"Paul dead?" I blurted out in the middle of dessert last night.
I was at a friend's house, someone I had gotten to know years ago as part of a fellowship program I had been pulled into by a man named Jim Denton. Jim was one of these people you can only meet in Washington. He had been in the Navy and came from a military family. In the early 1980s, he had founded something called the National Forum Foundation, one of the many pro-democracy organizations that sprouted up in the Reagan era. His outfit merged with Freedom House in the 1990s, and Jim served as Freedom House's Executive Director from 1997-2001. By the time I got to know him, probably around 2015 or so, he was the founding editor of World Affairs Journal and had started up the Transatlantic Renewal Project. Jim was worried about the growing disconnect between Washington and Central and Eastern Europe, and had wanted to set up a means of getting early-to-mid career people on both sides of the Atlantic to interact, share ideas and perspectives, and debate the issues of the day. I was part of a group from Washington that his program would bring to various European capitals for two-day long roundtable discussions. Many of my best friends I owe to Jim.
Jim was an avid art collector, a fount of amazing stories, but also a gatherer of really interesting people. He regularly hosted casual dinners at his row house on Capitol Hill, often when his collaborators from abroad were in town. He would invite former participants from his Transatlantic Renewal Project, his colleagues and allies in the democracy community, former and current politicians and staffers, as well as close personal friends. One of the people who always showed up was called Paul Behrends. Paul was a burly ex-Marine, and pretty much all I knew about him was that he was the right hand of Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), a very colorful congressman in the always colorful House. Being a Europe guy, I knew Rohrabacher as one of the more overtly pro-Russian politicians at the time. By 2017, his proclivities and connections had gotten him embroiled in a lot of the related scandals that Donald Trump's presidency had brought down on the capital.
Paul wasn't at all cagey about defending his (and his boss's) stances on Russia. He criticized knee-jerk anti-Russian hawkishness, felt there was room for cooperation, and thought that the rising threat of China was the real game. Jim didn't much care for this line of argument, but clearly had a close and longstanding friendship with Paul. And indeed, it was clear why. Paul was engaging and kind to a fault, and without ever giving ground, entertained the pesterings of the likes of me and my colleagues.
"Yeah he died a year and a half ago. Just collapsed on the sidewalk," my friend replied. "You didn't know?"
Jim had himself passed away in 2018, and I hadn't seen Paul since. I think of Jim frequently, especially with Europe in the state it's in these days. But I hadn't given much thought to Paul, even though he was such a fixture at Jim's dinner parties. The surprise must have deprived me of the use of intransitive verbs for a second, as I stammered "I can't believe Paul dead!" in response. This led to much mirth around the table. But indeed, I couldn't believe it.
One of the attendees, still amused the next morning, texted me: "Paul dead?" Which led me to do some googling. The first hit that comes up is a profile in New York magazine titled "The Life and Death of the Most Notorious Man in Washington." It's a bit of an overstatement, but not by much. The article does a very good job of capturing the genuine kindness of Paul, but also adds a bunch of details that I had no clue about. Paul was close to Erik Prince and had done work with Blackwater. I knew from talking to Paul that he had served in Yugoslavia as it fell apart, but didn't know that he had first met Rohrabacher in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and that the two of them had interacted with the legendary rebel leader Ahmad Shah Massoud in the Panjshir valley in the 1990s. Apparently Paul had also somehow been involved in the fight against Boko Haram in Nigeria.
And of course, there was all the Russia stuff. Paul seemed to have some connection to any number of shady characters that sprung up during Trump's time in office, from Maria Butina to Natalia Veselnitskaya, and even to Wikileaks' own Julian Assange. Clearly Russian intelligence operatives found him useful, a sympathetic ear in the Washington establishment. Perhaps he was being paid for his work, but if so, the amounts didn't allow him to shrug off six-figure legal defense bills arising from the various Russia investigations that came after him. One of Paul's friends told the author of the above piece:
Paul did some back-channel work, which was one of the reasons why he would meet with so many controversial and disreputable people. Because somebody had to. He would build these relationships partly because he's a contrarian and very sociable and very curious, but also because he knew in the national interest somebody had to be a bridge of communications . . . He was still an unswerving supporter of Taiwan, Hong Kong, the Uighurs, or the underground Christian Church in China. Yet he could still have dinner with the bad guys who were doing all the bad stuff to the people he cared about and not betray his friendships and ideals.
I knew Paul just barely well enough to not now judge him after he has passed away. Learning of his passing, though, has me in a reflective mood. Not about purpose, or political judgment, or moral values, or any deeper meaning to things, even though that's what scribblers like Shadi and I like to argue about. It has me appreciating what a weird and stimulating place this sordid swamp called Washington DC can be. I'm not sure I could happily live anywhere else.