We of a certain age, born in the early 60’s at the tail end of the baby boom, grew up in the Ford and Carter era and went to college in the Reagan years–young enough to avoid being fully confronted by Vietnam and Watergate and young enough, if we didn’t live in the Deep South at least, to take the basics of “civil rights” for “black” Americans somewhat for granted.
Jack Abramoff grew up in Beverly Hills. He poured his energies into powerlifting and then went off to Brandeis and became a leader in the “conservative movement” youth insurgency through the College Republicans. Barack Obama grew up primarily in Honolulu, went to an elite prep school and found his rebellion through embracing the “black” and to some extent “third world” sides of his identify. He started at Occidental and then transferred to Columbia where he first discovered his taste for participation in politics in speaking to activist students in support of divestment in South Africa in opposition to apartheid.
For Abramoff, however, South Africa was about the Cold War and he played aggressively on the other side of the divestment issue as national College Republican chairman. Access to expenses-paid junkets to South Africa, sponsored by the apartheid government, were a part of the “coinage of the realm” of the Abramoff political operation in maintaining loyalty and control within the national level of the College Republicans in the middle Reagan years. Those of us who were College Republican state chairmen would be sent lots of papers and materials about the alleged communist nature of the African National Congress, Winnie Mandela and “necklacing”, and such–as well as supporting the Reagan Administration’s “constructive engagement” policy and opposing divestment.
This is not to say that supporting the “Contras” in Nicaragua wasn’t perhaps Jack’s first policy priority, along with supporting the the administration on El Salvador–or that there wasn’t greater romance with the Mujahadeen fighting an assertedly religious “good war” against the Soviets and their allies in Afghanistan–but South Africa was treated as an important issue–and the inter-related effort of backing Jonas Savimbi and UNITA in Angola had special resonance.
In 1986, Congress overrode Reagan’s veto to impose sanctions on the South African regime, rejecting the “constructive engagement” approach. The late Rep. Howard Wolpe (D-Mich) as chair of the Africa Subcommittee of House Foreign Affairs led on the sanctions effort.
When the sanctions went into place against the South African government, Abramoff helped found the “nonpartisan” International Freedom Foundation (IFF), with headquarters in Washington and a Johannesburg office, to continue this fight, among others. What most people didn’t know until groundbreaking investigative reporting by Newsday in 1995 was that the International Freedom Foundation was directly funded in substantial part by the South African regime to advance its cause in the “marketplace of ideas” through information operations.
A respectable Washington foundation, which drew into its web prominent Republican and conservative figures like Sen. Jesse Helms and other members of Congress, was actually a front organization bankrolled by South Africa’s last white rulers to prolong apartheid, a Newsday investigation has shown.
The International Freedom Foundation, founded in 1986 seemingly as a conservative think tank, was in fact part of an elaborate intelligence gathering operation, and was designed to be an instrument for “political warfare” against apartheid’s foes, according to former senior South African spy Craig Williamson. The South Africans spent up to $1.5 million a year through 1992 to underwrite “Operation Babushka,” as the IFF project was known.
The current South African National Defence Force officially confirmed that the IFF was its dummy operation.
The IFF issued publications and studies and hosted events featuring establishment heavyweight speakers including Henry Kissinger (IRI’s 2009 “Freedom Award” honoree and benefactor of blessing on V.P. nominee Sarah Palin in the 2008 presidential campaign of IRI Chairman McCain), and attracted a significant chunk of the leadership of the “movement conservative” wing of the GOP to its advisory boards, according to Newsday.
With the blow up of the Iran-Contra affair and Oliver North and others out of the White House, a private foundation with funding from a foreign government was a timely mechanism to influence public opinion, although the South African funding was obviously secret and presumably not known to most of the people who were involved (just as I didn’t know as a College Republican chairman earlier that Jack was getting public resources for the “CR” campaign for the “Contras” from Oliver North’s cronies in the government).
It was about this time that Obama first visited his father’s home country of Kenya according to Dreams from my Father. Michael Ranneberger, Ambassador to Kenya from 2006-11, worked Angola/Namibia during the early Reagan years under Assistant Secretary of State Chester Crocker, known as the originator of “constructive engagement”. Meanwhile, Jack by 1988 was producing his first movie, Red Scorpion, secretly funded by the South African military according to sources in the Newsday story and filmed in South African-held Namibia. Jack was visiting Savimbi and helping to promote him in Washington, along with his friend Grover Norquist.
By the time of the 1995 Newsday reporting, Nelson Mandela was the elected President of South Africa, and the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission under Bishop Desmond Tutu was exposing the stories of the apartheid regime in return for immunity. Compared to the assassinations and paramilitary operations,
“[i]n South African government thinking, the IFF represented a far more subtle approach to defeating the anti-apartheid movement. Officials said the p!an was to get away from the traditional allies of Pretoria, the fringe right in the United States and Europe, “some of whom were to the right of Ghengis Khan,” said one senior intelligence official. Instead, they settled for a front staffed with mainstream conservatives who did not necessarily know who was pulling the strings.
Fast forward to the 21st Century: Former Congressman Wolpe served on the Board of the National Endowment for Democracy and headed the Africa Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center at the time I joined the International Republican Institute to head to Nairobi in 2007 and was subsequently appointed President Obama’s special representative for Africa’s Great Lakes Region. Ambassador Johnnie Carson, a career Foreign Service Officer, worked the sanctions issue during a stint as a House staffer under Wolpe. His subsequent Foreign Service career included an appointment as Ambassador to Kenya at the time of Mwai Kibaki’s election in 2002, as well as ambassadorships to Uganda and Zimbabwe. Carson served as lead of the Africa division of the National Intelligence Council through the later G.W. Bush years, including during the controversial 2007 Kenyan election and then was appointed Obama’s Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs.
Abramoff had set up as a lobbyist upon the takeover of the House of Representatives by the Republicans in 1994, the year before the Newsday story. His work as “superlobbyist” for the Mississippi Choctaws and other Indian tribes in the casino business was the subject of a front page puff-piece in the New York Times and similarly in the Wall Street Journal while I was working in the defense industry here in Mississippi early in the George W. Bush administration.
By 2006, Obama was elected to the U.S. Senate from Illinois, Jack was indicted and the Republicans lost their House majority briefly, in part because of the multi-layered scandal involving Jack’s lobbying relationships, especially with some of the House Republicans. Obama went on to the White House and Jack went to jail for a while, although he is back writing and speaking for “limited government” as an antidote to the type of business relationships with elected officials he once enjoyed.
On balance, during those years before Obama briefly joined the Senate Foreign Relations Africa Subcommittee in 2007, it was Jack Abramoff rather than Barack Obama who was substantially and consequentially engaged in the politics of Africa and of America’s relationships in Africa. Obama did oppose apartheid, while Abramoff advanced the cause of South Africa’s apartheid regime.
It is for this reason, among many others, that I am substantially “turned off” by the hyperventilating conspiracy theories about Obama reflected in Dinesh D’Souza’s campaign movie “Obama’s America” and the rest of the propaganda from the U.S.-based hard right about Obama and foreign policy.