A breakthrough on unraveling the story of Kenya’s stolen 2007 election:
This is from my original 2009 Freedom of Information Act request to the State Department for documents related to the 2007 Kenya exit poll I managed as Chief of Party for the International Republican Institute’s USAID funded polling program.
At that time State withheld one document in full on the basis of “predecisional privilege”; I eventually got that document released on appeal, and heard no more.
Yesterday, I checked in with the State Department FOIA web library to see if there was anything new on Kenya from other requesters and my search showed that an additional document had been published online in 2017, unbeknownst to me, in response to my 2009 request. It is an April 24, 2007 cable titled “Achieving USG Goals in Kenya’s Election” over the signature of Ambassador Ranneberger to the Secretary of State for the Africa Bureau and the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) in Washington. “Sensitive But Unclassified” and released with no redaction. No explanation as to why this document, which pre-dates all of the others released or identified to me in 2013, was published online on April 18, 2017; if it was mailed to me at some point I did not receive it. Nonetheless, I am glad to finally have it (although I wish I had known about it when I published my June 2017 summary story on “The Debacle of 2007“ for The Elephant).
The big significance of the cable for me is that it documents that the State Department had in fact changed its approach toward Kibaki and toward the opposition between 2005 and April 2007. This was my perception “on the ground” during the campaign, but I had no explicit documentation until now. It also confirms that as of April, the plan was for a diplomatic observation of the election by State Department personnel only and not an International Observation Mission by the Carter Center as recommended by a 2006 USAID evaluation (referenced in the cable) or by IRI as initiated at the behest of the Ambassador that summer.
Likewise, the cable includes one more recitation that the purpose of the exit poll, formally, was to deter and oppose election fraud through an “independent verification of election results”, not to be “a training exercise never intended to be released” as asserted by Ambassador Ranneberger on a State Department webchat in March 2008 after the quashed but leaked poll had become a “hot potato”, and supported in State Department talking points prepared and circulated in response to media reporting in 2008 and 2009.
Unfortunately for me, when I took over the USAID polling program for IRI in June 2007, the program was operating under a Cooperative Agreement from 2005 that expressed the old policy of being disappointed in the corruption and underperformance within the Kenyan government as reflected in the Anglo Leasing security procurement frauds, the Standard Raid and Artur Brothers, etc. No one at USAID or IRI intimated that the State Department had changed policy and I had to figure it out for myself on the fly.
Here are key excerpts from the cable as published:
3. (SBU) Positioning: Some civil society leaders and opposition members of Parliament have complained recently that the U.S. mission is not close enough to the opposition. In fact, we have close contacts with the opposition from the top levels through the Ambassador to to all levels. However, the opposition longs for the days in 2005 when Foreign Minister Tuju publicly condemned the U.S. mission for supposedly desiring “regime change” in Kenya. They also cite the period in the 1990s when the U.S. mission openly sided against the Moi administration in favor of the multiparty democracy movement. However, the present government, for all its flaws, was elected under conditions widely considered free and fair. As for its indulgence of corrupt members of the political class, we note that the opposition has taken no disciplinary action against notoriously corrupt members within its own ranks. Corruption plagues the entire political class. We will continue to publicly condemn it as a major impediment to Kenya’s progress. We will continue to work closely with the Kibaki administration to achieve USG goals, but we will continue to assert ourselves as completely neutral concerning the election itself. Our strategy is to build capital with the government to be spent as needed over the course of the campaign to address critical electoral issues. We started that process through emphasis on the U.S.-Kenya partnership (reftel B). While we will be strictly neutral among the contending political parties, we will be fiercely partisan in support of the democratic process.
. . . .
8. (SBU) Electoral Reform: As reported in reftel B, electoral reform continues to be a hotly debated topic in Kenya. There is a consensus among all political parties and civil society that reform is required. There are no prominent defenders of the status quo. However, there is no consensus on the scope of reforms and the particulars of those reforms. Since the 2002 general election and the 2005 referendum on the draft constitution were both held under the present electoral system and were deemed free and fair, and since Kenyan society is adequately debating electoral reform, we see no reason for the USG to enter the fray. However, we have urged on all parties a spirit of compromise and an emphasis on the longterm best interests of the nation rather than short term electoral advantage. An opposition leader recently threatened a boycott of elections if his party’s electoral reform demands are not met. We made it clear to him that such intemperate language is not constructive and that boycotts are not acceptable. He stopped issuing boycott threats.
