The International Republican Institute (IRI), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that serves as a vehicle for the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the U.S. Agency for International Development, was created by the Ronald Reagan administration in 1983 to push democratization efforts and roll back the influence of the Soviet Union. More recently, the taxpayer-funded IRI has claimed to play a role preventing global terrorism, though some of its interventions since 9/11 have been criticized for undermining democracy. A 2006 IRI brochure declared, "When IRI began its work in 1983, advancing democracy was seen as a noble endeavor; today, it is recognized as a defense against terrorism."
IRI's activities have included funding clandestine opinion surveys in Cuba (2008), monitoring the controversial and violence-tainted elections in Kenya (2007), and undertaking public opinion polls in Pakistan after President Pervez Musharraf declared a state of emergency (2007). More controversially, its "democracy building" program in Haiti was accused of undermining both U.S. State Department diplomacy efforts and the government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. IRI also channeled funds to forces in Venezuela that sought to overthrow the controversial but democratically elected President Hugo Chavez in 2002. IRI has also been criticized for supporting and monitoring the 2009 elections in Honduras after the Organization for American States refused to send observers, seeing the election as an attempt to legitimize a right-wing coup that removed a democratically elected progressive government from power.
Along with its Democratic-aligned counterpart, the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the IRI has been active in monitoring elections in Egypt and other countries in the Middle East following a surge of democratic revolutions in the region in 2011. In early 2012, however, as part of a broader crackdown on international non-governmental organizations, Egypt's military government enacted a travel ban on several representatives from both NDI and IRI, preventing them from leaving the country. As of February 2012, the Egyptian government was planning to prosecute at least 19 Americans, including IRI members, on charges of illegally operating unlicensed foreign NGOs in the country.
GOP Ties and Links to McCain Campaign
Although officially nonpartisan, IRI is closely aligned with the Republican Party, just as its sister organization, the National Democratic Institute (NDI), is aligned with the Democratic Party. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has served as IRI chairman since 1993, and Lorne Craner, the former assistant secretary of state for democracy and human rights and labor in the George W. Bush administration, is IRI's president.
A July 2008 New YorkTimes article described IRI as "McCain's institute" and highlighted the connections between the IRI, the McCain presidential campaign, and various lobbying interests. Reporter Mike McIntire described a 2006 IRI event: "First up that night in September 2006 was the institute's vice chairman, Peter T. Madigan, a McCain campaign fund-raiser and lobbyist whose clients span the globe, from Dubai to Colombia. He thanked Timothy P. McKone, an AT&T lobbyist and McCain fund-raiser, for helping with the dinner arrangements and then introduced the chairman of AT&T, Edward E. Whitacre Jr., whose company had donated $200,000 for the event. AT&T at the time was seeking political support for an $80 billion merger with BellSouth—another Madigan client—and Mr. Whitacre lavished praise on Mr. McCain, a senior member of the Senate Commerce Committee. When Mr. McCain finally took the podium, he expressed 'profound thanks' to AT&T before presenting the institute's Freedom Award to the president of Liberia, a lobbying client of Charlie Black, an institute donor and McCain campaign adviser."
McIntire reported, "The institute is also something of a revolving door for lobbyists and out-of-power Republicans that offers big donors a way of helping both the party and the institute's chairman, who is the second sitting member of Congress—and now candidate for president—ever to head one of the democracy groups. Operating without the sort of limits placed on campaign fund-raising, the institute under Mr. McCain has solicited millions of dollars for its operations from some 560 defense contractors, lobbying firms, oil companies and other corporations, many with issues before Senate committees Mr. McCain was on."
Accompanying the Times story was a list of IRI directors and their connections to corporate interests, lobbying groups, and the Republican Party, as well as the amount of money they donated to McCain's presidential campaign—a total of $36,700. The list indicated IRI board members who are also involved in McCain's presidential campaign: Craner, IRI president; Gahl Hodges Burt, former White House social secretary; Janet Grissom, automaker lobbyist; Madigan, IRI vice chairman and a lobbyist for foreign governments; Alec Poitevint, Republican committeeman; Randy Scheunemann, head of the lobbying firm Orion Strategies, a campaign adviser on foreign policy and national security to Senator McCain, and a former member of the Project for the New American Century and the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq; Joseph Schmuckler, senior executive at Mitsubishi Securities; and Richard Williamson, lobbyist for AT&T. Other IRI board members include L. Paul Bremer, former special envoy to Iraq; Alison Fortier, vice president of Lockheed Martin; Frank Fahrenkopf, head of the American Gaming Association and former Republican National Committee chairman; Michael Kostiw, a Senate aide to McCain and former Texaco lobbyist; and John Rogers, managing director of Goldman Sachs. The article also featured photos of McCain presenting IRI's "Freedom Award" to Vice President Dick Cheney in 2001, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice in 2004, and George W. Bush in 2005.
