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James Mattis, Nikki Haley Receive IRI Freedom Awards

By Allyson Portee,

On May 15, the International Republican Institute (IRI) held its annual Freedom Dinner at the Willard InterContinental Washington hotel to honor IRI’s role in advancing freedom around the world for the past 35 years.

This year, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley were given the Freedom Award, with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas) offering tributes.

But the unspoken star of the night was Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and his longstanding efforts to propel democratization around the world. McCain, who is a 2017 IRI awardee, could not attend this year because he is undergoing brain cancer treatment. But his son, Jimmy McCain, spoke in place of his father, who watched the dinner live from his home in Arizona.

President of the International Republican Institute (IRI), Secretary of Defense James Mattis, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley and former Rep. James Kolbe (R-Ariz.) attend the IRI’s 2018 Freedom Dinner, which honored Mattis and Haley. (Photo: Daniel Twining)

“My father asked me to thank you all for keeping faith with the ideals of this country,” said McCain, a combat veteran like his father.

IRI is a nonpartisan international democracy development organization, whose work in over 100 countries since 1983 has impacted almost every region of the world. The group also has offices in over 30 countries and works to link political parties and people; bring citizens together; amplify marginalized voices, including women; ensure elections count; and put data to work.

Since 1995, IRI’s Freedom Award honors individuals who have worked to advance freedom and democracy in their countries and around the world. Past recipients include President Ronald Reagan, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and slain Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.

Rubio gave a standing-ovation speech in which he spoke about the importance of freedom for all. “In order for democracy to function, you have to create a consensus,” the senator said, pointing out that even though democracies are not perfect, they are moral, unlike autocracies. He noted that Spain’s GDP is the same as Russia, but that Spain is not trying to overtake its neighbors the way Russia is.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley shares a laugh with Defense Secretary James Mattis at the International Republican Institute Freedom Dinner. (Photo: U.S. Permanent Mission to the U.N.)

Members of Congress were in attendance such as Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.), Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.).

“It was so inspiring tonight to be here with Senator Marco Rubio, whose family had to flee the totalitarian regime in Cuba,” Wilson stated. “To be here with Secretary Jim Mattis, who has worked so hard and successfully to rebuild the military and provide hope to people around the world was also an honor. And to also be here with Ambassador Nikki Haley, whose family is of South Asian heritage [and] shows the success of America promoting freedom around the world. A theme that Rubio, Mattis and Haley all touched on is moral equivalence,” he said, arguing that there is no moral equivalence within the communist regime of North Korea, the mullahs in Iran or the terrorist group Hamas.

Mattis, who spent over four decades in uniform, where he commanded Marines at all levels, including in combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, talked about the importance of soft power alongside military might.

“American influence operates along different dimensions. My Marines were the intimidating element of American power. IRI is an inspirational element of American influence on behalf of freedom globally. Both are essential to our security.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) extolled the importance of democracies at the International Republican Institute Freedom Dinner. (Photo: Allyson Portee)

Haley, who previously served as governor of South Carolina, has earned plaudits for her tough diplomacy at the United Nations. She spearheaded negotiations for the unanimous passage of the strongest set of sanctions ever placed on North Korea, and she has spoken up about human rights abuses in Russia, Syria, Venezuela and elsewhere, while taking a hard line in support of Israel at the world body.

“After five months of becoming ambassador, I went to Israel, to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial,” she recalled. “I saw a wreath with words from Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel that read, ‘We must always take sides.’ That’s what IRI has been doing for 30 years. It doesn’t choose parties or candidates, but IRI always takes the side of freedom.”

She admitted that the U.S. is often unpopular at the U.N. and can be a lonely voice, especially when it comes to speaking out against authoritarian governments in Cuba and Iran. She defended the administration’s controversial decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, arguing that it was fundamentally flawed and “it’s smarter and not harder to go forward with it.” Even though the withdrawal angered European experts and was criticized by many experts who say the deal was key to curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Haley declared that “no deal is better than a bad deal.”

“America carries the hope of freedom in our hearts. I’ll never stop being that loud and proud voice in the world,” she concluded.

Connie Newman, who serves on the board of IRI, shared her thoughts on the evening: “I think that the combination of the secretary of defense, the ambassador and the representatives from the Senate and the House made the most powerful statements about the importance of democracy. But what did go hand in hand with that is the spirit of Senator McCain that was here in so many ways. And everyone who was here understood why democracy is so important around the world.”


Allyson Portee (@allyportee) is a communications professional who has worked in the U.S. government, nonprofits and the media. Her work has appeared in Idealog Magazine, NIAF’s Ambassador Magazine, Propel Women and Converge Magazine. She is also the founder and editor of Seele Magazine.




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