. . . .
– Public Opinion Polling: The International Republican Institute began implementing a public opinion program in 2005. The program seeks to achieve two results: increasing the availability of objective and reliable polling data; and providing an independent source of verification of electoral outcomes via exit polls. These results make an important contribution to elections and political processes. First, genuine free and fair elections require that citizens make informed choices. The polling data adds to the objective data available to citizens on key electoral issues. Second, the exit polls provide an independent assessment of the accuracy of the official electoral results, thereby supporting the assessment of the credibility of Kenyan electoral processes.
This program also enhances democratic political parties by enhancing the likelihood that candidates base their platforms on the key issues and concerns of their constituents, evidenced in the polling data, rather than the traditional focus on ethnicity and personalized political wrangling.
I will discuss the context and layers of meaning in this “new old” cable more in the near future.
The exit poll was publicly released by the the University of California San Diego research team at an event at CSIS in Washington only in July 2008 after the six month publicity restriction in their consulting contract with IRI. [ed. note: Remember it was then released in August by IRI.]
By that time, it mattered for “the war for history” as to whether the election had actually been stolen or not, but had no real time impact in that Kibaki’s second full term was well underway. The “Kreigler Commission” reporting to President Kibaki was staying off the question of what really happened to the presidential tally at the ECK.
Lessons for today, in time to matter?
What if vital information about what happened with the presidential tally is in the hands of people working for the donor-funded election assistance operations who wish they could provide that information and answer the vital questions?
To pick up from Part 17, when the New York Times finally published their story on January 30, 2009, “A Chaotic Kenya Vote and a Secret U.S. Exit Poll”, after they had interviewed me in July 2008 and again that November, the most significant substantive new information for me was that Ambassador Ranneberger admitted to discussing the USAID/IRI exit poll with Connie Newman, whose choice he had engineered as lead delegate for our Election Observation Mission. While I had assumed that word from the Ambassador was realistically the only plausible explanation for Connie asserting herself to object to any public mention of the exit poll or its preliminary numbers by December 29 when she had no involvement with the polling program, she had not said anything of such conversation to me, and I had no way to know for sure and certainly no way to prove it.
At the same time, I was amazed that Ranneberger flatly denied his action in twisting my arm to get his predecessor, Ambassador Mark Bellamy, removed from the Election Observation delegation. Contrary to his discussion of the exit poll with Connie, that was something that I knew other people in the State Department and USAID, as well as at IRI, knew about. Both Ambassador Bellamy and Connie Newman declined to comment–which I would have expected Ranneberger to do.
Ranneberger’s claim that he had no part in removing Bellamy obviously raised the stakes that much more for me personally in that I was back at my job as senior counsel for a major defense contractor and I was being accused by our Ambassador to Kenya on the front page of the New York Times of fabricating the whole incident. At the same time, it had the advantage of making it clear to people at the State Department and USAID, and at IRI (including the local staff that I had worked with in Nairobi who had helped me check out Ranneberger’s claim that Bellamy was “perceived as anti-government” but who had no involvement in the polling controversy) that I was telling the truth and Ranneberger was not.
At the time, I really did not know how much weight to give to Ranneberger’s removal of Bellamy from the Observation, but I emphasized it in my original interview with the Times in part because I knew that a much wider circle of people knew about it than knew about what had happened with the machinations on the issues of the pre-election and exit polls.
In retrospect, I see the removal of Bellamy as crucial to allowing Ranneberger to substantively control the Observation when it mattered most. Eventually in July the final IRI observation report was issued pointing out that the election had been corrupted and the exit poll was released by IRI then finally in August, but by that time it was too late to make any difference. In spite of the terms of the February 28, 2008 “peace deal” the changing of the vote tallies at the ECK headquarters as witnessed by Ranneberger was never investigated (or publicly revealed by the State Department until my FOIA request turned up the Ambassador’s January 2, 2008 cable years later) and Kibaki’s re-election stood irrespective of the fraud in declaring him winner.
