Though Arizona Senator John McCain seldom talks about it, he has gotten much of his foreign policy experience working with a cloak and dagger operation called the International Republican Institute (IRI). Since 1993, McCain has served as Chair of the outfit, which is funded by the U.S. government and private money. The group, which receives tens of millions of taxpayer dollars each year, claims to promote democracy world-wide. On the surface at least, IRI seems to have a rather innocuous agenda including party building, media training, the organization of leadership trainings, dissemination of newsletters, and strengthening of civil society.
The hottest country in which IRI currently operates is Iraq. According to the IRI’s own web site, since the summer of 2003 the organization “has conducted a multi-faceted program aimed at promoting the development of democracy in Iraq. Toward this end, IRI works with political parties, indigenous civil society groups, and elected and other government officials. In support of these efforts, IRI also conducts numerous public opinion research projects and assists its Iraqi partners in the production of radio and television ads and programs.”
By law, IRI must operate independently of the Republican Party. However, a former institute grant recipient, Ghassan Atiyyah, the Director of the Iraq Foundation for Development and Democracy, said he parted ways with the IRI over his criticism of the Bush administration’s handling of the war. In 2004 Atiyyah, who pressed for a secular, liberal government in Iraq, received $116,448 from IRI. “Instead of promoting impartial, better understanding of certain ideas and concepts, they [the IRI] are actually trying to further the cause of the Republican administration,” Atiyyah said. Though Atiyyah said IRI never asked him to censor his views, it became clear to the Iraqi that the two parties disagreed politically. When his funding ran out, neither pursued the relationship. “It is a civilized divorce,” he said. (Atiyyah eventually fled Iraq for Britain after his life was threatened).
Who is Running IRI?
Such criticisms aside however, IRI’s overall mission statement on its Web site fundamentally strains credibility. How can the IRI, which is caught up in an incestuous political web with the power elite in Washington and U.S. corporations, claim to be an agent of positive change in Iraq? Although officially non-partisan, IRI is closely aligned with the Republican Party. Dick Cheney received the organization’s Freedom Award in late 2001. Other winners have included Condoleezza Rice, Ronald Reagan, Lynne Cheney, Colin Powell, and Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai.
IRI’s leadership spans the spectrum of center right, far right, and neoconservative factions of the GOP. Most of the organization’s staff and board have links to right-wing think tanks, foundations, and policy institutes. Former Iraq proconsul Paul Bremer, the disastrous colonial administrator who used to wear a blue blazer and hiking boots, sits on IRI’s Board of Directors.
Also sitting on the board is Randy Scheuneman, a former member of the neo-conservative outfit Project for the New American Century. Scheuneman had long-standing ties to the Iraqi National Congress or INC, a loose coalition of Iraqi dissidents and opposition groups headed by the Iraqi flim-flammer , Ahmed Chalabi.
Shady Scheuneman’s ties to McCain go way back even before IRI. In 2000, he served on the Arizona Senator’s foreign policy team during McCain’s unsuccessful presidential bid. Like McCain, Scheuneman was also active in the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, which helped push for official government as well as public support for the invasion of Iraq after the 9/11 terror attacks.
Meanwhile, a who’s who of corporate America chips in to IRI including Blackwater Training Center, part of Blackwater USA. In 2005-6 the company donated $30,000 to IRI. Though Blackwater has fallen under scrutiny as a result of the company’s shooting of 17 people including women and children, the State Department recently decided to renew the firm’s contract.
For Blackwater, the benefits of supporting McCain and IRI are clear: already the Arizona Senator has declared his intention to stay in Iraq “for a thousand years or a million years” if necessary. Behind the scenes, Blackwater is surely praying for a McCain victory in November: Charlie Black, McCain’s chief adviser and a successful Washington lobbyist, has represented the mercenary outfit as well as Chalabi. Black’s connection to Chalabi began in 1999 and continued up until the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
McCain, IRI and Chevron
Though George Bush has scoffed at suggestions that the invasion of Iraq had anything to do with oil, recent press reports give some credence to such claims. In April, Chevron announced that it was involved in discussions with the Iraqi Oil Ministry to increase production in an important oil field in southern Iraq. The discussions were aimed at finalizing a two-year deal, or technical support agreement, to boost production at the West Qurna Stage 1 oil field near Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city.
It turns out that Chevron, like Blackwater, has donated to McCain’s IRI. What’s more, since McCain solidified his position as the GOP’s nominee, Chevron Chairman David O’Reilly gave $28,500 to the GOP. Meanwhile lobbyist Wayne Berman, McCain’s National Finance Co-Chairman, counts Chevron as one of his principal clients.
According to Progressive Media USA, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit, the Arizona Senator has benefited handily from Big Oil. McCain has taken in at least $700,000 from the oil and gas industry since 1989. In Congress, the Arizona senator has worked tirelessly to advance the interests of the oil industry. For example, McCain’s tax plan gives the top five oil companies $3.8 billion a year in tax breaks. McCain meanwhile has voted against reducing dependence on foreign oil, has twice rejected windfall profits tax for Big Oil, and has voted against taxing oil companies to provide a $100 rebate to consumers.
McCain, IRI and Lockheed Martin
As if these corporate ties were not enough, IRI has also accepted money from Lockheed Martin, the world’s #1 military contractor. The firm has been a McCain donor, giving more than $13,000 through its PAC to the Arizona Senator in 2006. According to the Center for Public Integrity, lobbyist Vin Weber, one of McCain’s top political advisers, counted Lockheed Martin as one of his most important clients.
Early on, Lockheed saw that it could benefit from the war in Iraq. The company’s former vice president, Bruce Jackson, even chaired the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq. There, he found common cause with Scheuneman, the group’s President, and McCain, the “honorary co-chair.” Jackson also worked with Scheuneman through The Project for the New American Century, a group that the Lockheed man directed personally.
Jackson goes way back in GOP circles. Between 1986 and 1990, when he was working in the Office of the Secretary of Defense in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, he served under Dick Cheney. He also worked under prominent neo-conservatives such as Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle. In 2000, he chaired the Republican Party Platform’s subcommittee for National Security and Foreign Policy when George W. Bush ran for president.
Jackson was also involved in corralling support for the Iraq war from Eastern European countries, and even went so far as to help to write their letter of endorsement for military intervention. Not surprisingly, Lockheed also had business relations with these countries. In 2003 Poland shelled out $3.5 billion for 48 F-16 fighter planes which it was able to purchase with a $3.8 billion loan from the U.S.
During the start of the Iraq invasion, Lockheed Martin’s F-117 stealth attack fighters were used to “shock and awe” the population. Jackson is now working on McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, serving on the Senator’s foreign policy advisory team.
The mainstream press has completely failed to analyze McCain’s long term involvement in the Iraq imbroglio. If they were to delve too deeply, the corporate pundits would have to confront the uncomfortable truth that the military-industrial complex and the oil industry have played an integral role in the invasion and occupation. Surrounding the whole affair are shady figures such as Black, Scheuneman and Jackson and unscrupulous companies like Chevron, Blackwater and Lockheed Martin. At the center of the vortex are none other than IRI and John McCain.
NIKOLAS KOZLOFF is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan)