repeatedly sought comment from Sciaroni after our interview in Phnom Penh, but he declined to reply to questions about Iran/contra and his other political activities in the U.S, or his business or political activities in Cambodia.)
By 1984, just five years after he received a law degree from UCLA, the sky seemed the limit for young Bretton Sciaroni. Following short stints at two right-wing think tanks and as a Commerce Department political appointee under President Reagan, he was named chief counsel to the President's Intelligence Oversight Board. During this period, he provided legal arguments needed to move forward with Reagan’s Star Wars scheme (on the specious grounds that it didn’t violate the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty) and with military aid to the Nicaraguan Contras, which Congress had flatly forbidden.
When Iran-Contra investigators subsequently asked him why the administration turned to him for advice instead of to more experienced staff lawyers at the White House or Justice Department, Sciaroni replied, "Frankly … that thought has crossed my mind as well. I don't know why my opinion was the only one."
The reason, however, was quite apparent. Like John Yoo and other conservatives on whom the Bush administration relied for the flimflam needed to justify torturing terrorism suspects in violation of the Geneva Convention, Sciaroni was a loyalist who the Reagan administration knew would reach the conclusions it wanted.
Indeed, compared with Sciaroni, Yoo looks like Oliver Wendell Holmes. In 1986, Sciaroni wrote a series of opinions, including a memo that said North’s aid to the Contras was legal even though Congress had flatly banned any training “that amounts to participation in the planning or execution of military or paramilitary operations in Nicaragua.” (Sciaroni determined that the ban didn’t cover “generic” military aid, which he expansively defined as including categories like marksmanship, intelligence reporting and the construction of fortifications.)
When he was later asked by a superior at the oversight board to investigate media accounts of illegal aid to the Contras, Sciaroni determined they were false, largely on the basis of a five-minute conversation with North. The latter denied everything, which was good enough for Sciaroni.
But Sciaroni soon crashed. During his 1987 testimony before the congressional committee investigating Iran-Contra, it emerged that he had passed the bar exam only on his fourth try (in three different states), and that he got the chief counsel’s position despite never having previously held a job in the legal profession. Before long he lost his government job and was scraping by as a fellow at the American Conservative Union and as a pro bono lobbyist for a group of right-wing Salvadorans close to that country’s murderous military-dominated regime.
When he learned in 1993 from Rohrabacher that Hun Sen was looking to hire an American attorney for a short-term assignment, Sciaroni was quick to seize the opportunity. He arrived right before the May 1993 elections, which were organized by the U.N. following the reign of the Khmer Rouge and years of civil war. The royalist party triumphed in the balloting but agreed to a power-sharing arrangement when Hun Sen threatened to lead an armed revolt.
“The funny thing is that if the CPP [Cambodian People’s Party] had won the election, I probably would have been back in the U.S. after two months,” Sciaroni told me at the Elephant Bar. “But they lost and they panicked. I had written up some things they liked, and they asked me to stay on.”
It seemed odd that the strongly conservative Rohrabacher, a strong critic of Hun Sen’s ever since the 1993 vote, would help Sciaroni get a job with the government, but the congressman confirmed the story during a phone conversation. It turned out that Rohrabacher and Sciaroni had known each other since their college days, when they were members of Young Americans for Freedom and Youth for Reagan.
“After the Iran-Contra scandal, all of Brett’s friends deserted him, which is typical of Washington,” Rohrabacher told me. “A Cambodian-American constituent told me that Hun Sen was going to hold free elections; he was looking for a lawyer to draw up an honest election code and was willing to pay top dollar. I knew Brett really needed the money and thought he’d be perfect for the job. And he did a good job -- they did have a free and fair first-round vote. The only problem was that Hun Sen lost and didn’t abide by the results, and our government buckled. They should have told him, ‘You lost, get out,’ but instead they agreed to a compromise and Hun Sen became one of the two prime ministers.”
Rohrabacher was furious about the outcome, but Sciaroni continued to work for Hun Sen.
"He’s like a ‘Lord Jim’ character,” Rohrabacher told me of Sciaroni. “His own country abandoned him when Iran-Contra became a scandal. He became a destroyed human being who went overseas to start a new life.”
Sciaroni’s close relationship with the regime became especially apparent after Hun Sen seized power in a bloody military coup in July 1997 that left at least 41 oppositionists dead. Enter Bretton Sciaroni, who assembled and directed a lobbying and public relations team that tried to spin the coup in Washington. The centerpiece of the campaign was a "white paper" that alleged that the royalist party had employed a “campaign of provocation” against the CPP and that the coup was therefore a legitimate preemptive measure by Hun Sen.
The Washington Times exposed the campaign, prompting outrage among Americans in Cambodia and some of Sciaroni’s right-wing comrades back home. When the Times asked him what help or advice he contributed to the white paper, “Sciaroni grimaced and responded, ‘No comment.’ "
The following year, Sciaroni coordinated another P.R. campaign around an election that Hun Sen organized and handily won.
