Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Lost in the Stars

This afternoon I received a telephone call from James Verini, a journalist working on a story for LA Weekly about a think-tank I worked for in the early 1990s, the International Freedom Foundation (IFF).

Since the IFF has been defunct for a decade now, it seemed odd that a reporter would be interested in it. The hook is that one of the IFF's founders was Jack Abramoff, the Washington lobbyist now in hot water for alleged fraudulent activities involving several clients, in particular some Indian tribes.

I told Mr. Verini that my time at IFF came after Abramoff's involvement in the organization and that, in fact, I had not met Abramoff (who may actually have remained on the IFF's board of directors but who had no role in its day-to-day activities).

My first contact with the IFF came in 1989, when I was asked to write a book under contract. That book was published in 1990 under the title Sowing the Seeds of Free Enterprise. Later, after working for almost a year in the public affairs office of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), I was asked to apply for the new position of Director of African Affairs at IFF. I jumped at the chance, since I really did not like working at CSIS because it was bureaucratic and unwieldy and my job there was not intellectually challenging, while IFF had a small staff (I think about 15 at the time) and I was promised a great deal of autonomy in my research.

I edited a newsletter called Sub-Saharan Monitor (not the publication now available on line) and later was promoted to Director of International Economic Affairs. When Mark Franz left IFF to work for the Bush 41 re-election campaign, I took his job as editor of the quarterly journal, terra nova. I really enjoyed editing terra nova: it was, as Robert Bork put it in another context, "an intellectual feast." I was able to interact with scholars from around the world, commission articles on interesting subjects, combine articles and book reviews so that they fit a common theme, and try to market the product to readers in Africa, Europe, and the Americas. It was a dream job for a writer/editor like myself, and one that I would love to replicate some day.

I explained that I had left IFF after the 1992 election when a number of staff, including myself, were laid off as fundraising faltered. Verini asked if this was because a Democratic administration was coming into office, but I told him that it was more because the end of the Cold War had caused funds to dry up for anti-Communist organizations like the International Freedom Foundation.

He asked if I was aware that the IFF had been funded by the South African government. (He characterized it as a "front" for the apartheid government.) I said no, that I only became aware of that fact when I googled IFF about six years ago and discovered that files had been uncovered during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's investigations. In fact, while I was at IFF, it seemed we were always scrambling for money, trying to find new and bigger funding sources. That was hardly the mark of an organization that was underwritten by a foreign government.

So far as I know, no one at the IFF at the time, including chairman Duncan Sellars or executive director Jeff Pandin, was aware of any underwriting by the South African government, the SADF, or South African intelligence services. The source of the money, such as it was, was hidden, and it is easy, in hindsight, to conclude that the money had been laundered quite successfully. Upon reflection, when I learned about the IFF's ultimate funding source a few years back, it occurred to me that the South African money must have been channeled through several European donors to IFF, who we all thought were primarily anti-communist in their motivation, none of whom had any apparent ties to South Africa or its government. (One, I remember, was described as an elderly Belgian businessman. And, no, I never learned his name.)

In his questions, Mr. Verini suggested that the International Freedom Foundation was a "pro-apartheid" organization. I told him this was a mischaracterization, that in fact the IFF was critical of the apartheid government, which we viewed as "ethnic socialism." (This view was best expressed, at the time, by George Mason University economist Walter E. Williams in his book, South Africa's War Against Capitalism, which I believe I reviewed in the predecessor to terra nova, International Freedom Review.) While the IFF was, in fact, opposed to the African National Congress, that was never equivalent to being in favor of apartheid.

I explained that we staff members -- researchers, writers, editors -- never had any pressure put on us to say anything in particular. Far from a propaganda front, the IFF provided us with free rein to pursue research topics. Naturally, those of us who worked for IFF shared a certain philosophy -- free-market oriented (in my case, libertarian) and anti-communist. No constraints were placed upon us in terms of what not to write about, and no direction was given about specific topics to pursue. There was no doubt, of course, that part of our job was to refute disinformation emanating from the ANC and pro-communist groups in southern Africa. Our overarching aim was to promote liberal democracy and free enterprise as an alternative to both communism and apartheid. This was typical of conservative and libertarian think tanks and advocacy groups in the closing years of the Cold War.

Verini asked what my views were on South African sanctions. I told him that I had testified before U.S. congressional committees during the 1980s, expressing my view that sanctions were an ineffective policy tool, and that I opposed the embargo against Cuba and sanctions against Libya for the same reason. (Believe me, such consistency was not common in the Reagan years. In fact, during my testimony at one hearing, Howard Wolpe, then-chairman of the House subcommittee on Africa, congratulated me for my consistency, albeit with a puzzled look on his face.) I also told Mr. Verini that my views have not changed, that I still believe sanctions are wrong-headed and ill-advised.

After our initial conversation, Verini called back to ask whether, during my time at the IFF, I had had any contact with the Bush administration. I told him nothing more than routine meetings with State Department officials, ambassadors, and the like, typical for anyone who works for a Washington think tank.

I did add this anecdote, however:

In the fall of 1992, I was working as the chief foreign policy advisor to Libertarian Party presidential candidate Andre Marrou and his running mate, my friend, Nancy Lord. My predecessor as editor of terra nova, Mark Franz, was working for the Bush re-election campaign. One day in September or October, Mark called me at work to ask me for some advice about how to frame a campaign issue. In the course of our conversation, I said to him, "You know, it's nice to have the luxury of knowing you're working for a presidential candidate who is going to lose." Mark responded ruefully: "I know exactly what you mean, Rick."

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