I’ve promised myself to go ahead and hammer home more of the details about the election fraud and cover up in Kenya in 2007 in more installments of my “War for History” series before saying much more about the next election or the latest trend in development assistance fashion or other things that would be more fun to write about now.
Part of what has happened is that I made a conscious choice to “turn the other cheek” when I was attacked by and on behalf of the International Republican Institute back in 2009 for being a former employee “whistleblower” of sorts or violating the “omerta” of that branch of the government organized NGO world. I did not want to attack IRI for reasons both substantial and sentimental. Sentimentally, I had friends there and still do and aside from meaningful relationships I liked pretty much everyone I worked with and it makes me sad to address painful subjects in this context. More substantively, I believed in and invested in American democracy assistance through IRI and I do think that such assistance can be effective and of value in the right circumstances (if we conduct ourselves in a principled and committed way and hold ourselves accountable as necessary in any serious endeavor). Thus, I have been circumspect in fighting back to try to defend or recover my own reputation recognizing that at some level that is part of the collateral damage associated with coming into contact with the sort of political “perfect storm” that hit Kenya and Washington during my time in Nairobi. With the far far greater harm that came to those millions of Kenyans who had their vote misappropriated and those killed, maimed and displaced by the violence, whether state-sponsored, privately instigated and funded or spontaneous, getting a black-eye from some operatives in Washington is not something of consequence one way or the other.
After returning home from Kenya at the end of May 2008 I did over the months and years ahead a variety of interviews with people undertaking writing projects relating to that Kenyan election of 2007 (none at my instigation, but I would invariably say yes when asked). I always assumed that someone would eventually publish their book tackling the hard story of what really happened with the election and de-cyphering in some real fashion what U.S. policy at the time was intended to be. Unfortunately, that has still never yet happened, and here we are, in 2016 with yet another election notionally (and by law) only a year away.
So I have concluded that at this point I really need to go ahead and hit the rest of the key high points of what I know first hand as well as what I have teased out from FOIA. In particular, anyone working for IRI/NDI/IFES and any of the other organizations running election support operations or any type of observation-related endeavor for the 2017 Kenyan election really needs to know the ins-and-outs of what happened in 2007-08, especially since almost all the key players in Kenyan politics are the same (although perhaps half or so have switched sides between Government and Opposition).
I do need to call attention to two rules that I have continued to abide by in my role as a “witness” here: 1) I uphold the Code of Conduct I agreed to in working for IRI by not disclosing my political conversations with Kenyan politicians during my IRI service in any way that is recognizable to the individuals involved 2) I have not published or quoted stolen classified documents or otherwise violated any U.S. national security rules (as I have mentioned, I had a security clearance from my job in the U.S. based defense industry contemporaneously with my time in Kenya, but my clearance was unrelated to my unpaid “public service” leave for the NGO job in East Africa and I did not work on any classified programs or endeavors of any sort as an IRI employee. My security clearance was renewed back home several months after Ambassador Ranneberger and I contradicted each other in the New York Times about his interactions with me in regard to the Kenyan election–I have assumed that this was because I told the truth). I have noticed that it seems more and more people who do a lot of sensitive work for the U.S. government at taxpayer expense do cite some material from the “cablegate” leaks, but I have not crossed that threshold myself.
The Mississippi angle comes in from the fact that the experience of Hurricane Katrina (which made landfall on the Mississippi Gulf Coast eleven years ago today) had a great deal to do with me finding myself in the wake of the election disaster in Kenya in 2007. The idea of taking leave from my job primarily supporting Navy shipbuilding to work in foreign assistance took shape from the Katrina experience. I won’t try to explain in any depth now, but the point is that I took leave of my job as a middle-aged mid-career lawyer and moved my family to Kenya temporarily (at the expense of my wife’s job, by the way) with the serious expectation of doing work that was at least in some meaningful if incremental way beneficial to people who were less fortunate (as opposed to because it was the best job I could find in the Republican Party at the time, or because I needed to lay low and get out of the country for while, or some such). Thus, I remain unrequited as I see democracy in Kenya continue to slog in the mud and the alleged benefits of the February 28, 2008 “peace deal” pissed away in favor of impunity for corruption as well as for killing.
