Republican John McCain can claim the most eclectic overseas portfolio among presidential candidates: He has ties to a Cambodian reality TV show, a Bolivian law-and-order guide and rock concerts in the former Soviet Union.
McCain seldom mentions his role as chairman of the International Republican Institute. But it has provided a forum to make him known to world leaders he addressed top European Union officials in Brussels, Belgium, last year on trans-Atlantic issues, for example and a way to observe firsthand the politics of other countries. It’s the kind of foreign policy expertise McCain says his GOP rivals lack.
The group, funded by taxpayer and private money, is active in dozens of countries, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.
The institute was created in 1983 during the Cold War and made the Arizona senator chairman of its board in January 1993. McCain has said U.S. foreign policy should promote democracy abroad.
“He’s a big history buff, and I think he thought that it was a good idea that there be proposed in these countries an alternative to what the Soviets were offering,” says institute president Lorne Craner, a former State Department assistant secretary whose father was a prisoner of war in Vietnam with McCain.
The group didn’t disappear with the Soviet collapse. It gets most of its money from the U.S. government about $78 million in its 2006 budget year. In addition, it raised at least $1 million from companies, lobbying groups and foundations and $208,745 from individuals last year.
A who’s who of corporate America chips in.
AT&T gave the IRI $200,000 last year. AT&T spokesman Michael Balmoris declined to elaborate on why the international telecommunications provider wrote a big check: “AT&T contributes to a variety of charitable organizations,” he said.
United Parcel Service donated $45,000. Rival shipper Federal Express gave $25,000, as did brewer Anheuser-Busch, telecom company BellSouth and the Lehman Bros. investment bank. Other givers include Coca-Cola, International Paper, the Union Pacific railroad, defense contractor Lockheed Martin and the United States Telecom Association. Chevron, the ExxonMobil Foundation and BP Corporation North America all gave last year.
The Blackwater Training Center part of Blackwater USA, a paramilitary security firm under investigation in the shooting deaths of 11 Iraqi civilians gave the institute $15,000 in each of the past two years. The institute paid Blackwater USA about $18 million last fiscal year for security overseas.
Many donor companies and firms routinely lobby on the types of issues handled by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, where McCain is the No. 2 Republican. McCain declined to comment on institute fundraising and would answer other questions only through a spokeswoman. The institute said it keeps its fundraising separate from McCain’s political operation.
The institute has had at least one contractor in common with McCain’s campaigns. It paid one of McCain’s longtime fundraisers, Carla Eudy’s The Eudy Company, $80,000 to raise money last year. McCain’s presidential campaign paid Eudy at least $105,000 this year for fundraising. The amount is not unusual for a fundraiser. Eudy was replaced as McCain’s fundraising chief earlier this year and named a senior finance adviser.
The institute and McCain’s campaign also have donors in common: McCain’s presidential campaign has raised at least $670,000 from 2005-06 institute donors and their employees since its fundraising started last year.
McCain’s political action committee collected at least $392,000 from institute donor companies and their employees since January 2005. The totals represent a relatively small fraction of McCain’s overall fundraising.
Several institute donors or their employees are volunteer fundraisers for McCain’s White House run, including institute board member and chief operating officer of Nomura Holdings, America, Inc., Joseph Schmuckler; Goldman Sachs managing director Thomas Tuft, and Pinnacle West Capital chief executive William Post. The institute’s Craner declined to say whether he is helping McCain’s campaign.
The IRI and its Democratic counterpart, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, are offshoots of the National Endowment for Democracy, created in 1983 by Congress and President Reagan.
Like the Republican institute, the NDI receives taxpayer money and raises donations from corporations and others. A McCain rival in the presidential race, Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., is on the Democratic group’s senior advisory committee.
USING POPULAR CULTURE
The institute’s work abroad includes polling and get-out-the-vote drives. It conducts election-day poll watching, lessons for young people on democracy and candidate training, particularly for potential female candidates.
In Bolivia, it teamed with the education ministry to produce a Spanish-language civic education guide for high school students. The guide is illustrated with cartoonish drawings that include a well-endowed woman voting, a man being mugged at knifepoint and another getting hauled away by a police officer. It tries to win students over to the virtues of respecting the law and other civic duties.
“When we commit ourselves to something, we have the obligation to fulfill what we promised. For example, when we promise to arrive somewhere at a certain hour, we have the obligation to do it,” says one section, translated by AP. IRI is not the first Western interest to promote promptness in Bolivia, which is famous for its attitude of “hora boliviana” things happen when they happen. A Bolivian radio commentator once chided President Evo Morales for keeping such a strict schedule and holding meetings on time, saying he needed to relax.
Some of the institute’s efforts play off American popular culture.
In Cambodia, IRI joined with a youth council to produce a reality television program this year called, “Yuvakchun Chhnoeum,” or “Youth Leadership Challenge.” A Cambodian newspaper described the show as styled after Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice” with contestants voted off each week, in this case young people debating various points of view.
In the former Soviet republic of Georgia, it has conducted “Rock the Vote”-style concerts to get young voters to the polls.
The group sometimes helps specific politicians. It gave campaign training to Serbian President Boris Tadic in 2004 and the late Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski during and after his 1999 presidential race. It worked with Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin and the ruling Communist Party.
ACTIVE IN IRAQ
The International Republican Institute has large programs in Russia, China, Afghanistan, Sudan, Colombia, Indonesia, Pakistan and Iraq. Those governments work with it or at least tolerate it, Craner said.
The institute by law must operate independently of the Republican Party, and in its overseas work steers clear of politically divisive subjects such as abortion and gun control, he said.
“We’re not ideological in that sense of trying to prescribe U.S. solutions overseas, mainly because they’re not appropriate at this point in a country’s development,” Craner said.
But a former institute grant recipient, Ghassan Atiyyah, director of the Iraq Foundation for Development and Democracy, said he parted ways with the institute over his criticism of the Bush administration’s handling of the war.
Atiyyah, who is pressing for a secular, liberal government in Iraq, received $116,448 from the institute in fiscal 2004. He said he has heard McCain speak once but hasn’t met him, and doesn’t blame the senator for his dissatisfaction with the institute.
“Instead of promoting impartial, better understanding of certain ideas and concepts, they are actually trying to further the cause of the Republican administration,” Atiyyah said in a phone interview from London, where he moved after his life was threatened in Baghdad.
Atiyyah said the institute never asked him to stop talking, but it became clear they disagreed. When his funding ran out, neither pursued the relationship. “It is a civilized divorce,” he said.
Institute spokeswoman Lisa Gates said Atiyyah completed the grant project and IRI recommended him for National Endowment for Democracy funding. The Iraq program’s current director was surprised to learn Atiyyah thought his work with the institute ended because of his criticism, “as our director at that time was also critical of U.S. government efforts in Iraq,” she said.
Associated Press writer Dan Keane in La Paz, Bolivia, contributed to this story.