Rita Colorito, who worked on the campaign for an American lobbying firm recruited by Sciaroni, later wrote about her experience in an article called “Confessions of a Spin Doctor." “The Cambodian People's Party didn't care about human rights progress,” she wrote. “It simply wanted favorable media coverage and renewed international aid.” Nonetheless, Hun Sen’s American spin team did its best to sell their client by “taking semantics to an absurdity,” Colorito wrote.
Sciaroni’s campaign misfired, though, when it persuaded Tina Rosenberg of the New York Times Magazine to come to Cambodia to report on Hun Sen’s inspired leadership. Rosenberg wasn’t impressed and wrote an article (under the headline “Hun Sen Stages an Election”) that said that since 1975, “Cambodia has suffered under an assortment of dreadful Governments, and Hun Sen has been in all of them.”
Petrified that Rosenberg’s story would cause them to lose their fat contract, the PR team held an “emergency phone conference” to spin the article to Hun Sen and convince him it wasn’t as bad as it looked.
Hun Sen apparently accepted the explanation. In 2002, his government granted Sciaroni Cambodian citizenship. Since then he has publicly lauded Sciaroni for “seeking justice for Khmers” and expressed hope that “he will continue to stay here with us.”
A bridge to U.S. business and government
Sciaroni’s success is based on a simple truth. Political contacts are the handmaiden of business operations the world over, but in a country like Cambodia -- with its tiny intertwined political and economic elite -- they are vital. “You get opportunities because you are close to the government,” a Westerner living in Phnom Penh told me. “You have to be in their good graces.” Sciaroni’s connections, this person said, run wide and deep: “Brett has been here since the early days, when things were very rough. There aren't many [foreigners like that], and Brett is the only American."
Numerous sources told me that Sciaroni’s closest contact in the regime is Sok An, the deputy prime minister and head of the council of ministers. Sciaroni has accompanied Sok An on international delegations and advised him during meetings with international agencies like the World Bank.
The State Department’s most recent annual report on human rights said that the CPP has “consolidated control of the three branches of government and other national institutions” and that the government “restricted freedom of speech and of the press … and at times interfered with freedom of assembly.” Sciaroni’s rosier assessment, which he offered when we met, is that “the electronic media is dominated by the government, but the print media is freewheeling and sometimes irresponsible. Elections are pretty good in a technical sense.”
During a speech at a 2007 investment conference in Cambodia he pitched Hun Sen’s authoritarian brand of government as a plus for business. “Investor confidence has been strengthened by the … stability in the officials you deal with,” he said. “You are not likely to see great swings in policy because of new officials coming on the scene.”
Sciaroni also pitched the regime during a 2009 visit to Cambodia by Virginia Sen. Jim Webb. “Sciaroni praised the Cambodian government's regular dialogue with the private sector,” said a cable released by Wikileaks. “Sciaroni confidently asserted that no Amcham [American Chamber of Commerce] has as much influence on a government in Southeast Asia” as the one in Cambodia. (Sciaroni has headed the local American Chamber since it was founded in 1998.)
Son Chhay and other government critics I spoke with said they feared Sciaroni had played a role in softening American policy toward Cambodia, which until a few years ago placed a heavy emphasis on human rights. Nowadays, expanded trade and military cooperation get far higher billing. The United States has become “obsessed with the need for ‘dialogue’ with the government, and he is seen as a bridge for that,” one Cambodian activist, who asked not to identified, told me.
Sciaroni is not shy about what he can deliver for his customers. During his speech at the 2007 investment conference, Sciaroni explained how his firm had negotiated a major tax benefit for an American company that had balked at investing locally because the import of raw aluminum was taxed at a rate of 7 percent.
“In rapid succession we met various senior officials,” Sciaroni recounted. “[One of them] said 'what would you like it [the rate] to be?' and the company said ‘How about zero percent?’ And zero percent it was and is today.”
Sciaroni’s other clients have included Chevron and Mitsui, which hold stakes in Cambodia’s most promising oil field, and international mining firms like BHP Billiton, Mitsubishi and Oxiana. He has also worked with Raptor Forestry, which according to a business plan I obtained, is “investigating the potential” for large-scale timber and agricultural projects. Sciaroni, the plan says, received equity in the venture for providing legal services and his “network of local contacts.”
Sciaroni was listed on initial incorporation records as chairman of the board of a local subsidiary of another client, Paris-based CityStar for which he serves as legal counsel. CityStar set up shop in Cambodia in early 2007, almost precisely as the government was selling off for development public land near the coastal town of Sihanoukville. The process resulted in gorgeous beaches, islands and protected areas being purchased by well-connected companies on terms undisclosed to the public. CityStar, which plans to build luxury hotels and villas, won two concessions in a national park area as well as two other areas for development on separate islands off the coast of Sihanoukville.
And so it goes for Sciaroni, whose fleeting success in Ronald Reagan's Washington served as a steppingstone for far bigger things in Cambodia. And with ties to the U.S. government warming and American firms like GE, DuPont and Microsoft setting up shop in Cambodia in recent years, the outlook for the future is bright.
“Opportunities abound,” Sciaroni told me of Cambodia, though he may as well have been describing his own good fortune in washing up here. “It's a great environment.”