I never thought of myself becoming a “whistleblower” in relation to my “democracy support” work on the failed 2007 Kenyan election as resident director for the International Republican Institute. I worked internally to press for the release of the USAID-funded exit poll contradicting the “results” of the election announced on Sunday December 30, 2007 by the Electoral Commission of Kenya and worked internally to try to uphold what I saw as required for the integrity of the IRI Election Observation Mission, also funded by USAID as a separate program.
From mid-December 2007 I was actively resisting what I understood to be, and described to my superiors in IRI as “some agenda” by the U.S. Ambassador in relation to the election itself, with the understanding that we were in complete agreement within IRI of the need for such resistance to attempted interference with our independence.
My Contracting Technical Officer at USAID was caught in the middle between me (and IRI) and the Ambassador. While she was directly answerable to USAID in Washington as I was to IRI in Washington, and the funding agreements for the programs were issued in Washington, as a practical matter, the Ambassador controlled the process. The Election Observation was initiated by the Ambassador specifically contrary to the prior planning of USAID (which was changed to accommodate him). The exit poll was added on to our polling program–contractually and as confirmed in our explicit conversations, as a check on potential election fraud–but really as she told me by phone on the afternoon of election day, as “early intelligence” for the Ambassador as to who was winning. I know she agreed with some of my concerns and it was certainly my impression from my interactions with her in the aftermath of the election that she felt as badly about what happened as she could allow herself to show in the context of doing her job. On balance I see her primarily as more a victim of rather than a willing participant in whatever the shenanigans were.
I complained internally about interference from the Ambassador by writing a long e-mail missive to the USAID CTO on Tuesday, December 18, 2007 following a phone conference with the senior IRI leadership in Washington in the wee hours of the morning Nairobi time. I do not have a copy of that e-mail and USAID did not produce it, or any of the other e-mail correspondence regarding the agreements in response to my FOIA request.
The IRI leadership had called me that Monday afternoon (their time) to follow up on my e-mail report on my private meeting with the Ambassador at his residence that Saturday, December 15. This was the e-mail noting the “some agenda” of the Ambassador and reporting that he had said “people were saying” that opposition candidate Odinga might, implausibly to my assessment, lose his own Langata parliamentary constituency and thus be disqualified from taking the presidency regardless of the outcome of the national vote, and the Ambassador’s desire to take our lead Election Observation delegate Connie Newman to meet with Stanley Murage, “President Kibaki’s Karl Rove,” on the day before the election to be followed by observing the election with the Ambassador and his staff rather than with our IRI delegation. I had gone to the Ambassador’s residence based on a phone call that Friday afternoon from an unidentified caller who “worked for the Ambassador” having been told by IRI’s president at the time, Lorne Craner, from Thailand, that the Ambassador wanted to talk to talk with me. As I have written, Craner had called Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer on his way to the airport, as he related it, to “get her Ambassador under control”, then followed up with a call to Ambassador Ranneberger upon arriving in Thailand, after the Ambassador had twisted my arm hard on Thursday to get his predecessor Ambassador Bellamy removed as an Election Observation delegate. My instructions from Mr. Craner were explicit: accept “no more b.s.” from the Ambassador.
I had been in a quiet “push-pull” on behalf of IRI with the Ambassador and his staff and USAID for some period of time over the independence of our Election Observation Mission before things came to a head with the issue of removing Bellamy, the proposed Murage meeting, etc., leading to my complaint to USAID.
As I have written, after Ranneberger’s meeting with myself and my boss and the late Amb. Rich Williamson in August in which Ranneberger again expressed his desire to have IRI observe the election, USAID told me they would “move heaven and earth” to make the observation happen and they came up with $235,000 of “Economic Support Funds” at the end of the fiscal year in September for the mission.
Ranneberger wanted, as I was told later by the CTO, to select all of IRI’s Observation delegates. She said that she explained to the Ambassador that this was not doable, but promised him as a minimum the approval of the “lead delegate”.