Despite this, the IRI seems hesitant to acknowledge its partisanship. For instance, in response to the July 2008 New York Times article, the institute released a statement saying, "While some IRI staff are Republicans, some are also Democrats and some are not members of any political party. … Some of IRI's board members have chosen to support Senator McCain's candidacy, just as some of NDI's member's [sic] have chosen to support Barack Obama's."
Origins and Leadership
The IRI is the indirect product of the democratic globalism efforts of the AFL-CIO, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the two main U.S. political parties. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan proposed a new organization to promote free-market democracies around the world, the NED. In 1983, Congress approved the creation of NED, which was funded primarily through the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) and secondarily through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Designed as a bipartisan institution, NED channels U.S. government funding through four core grantees: IRI, NDI, the Center for International Private Enterprise, and the Solidarity Center (the AFL-CIO's international operations institute).
Like NED and the other core grantees, the early focus of IRI was on the Caribbean and Central America—a region that in the 1980s was the focal point of the Reagan administration's revival of counterinsurgency and counter-revolutionary operations. After the Soviet bloc began to disintegrate in 1989, according to IRI's website, the institute "broadened its reach to support democracy around the globe."
McCain became IRI chairman in 1993. "Shaken by the loss of the White House in 1992," writes Mike McIntire of the New York Times, "Republicans scrambled to reinvigorate their party by giving higher profiles to some of its promising prospects. Mr. McCain, just re-elected by a convincing margin, was given two new positions: head of fund-raising and recruiting for the Senate Republicans and chairman of the International Republican Institute." Among the changes he brought, reports the Times, was a shift in focus from Latin American to the former Soviet bloc.
The IRI has expanded greatly in recent years. Its 2008 budget was about $78 million, with programs in some 60 countries and about 400 employees. Most recently, it has extended its operations into Central Asia, having opened offices in Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. In Latin America, IRI has offices in Guatemala, Peru, and Haiti. In Africa, IRI has offices in Kenya, Nigeria, and Angola. IRI's offices in Asia are found in Cambodia, East Timor, Indonesia, and Mongolia. In Central and Eastern Europe, IRI has offices in Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, and Turkey.
War on Terror
The IRI has actively supported the "war on terror" with programs in at least 10 countries in the Greater Middle East region, as well as the occupied Palestinian territories. During the Bush administration, the institute was accused repeatedly of using misleading polling data to push the Bush agenda, both at home and abroad. "During the Afghan presidential election of October 2004," reports Raw Story, "IRI's pre-election poll showed Hamid Karzai with a strong lead, and its exit poll, released immediately after the vote and well before the ballots were counted, also gave him over 50% of the vote. The British Helsinki Human Rights Group subsequently suggested that these polls might have helped head off scrutiny of an election that had initially been met with well-founded suspicions of fraud. IRI's polls also serve to influence public opinion in the United States. A year ago, MediaMatters pointed out that the Washington Post had cited an IRI poll showing that '60% of Iraqis believed the country is headed in the right direction' without indicating the partisan nature of its source. In September 2004, President Bush had cited a similar IRI poll at a press conference, saying, 'I saw a poll that said the right track/wrong track in Iraq was better than here in America. It's pretty darn strong. I mean, the people see a better future.'"
IRI has continued to carry out polls purporting to show, for example, a "fresh burst of optimism" in Afghanistan in 2009, as well as a sharp decline in public support for Pakistan's government in 2008.
IRI's efforts to fund democracy activities in the Middle East have at times backfired. In a June 2007 article for the New York Times Magazine, Negar Azimi recounted how efforts to funnel money to Iranian groups through the Office of Iranian Affairs, an outfit established in 2006 within the State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs and at one point overseen by Elizabeth Cheney, were facing criticism "not only from Iranian officials but also from some of the very people whose causes it aims to advance."
