Today's New York Times (July 28) carried a long piece dissecting the political connections of the International Republican Institute (IRI), a group long actively chaired by Sen. John McCain. IRI is chartered by Congress and charged -- like the National Democratic Institute -- with spreading American democracy abroad.
Five years ago, I was part of an international team of poll watchers in Cambodia's national elections. The group included the former ambassadors to Cambodia of Australia and Canada along with 25 or so professionals with long interests in the welfare of Cambodia's beleaguered people. I teamed with a Cambodian-American woman on the staff of Operation USA, a nonprofit with a 29 year history of providing humanitarian aid to Cambodia. We were to be sent to Kampong Speu Province for 2 days of poll watching and interviewing election officials and ordinary voters.
As we checked in to our hotel, there was a large group of well-heeled Americans milling about the lobby. In their midst was the familiar face of Christine Todd Whitman, the ex-Governor of New Jersey and then-recently resigned EPA Administrator in the Bush Administration.
When we inquired as to the nature of their presence in Cambodia, one of their members, a young IRI staffer, proudly identified the group as being from the International Republican Institute.
Knowing the Bush Administration's line on Cambodia's long serving government led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, I wondered how he felt they could be objective since they are US government funded and back US foreign policy objectives in Cambodia. The answer I got was that they had prepared a statement to be delivered by Gov. Whitman on election day. While he would not preview the statement for me, he made it clear it would not be friendly towards the sitting government.
That evening, I slipped a note to Gov. Whitman under her door in our hotel. In it, I mentioned that it was inappropriate for someone visiting Cambodia for the first time to blast the sitting government without first doing due diligence in poll watching and sharing whatever observations they had with the several other international poll watching groups then in Cambodia. I warned her to disregard the IRI staff's canned statement of disapproval of the Government and its elections. I said that meddling done by novices is very harmful, especially without any basis in fact.
The elections were won by Hun Sen's party but not by a super-majority -- allowing the opposition to effectively block whatever government initiatives they took objection to. The other poll watching groups were unanimous in their approval of the fairness of the election....and Christine Whitman obviously tempered her own remarks the next day so as not to look stupid, courtesy of John McCain's very politicized staff. [How do I know this? I saw Gov. Whitman, introduced myself to her, apologized for the way I contacted her and received her thanks for the warning. I also saw the IRI staffer I had originally spoken to, who was none too pleased that their plans to manipulate a popular Republican politician to be their mouthpiece had gone slightly awry.].
The IRI staff were obviously encouraged by Sen McCain to continue this behavior as they next went to El Salvador to meddle in their national elections.
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