When she wrote up the Request For Proposals (“RFP”) for a Cooperative Agreement to conduct the Election Observation it was de facto directed to IRI, in accordance with the Ambassador’s previously expressed desire. The RFP was issued on a non-competitive basis to the CEPPS (“Coalition for Political Parties and Process Strengthening”) comprised of IRI, NDI and IFES, thus eliminating the Carter Center and Democracy International. Based on language in the RFP, NDI was in effect eliminated by their work with the competing political parties and IFES was eliminated by their role as “embedded” with the Electoral Commission of Kenya. (After my return to the States I found that USAID had paid a consulting firm, MSI, in the spring of 2006 to study and advise on USAID’s preparations for the 2007 election. After extensive interviews in Nairobi, including staff of all three CEPPS entities working on the USAID programs at the time, they recommended that USAID plan for and fund an election observation and that the Carter Center was the most appropriate entity to conduct it.) In the RFP the CTO included descriptions of the credentials matching without naming the specific people that Ranneberger wanted as “lead delegates”, former Assistant Secretaries for Africa for whom Ranneberger had worked, Connie Newman and Chester Crocker. The “lead delegate” was to be formally approved as USAID’s “substantial involvement” in the program. For the rest of the delegates that Ranneberger had specified to me that he wanted IRI to invite, the RFP listed matching credential descriptions, but as examples without a contractual right of approval.
As I have written, IRI went along with inviting Newman and Crocker (Crocker declined as unavailable) while refusing to submit Newman’s name for formal approval as being an impermissible intrusion on IRI’s independence in conducting an international Election Observation Mission. Of the other potential delegates that Ranneberger wanted IRI to invite as per his after hours cell phone calls to me, Joel Barkan was the only one included in the EOM as he had already been identified separately by IRI. None of the others, of which well known former diplomat Frank Wisner, then at insurer AIG, stands out in my recollection, were invited by IRI.
The Ambassador took a keen interest in the lodging arrangements, in particular wanting Ms. Newman to stay at the embassy residence, or alternatively at the Serena hotel (near State House as well as closer to his residence and others in exclusive Muthaiga) rather than at the Holiday Inn Mayfair which we had selected for the delegation. We internally insisted on planning for Connie to stay with the rest of the delegation, even before the alarm bells went off from the Ambassador’s December 15 expression of desire to take her to meet with Stanley Murage the day before the vote. Likewise, I nixed having our delegation travel in State Department cars with State Department drivers (I did go along with having interpreters for many of our teams). I also declined to merge our observation headquarters operation into the Ambassador’s diplomatic command post at the Embassy in Gigiri, keeping our operation separate at the Mayfair, with a staff liaison to the Embassy and to the EU observation headquarters.
During that wee hours December 18 phone call from Washington (I was awoken at home) following my report on meeting with the Ambassador, I was given the opportunity by IRI’s number two official (filing in since Mr. Craner was in Thailand) to cancel the election observation on my say so based on the Ambassador’s interference. This is one of the crucial things that has always made me believe, in accordance with what I was told directly, that everyone on the IRI staff was in accord that we were committed to “playing it straight” on the election itself and that all the “agenda” issues came from or through the Ambassador and not from within IRI.
Unfortunately, having to make a judgment call on the spot, in the context of our detailed discussion of our plans and logistics, I made the decision that we could go forward. Mea culpa. If I had to do it over again, with more foresight into what would come, of course I would have said we have to cancel.
In fairness, I have to say that my decision was based on counting on the fact that it was agreed that Connie Newman would be accompanied by and briefed by the other senior IRI officer on the call (who would be the senior official on the ground for the election observation) as to the interference problems and the need for Connie to keep her distance from the Ambassador. I was given explicit assurance that Connie could be expected to understand and cooperate. I simply did not appreciate the possibility that this agreed approach would either be abandoned without notice or explanation to me or simply fail through refusal by Connie to cooperate.
A key factor in my decision was that it seemed clear that abruptly cancelling the election observation days before the vote–without explaining why (or most especially if we did explain, which of course was totally unrealistic)–would be a disruptive factor in the last days leading up to the election, and potentially something of an “international incident”. We were the only international non-governmental organization scheduled to observe and the observation had already been announced and publicized in Washington and Nairobi. No one was publicly predicting violence or major problems and there was no obvious reason why we would suddenly just cancel.
Again, in a key sign that people on staff at IRI in Washington were trying to do the right thing, I got permission to do a last minute poll of Raila’s Langata constituency in response to my meeting with the Ambassador. It seemed to me a clear way to telegraph that we would be “observing” seriously and were not going to go along with an obviously bogus result from Lanagata when, as confirmed by the poll, the race there was in no way remotely in doubt. I told the Ambassador’s top aide on Christmas Eve that we had done the poll and conveyed the results to the Ambassador in person that evening as requested.
