Sen. John McCain presents himself as a what-you-see-is-what-you-get
presidential candidate: clean, pragmatic, following his convictions even when
not politically expedient. He considers himself to be someone who would make
an excellent foreign-policy president.
But this image sits in contrast with the International Republican Institute
(IRI), for which McCain has served as board chairman since 1993. Under the
cover of spreading democracy and a free-market economic system, the IRI installs
U.S.-friendly governments and undermines those that are not by supporting coups
Formed in 1983, the IRI is one of several umbrella organizations under the
National Endowment for Democracy (NED), created by the Reagan administration
in 1983. The NED was formed at a time when CIA covert action was coming under
increasing scrutiny, prompting its critics to see it as a surrogate for covert
The Nation in 2002, for example, argued
that the "NED was designed to run a parallel foreign policy for the United
States, backing and assisting entities that Washington might not be able to
officially endorse." The IRI is funded by U.S. tax dollars to the tune
of $75 million a year.
According to its Web site, the IRI at first
"focused on planting the seeds of democracy in Latin America [but] since
the end of the Cold War, has broadened its reach to support democracy and freedom
around the globe [and] has conducted programs in more than 100 countries and
is currently active in 70 countries."
The IRI engages in what it calls "consolidating democracy." That
is, it facilitates the coming together of splintered opposition parties, civil
society organizations such as churches, human rights organizations, worker
unions, women's organizations, and student unions– hence "consolidation."
This becomes a formidable force that is then either able to vote the incumbent
out of office, or when that fails, overwhelm the incumbent into submission
through mass action.
Outside issues of international law and sovereignty, this may sound well and
good. For example the so-called color revolutions in former Soviet Union republics
toppled bad guys and replaced them with stalwarts of the free-market economy
and Western-style democracy. In Ukraine, Viktor Yushchenko, the IRI-backed
candidate, defeated Viktor Yanukovych, who represented old, decrepit, Soviet-style
But IRI activities in countries like Haiti and
Venezuela are more controversial. In Haiti, even those opposed to Jean-Bertrand
Aristide would agree that he was democratically elected. Yet the IRI consolidated
democracy against him, leading to his violent ouster. Mother Jones reported
that "several of the people who had attended IRI trainings were influential
in the toppling of Aristide." Today, Haiti is more poor, divided, and
violent, and less democratic, than it was at the time of Aristide's ouster.
In 2002 the then-IRI president George Folsom is reported to have applauded
the failed Venezuelan coup against President Hugo Chavez. "Last night, led
by every sector of civil society, the Venezuelan people rose up to defend democracy
in their country," he said in a statement the IRI released.
Not expecting the coup to fail, he went on to proudly claim that the role
of the IRI had been to "serve as a bridge between the nation's political
parties and all civil society groups."
No matter what one may think of Chavez, coups are not avenues to democracy.
Chavez was the democratically elected president of Venezuela, meaning that
the IRI was working against the popular vote of the Venezuelan people in order
to serve U.S. interests.
It's not surprising that Egypt views the IRI with so much suspicion that in
2006 it asked the IRI to suspend its efforts at democracy-building until it
received official permission.
Egypt isn't a paragon of democracy, but as it turns out, neither is the IRI.
As the board chairman of this outfit, McCain would have some trust issues in
international gatherings right from Day One if he were to win the U.S. presidential
The questions that McCain needs to answer are obvious: As board chairman has
he been fully aware of the more covert IRI activities? As president, would
he endorse a coup if he felt the end result would be a democratic government
friendly to the United States? Is the IRI fully accountable and transparent
to the American people? As president, would he continue to fund the IRI without
an investigation into its mandate?
McCain has over the years worked very hard to put the 1989 Keating Five corruption
scandal behind him. But if the IRI is not to become his Achilles' heel, McCain
should come clean, if he wishes to remain, well, Mr. McClean.
Reprinted courtesy of Foreign Policy in