Export Cars, Not Democracy

During the Peloponnesian War, Athens would take over a city and set up a democracy.  Sparta would then march in, kick out the democrats, and install an oligarchy.  The people living in the city would have preferred that both the democrats and oligarchs leave but had little say in the matter.  As there are few around who are interested in profiting from what Thucydides observed, exporting one’s political system is regrettably still with us today. 

Most Americans know nothing at all about the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which was founded by an act of Congress in 1983.  Even Americans who are very interested in foreign affairs and policy are frequently unaware how the two NED affiliates, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs and the International Republican Institute, operate as democracy promotion mechanisms largely funded by tax dollars but nevertheless not subject to any strict oversight over their activities.  When Madeleine Albright was Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton she once told an audience approvingly that when the State Department gets involved in supporting democracy overseas the diplomats frequently discover that the National Democratic Institute is already there.  Indeed they are, unaccountably so.  And that has been the crux of the problem that Albright and the other interventionist Secretaries of State from both parties who have succeeded her fail to recognize. 

As the names imply the National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute are affiliated with the Democratic Party and the Republican Party respectively so that both the interventionist right and interventionist left have an equitable slice of the pie.  Senator John McCain heads the Republican version and Madeleine Albright its Democratic counterpart.  The two groups are often involved in other countries in ways that those countries’ governments sometimes find irritating or even downright subversive.  There is also often resentment of the superior tone of condescension on the part of the United States, which has seen a breakdown of its own constitutional protections over the past eight years, meaning that it is frequently selling a brand of snake oil that has suspect qualities.  Which is not to suggest that the beneficiaries of the American largesse, at least insofar as it includes iPhones and laptop computers, are necessarily turning anything down for ethical reasons. 

Neoconservative Ken Timmerman has identified the core NED activity overseas as "training political workers in modern communications and organizational techniques," surely a polite way to describe interfering in other countries. NED calls itself a Non-Government Organization or NGO but it was founded by an act of Congress and is largely funded by the US government.  Congress has even exempted it from having to make public how it spends its money.  Its own literature provides an amazingly confusing explication of its status:  "NED’s authorizing legislation spells out its non-governmental status, namely that ‘Nothing in this title shall be construed to make the Endowment an agency or establishment of the United States Government.’  It is sometimes contended that without this official status, the Endowment lacks accountability. This charge overlooks the fact that NED is answerable to a wide array of overseers in both the Executive and Legislative Branches."  

One might well question why NED exists at all when the Secretary of State is empowered to conduct foreign policy on behalf of the president, Congress, and the American people.  The answer can be found in NED’s own website, where it notes that US administrations have prized it because it is able to go and do things in places where the government would prefer not to be directly involved. In other words, NED is a faux NGO that does things that the US government would rather not be caught doing.  That type of engagement used to be the function of the CIA, but no longer.  If you don’t like the kleptocrats running some former Soviet republic just wait around a bit. NED is on the way to teach the natives the right way to do things and regime change is just around the corner.

NED’s involvement in developing and emerging countries reads either like a roll of honor or an indictment, depending on just how you look at it. The list includes every country in Eastern Europe, Spain, France, Portugal, Panama, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Haiti, Venezuela, Mexico, Peru, Argentina, Brazil, Indonesia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Tibet, and China. NED operates with a large degree of autonomy, funding groups and projects that it believes are promoting democracy, whatever that means at any given time and in any given place.  It has been heavily engaged in "democracy development" in the Ukraine, Georgia, and in the Balkans, often by selecting the candidate deemed to be most pro-American and giving him money.  Pro-American often means that he speaks good English even if he generally is indistinguishable from his communist predecessors in terms of corruption.

NED operates worldwide and is bipartisan, undermining politicians on the left as well as on the right.  Back in the 1990s the International Republican Institute was openly supporting opposition politicians in Cambodia who were foes of Hun Sen, who was then and is now Cambodian Prime Minister.  Hun Sen undeniably has considerable negative baggage, but the US had no business in interfering in the local politics of a friendly country, particularly as the interfering was being carried out by a group that had not been elected by the American people and which was in no way accountable for what it was doing.  When Hun Sen finally became so angry that he complained about Washington’s interference in his country he was not referring to the State Department and Pentagon or even the CIA.  He was referring to the International Republican Institute. In a speech in June of this year he again called on NGOs to stop their involvement in Cambodian politics.

Similar complaints have proliferated particularly in Eastern Europe, where NED has established major training programs in every country that has experienced a pastel or velvet revolution.  And also in Russia, which eventually prompted Vladimir Putin to set some rules about funding and NGO permissible activity.  Putin’s actions were immediately branded by the Western media as anti-democratic, but were they?  The unfortunate consequence of NED and its meddling has been a proliferation of NED-like groups sponsored by other western Democracies and also by wealthy individuals and groups that have their own international agendas.  Britain calls it the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, Australia the Center for Democratic Institutions, Canada has Rights and Democracy, Germany the European Partnership for Democracy, and Taiwan the Foundation for Democracy.  George Soros has his Open Society Institute and the neocons have their own groups, including the American Enterprise Institute and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, both of which support NGO programs overseas.

Iran is currently in the crosshairs, being assailed not only by NED but also by USAID and various programs supported by Congress authorized under the Iran Freedom and Support Act.  In the lead up to its June 12th presidential election, there was evidence of NED activity in support of the so-called reformers, generally through funding directed to a number of Iranian opposition groups located in the United States.  By one account, the Department of State intervened to make sure that Twitter was available to enable protesters to communicate and organize.  In its current show trial of dissident politicians the Iranian prosecutors are claiming that the three biggest opposition parties have taken money from foreign non-governmental organizations.  The prosecutors charge that the self-described reformers are seeking to use the election controversy as an opportunity to carry out what is being described as "their plot" to bring about regime change.  Unfortunately for those on trial, the claim is plausible.

So, having produced shambles in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, NED yet again would appear to be working to bring about change without any clear understanding of where it might lead.  It should be obvious first of all that no one is Washington has a clue about what is really going on in Iran, most particularly NED, which should mandate an extremely cautious policy of non-involvement.  It should also be obvious that supporting groups that are dedicated to changing Iran’s government is a formula for failure as the support itself will be cited as evidence that the reformers, if indeed they are reformers, are subversives.  Encouraging NED and other groups like it is a no-win situation for Washington, particularly if President Obama is actually serious about negotiating with Tehran.  But perhaps he is not serious about coming to terms with Iran and what we are seeing is business as usual in Washington where intervention for democracy promotion still appears to be the name of the game.

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Author: Philip Giraldi

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is a contributing editor to The American Conservative and executive director of the Council for the National Interest.