As it turned out, Connie and the Ambassador were obviously close and quite well coordinated. When she visited Nairobi in 2009 he introduced her at the residence as “his great friend and mentor” and during the pre-election in 2007, even though she formally remained lodged at the Mayfair, she stayed behind at the embassy residence after our pre-election gathering there with the Ambassador when the rest of us boarded the bus to leave. She told me she would be driven back to the Mayfair later, but I was told that the other delegates took notice of the fact that she didn’t end up returning. I have no idea whether she ended up meeting or talking to Stanley Murage with the Ambassdor or not, one way or the other. The issue was never mentioned after our internal agreement that it “must not” happen and I hope it didn’t.
On the evening of the vote, I learned from our liaison to the EU observation mission security team that the Ambassador had called his State Department observers in to Nairobi from “the field” that night due to concerns of violence, but no one else told me, including our liaison at the U.S. Embassy observation headquarters. Our IRI teams stayed out as did the EU’s.
On the morning after the election, when Connie and I and my two IRI superiors from Washington convened as planned ahead of the vote to draft an IRI Preliminary Observation Statement, Connie and I took opposite angles–she steered to make the statement as positive as possible, I steered to keep it as reserved and as cognizant of obvious issues as possible, given that we did not really know much yet. Through the Freedom of Information Act I learned several years later that the Ambassador had reflected in his cable to Washington that day that IRI was expected to release a “largely positive” statement that same day. In the afternoon Connie presented the final “Preliminary Statement” to the media in a solo press conference with IRI staff and such other of our observers as were back from the field by that afternoon in the audience.
Subsequently, I made the mistake of pressing for release of the exit poll results indicating an opposition win over Kibaki to my bosses from Washington in front of Connie. Connie immediately spoke up to object to any release of these results. My regional director, my immediate superior from DC, pulled me aside and pointed out that I had made a mistake raising the topic in front of Connie as it was not her place to be involved. I acknowledged my error, but the bell was rung at that point as Connie was an IRI board member and the rest of the senior staff as career employees were not going to openly resist once she preemptively staked out her ground to quash the poll. (And to be clear, there was no discussion or any claim whatsoever on Connie’s part at that time–or ever in my presence–of any confusion about the “validity” of the poll based on a misunderstanding about the performance of the polling firm, or the “methodology” or any other grounds offered from Washington in later weeks as scrutiny came to bear.)
Kenya’s President Lost Disputed Election, Poll Show
NAIROBI, Kenya—An exit poll carried out with a grant from USAID in Kenya after elections six months ago that unleashed a wave of political and ethic killings, disclosed that the wrong candidate was declared the winner.
President Mwai Kibaki, whom official results credited with a two-point margin of victory in the December vote, finished nearly 6 points behind in the exit poll, which was released in July by researchers from the University of California, San Diego.
Opposition leader Raila Odinga scored “a clear win outside the margin of error” according to surveys of voters as they left polling places
on Election Day, the poll’s author said.
The exit poll was first reported on by the McClatchy news agency. It was financed by the International Republican Institute, a nonpartisan democracy-building organization, with a grant from USAID. Amid post-election violence, IRI decided not to release the poll. But the poll’s authors and the former head of the institute’s program in Kenya stand by the research, which the authors presented July 8 in Washington at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. In the exit poll, Odinga had 46.07 percent of the vote and Kibaki had 40.17 percent. (emphasis added)
Meanwhile, now in 2016, Kibaki’s successor is rolling out his re-election campaign in the form of a Jubilee Party to be assembled from the dissolution of Kenyatta’s TNA, Ruto’s URP and various other party vehicles. All this is being done through ceremonial meeting/events at State House, serving notice that the legal restrictions on the use of public resources for campaigns found in the Elections Act of 2011 are no impediment where His Excellency the President is concerned.
Even Kibaki used private venues, rather than State House, to form and announce his Party of National Unity for his 2007 re-election.
No public word that USAID or the State Department are reconsidering the underwriting of this latest presidential vote. USAID published an RFP for a $20M election assistance program last December although it was also removed from the government’s websites after it was due to be awarded.