Reported Azimi: "For the Iranian government, the democracy fund is just one more element in an elaborate Bush administration regime-change stratagem. ('Is there even a perception that the American government has democracy in mind?' Iran's ambassador to the United Nations, Javad Zarif, asked me recently in New York. 'Except among a few dreamers in Eastern Europe?') In recent months, Tehran has upped the pressure on any citizens who might conceivably be linked to the democracy fund and, by extension, on civil society at large, making the mere prospect of American support counterproductive, even reckless. ... It is particularly telling, perhaps, that some of the most outspoken critics of the Iranian government have been among the most outspoken critics of the democracy fund. Activists from the journalist Emadeddin Baghi to the Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi to the former political prisoner Akbar Ganji have all said thanks but no thanks. Ganji has refused three personal invitations to meet with Bush."
Head of the Office of Iranian Affairs at the time was David Denehy, who according to Azimi is "a veteran of democracy promotion programs in Eastern Europe and Central Asia with the International Republican Institute and a close associate of [former] Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. During the Iraq War, he served in Baghdad from June to October 2003, where his focus was on civil-society development."
Attempted Coup in Venezuela
Although the Bush administration steadfastly denied any involvement, many observers accused Washington of being behind the failed April 2002 coup against Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez. However, a relatively clear connection emerged between the U.S. government and the anti-Chávez movement: millions of dollars in U.S. taxpayer money channeled through the IRI and other U.S. organizations to groups opposed to Chávez during the years preceding the April coup.
Via NED funding, IRI had been sponsoring political party-building workshops and other anti-Chávez activities in Venezuela. "IRI evidently began opposing Chávez even before his 1998 election," reported journalist Mike Ceaser. "Prior to that year's congressional and presidential elections, the IRI worked with Venezuelan organizations critical of Chávez to run newspaper ads, TV, and radio spots that several observers characterize as anti-Chávez." Further, according to Ceaser, "The IRI has ... flown groups of Chávez opponents to Washington to meet with U.S. officials. In March 2002, a month before Chávez's brief ouster, one such group of politicians, union leaders, and activists traveled to D.C. to meet with U.S. officials, including members of Congress and State Department staff. The trip came at the time that several military officers were calling for Chávez's resignation and talk of a possible coup was widespread." An opposition figure who benefited from IRI support told Ceaser that bringing varied government opponents together in Washington accelerated the unification of the opposition. "The democratic opposition began to become cohesive," he said. "We began to become a team."
In an April 12, 2002, written statement to the media, IRI President George A. Folsom rejoiced prematurely over Chávez's removal: "The Venezuelan people rose up to defend democracy in their country," he wrote. "Venezuelans were provoked into action as a result of systematic repression by the government of Hugo Chávez."
The Coup in Haiti
In the first year of the George W. Bush administration, IRI received USAID funding for a new "party-building project" in Haiti, where it had been involved in since 1987. In 2004, the Aristide government collapsed. Before IRI closed its Haiti office in 2007, IRI's USAID-funded party-building activities focused on working with and training the political opposition.
According to Robert Maguire, director of the Haiti Program at Trinity College in Washington, D.C., IRI was the key U.S. actor in Haiti for several years. In 2004 he said, "NED and USAID are important, but actually the main actor is the International Republican Institute (IRI), which has been very active in Haiti for many years but particularly in the past three years. IRI has been working with the opposition groups. IRI insisted, through the administration, that USAID give it funding for its work in Haiti. And USAID has done so but kicking and screaming all the way. IRI has worked exclusively with the Democratic Convergence groups in its party-building exercises and support. The IRI point person is Stanley Lucas who historically has had close ties with the Haitian military. … The IRI ran afoul with Aristide right from the beginning since it has only worked with opposition groups that have challenged legitimacy of the Aristide government. Mr. Lucas is a lightning rod of the IRI in Haiti. The United States could not have chosen a more problematic character through which to channel its aid."
As the New York Times reported, "what emerges from the events in Haiti is a portrait of how the effort to nurture democracy became entangled in the ideological wars and partisan rivalries of Washington."
"The Bush administration has said that while Mr. Aristide was deeply flawed, its policy was always to work with him as Haiti's democratically elected leader," the Times reported. "But the administration's actions in Haiti did not always match its words. Interviews and a review of government documents show that [the IRI,] a democracy-building group close to the White House and financed by American taxpayers, undercut the official United States policy and the ambassador assigned to carry it out."
The Raw Story reported: "The secretive aspect to some of IRI's activities, combined with its repeated involvement in subverting left-leaning politicians and parties, creates the appearance that it may be acting as one more tool in the Bush administration's arsenal for regime change by any means available. The recent increase in IRI's federal funding—which almost tripled, from $26 million to $75 million, between 2003 and 2005—adds grounds to this suspicion."