Secretary Kerry will be coming to Nairobi later this month, perhaps reprising Secretary Clinton’s summer 2012 visit ahead of the 2013 election.
Back in 2012, I drafted but didn’t publish a post with a couple of long quotes about the International Republican Institute programming at the Republican convention. I’m posting it below following a brief introduction.
2012 was back in the “good old days” when the Republican Party could still nominate a candidate for president who could be elected and had served as a state governor ahead of running for president. Way back in 2007-08 during my brief time working for IRI the GOP chose the Chairman of IRI, Senator John McCain, as its nominee for president; clearly a different era.
And thus now we see especially starkly one of the risks of using the two current political party institutes as primary vehicles for official U.S. democracy assistance: does Donald Trump represent democratic ideals and values outside the U.S? does Trump himself believe in democracy as an ideal as opposed to a personal opportunity (see V. Putin)? will people who actually work for IRI democracy programs vote for Trump with a secret ballot? do we want potential democrats from developing nations to come to witness Trump’s convention? how can IRI be partners with “center right” parties in Western democracies if Republican primary voters have repudiated the “center right”? (some less polite questions come to mind, but I’ll stop there–the basic point is that IRI and NDI should be merged to be truly non-partisan to do taxpayer funded democracy assistance overseas without the baggage of Trump, Clinton and whomever else as partisan figures in U.S politics).
Conventions, however, serve another equally as important but perhaps under-appreciated purpose. These four days in Tampa will be an opportunity for Republicans to unify under a common goal (the nomination), to reinvigorate party members tired from a long campaign, and to get ready for that final push toward November.
The RNC hosts a multitude of important and fascinating guests. One such group is the International Republican Institute (IRI), which hosts foreign diplomats from conservative parties from across the globe. Some 150 international leaders have convened in Tampa to observe the RNC, meet with political advisors and American politicians, and have the opportunity to discuss what American foreign policy might look like under the next administration.
These high powered men and women shape the conservative movements in their own nations and will take away from the RNC a deeper understanding of the atmosphere of American politics. They will come to understand that we are a divided nation, but the division is narrow, nuanced, and difficult to govern by.
But at the convention, the campaign was careful not to draw any controversial conclusions from these philosophical musings about American greatness. The main session on foreign policy was hosted by the International Republican Institute, which Congress established in 1983 along with its partisan twin, the National Democratic Institute. Run by a former John McCain aide Lorne Craner, it exemplifies the non-problematic side of Republican neo-conservatism—the emphasis on encouraging democratic movements in authoritarian or formerly authoritarian countries through education and training. It held a meeting at an auditorium in Tampa on “The Future of U.S. National Security Policy.” The speakers consisted of four Romney foreign policy advisors, led by Richard Williamson, a former Reagan administration official who was also one of McCain’s principal surrogates in the 2008 campaign. The graying heavy-set Williamson, who looks like former Secretary of State Richard Eagleburger, would probably not fill a high post in a Romney administration, but he is perfect for this campaign, because he can, if necessary, take the edge off Romney’s more bald assertions.
The panelists sat on stage before a table, with several hundred campaign delegates, press, present and former Republican officials, and foreign diplomats in attendance. Former Arizona Rep. Jim Kolbe, who chaired the meeting, asked the panelists at one point about Romney’s statement that Russia is America’s “chief geopolitical foe.” Williamson explained that Romney was not trying to revive the Cold War. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. “He talked about a geopolitical not a military foe.” (In fact, Romney has warned of Russia as a military threat.)
Another panelist former Minnesota Senator Norman Coleman jumped in to offer a further clarification, or dilution of Romney’s statement. “He talked about a ‘foe’ and not an ‘enemy,’” Coleman explained, although Coleman did not explain what the difference was, and I don’t think a dictionary would be much help. The panelists praised the bill coming up in Congress that would penalize any foreign official involved in human rights violations—a bill that is aimed partly at the Russians—but conspicuously steered clear of redline proposals, such as re-committing the United States to building anti-missile systems in Eastern Europe.
Romney’s representatives took a similar stand on other specifics. They said we should sell weapons to Taiwan, but adhere strictly to the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979. We should arm Syrian rebels (which it turns out the Obama administration has been doing covertly), but—in answer to a question from Foreign Policy blogger Josh Rogin—not establish a “no-fly zone.” We should declare that an Iranian nuclear weapon was “totally unacceptable,” but merely keep armed force an option. We should support human rights, but need not do so, Williamson assured the audience, by putting “boots on the ground.”
The speakers kept calling for a “robust” foreign policy and insisting that America should lead, and they denounced the Obama administration for failing to lead, but they offered very little indication that Romney would act any differently from Obama. That’s clearly what they intended to do. They wanted to get the rhetorical message across without committing Romney to any specific policies. Interestingly, Williamson and another Romney advisor, former George W. Bush State Department official Pierre Prosper, took a harder rhetorical line toward Russia at a posh smaller gathering at the Tampa City Club hosted by the neo-conservative Foreign Policy Initiative, which has key Romney advisors among its founders, and the institute of Modern Russia, headed by Pavel Khodorkovsky, the son of the jailed tycoon. That was probably because of the audience. But they still steered clear of proposing any provocative actions that could invite a serious examination of Romney’s foreign policy.
[2016 Note: For a view of how this year’s Republican operation in Cleveland looks from the perspective of a close American “developed world” ally and overseas development partner, see “Jumping the shark at the RNC” from Australia’s Lowy Institute.
We are now also faced with a major ISIS presence in continental Africa in the wake of the proverbial “ungoverned space” in Libya and are in discussions considering a new military coalition to organize resistance. Prior to the 2011 uprising AFRICOM was joining our European allies in coordinating military relationships with Gaddafi but the revolution, in which we intervened, has not resulted in a stable or unified replacement government.
Let’s face it; 14 years after 9-11, 15 years after the USS Cole bombing, 17 years after the U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, the window of opportunity for a U.S.-led focus on the building of shared democratic values in the region may have largely slipped shut.
Years ago I got some attention for a post noting that “the aid bubble has burst” and Western attention had moved past the Gleneagles era toward a more normalized mode of profit-seeking investment. While private actors will remain more alert for opportunities in Africa and “public-private” endeavors including the current Power Africa program can still have legs, it seems to me that “conflict management” and irregular warfare have come to the fore to the point that we seem to be back in an era more akin to the Cold War in which perceived immediate “security” interests are predominant.
Museveni in particular “surfed the wave” of democratization after the fall of the Soviet Union and came out onshore as a primary U.S. military ally in the region anyway. We are willing to chastise him to a point, but there is no indication from Washington that the fundamental facts of our relationship are at issue over another awful election.
While much has been accomplished with AMISOM in Somalia, we are still a long way from seeing a stable, sustainable government there that would create an opportunity to de-militarize our relationships with Uganda, or Kenya or Ethiopia. The increasingly direct U.S. role in fighting al-Shabaab reflects the limitations of Ugandan and Burundian proxies, as well as the reality of limited capacity and contradictory objectives from the Kenyan and Ethiopian contingents in AMISOM.
This also leaves Somaliand in suspended animation. Sudan remains an awful paradox for our policy goals and our values, and South Sudan is simply a fiasco.
It seemed to me in Nairobi during the post-election violence in 2008 that the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in December 2006 to displace the ICU and save in some fashion the remains of the TFG was a turning point for U.S. policy. After that, we seemed to have effectively dropped our criticism of the corruption failures of the Kibaki administration and its failure to reform the constitution and then helped get Moi and Kibaki back together. We upped our security cooperation and looked the other way as Kibaki stole re-election.
The USAID democracy programming I inherited in mid-2007 as regional director at the International Republican Institute included the pre-war era 2005 criticisms of Kenyan government backsliding and I failed fully appreciate how much had changed until the midst of that year’s disaster.
Back in the U.S., Kissinger is now personally embraced by key elements of the leadership of both our parties. In early 2009 after the New York Times published its investigation on the Kenya exit poll, IRI, to my amazement, gave Kissinger its “Freedom Award” even though it has long worked to promote democracy in Cambodia, in particular, as well as places like Bangladesh and East Timor where I was invited a few years before I worked for IRI in Kenya. Now, the likely Democratic nominee apparently holidays with Kissinger in the Dominican Republic. A new, old, era, apparently.