Change and Regime Change
What the 2008 Democratic Landslide Means for the National Endowment for Democracy
By James Jordan
Co-Coordinator for the Respect for Democracy Campaign
March 1, 2009
Back in the winter of 2004, apparently before change had become a viable option, President Bush announced to the nation that he was going to ask for a 100 percent budget increase to the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), with most of it going for operations in Iraq. Not to be outdone, Democratic presidential contender John Kerry announced that he favored tripling the NED budget. Similarly, support for the NED is solid and substantial among both parties in Congress. During the 2008 election, the Democratic campaign released a fact sheet that declared “Barack Obama and Joe Biden….will significantly increase funding for the National Endowment for Democracy (NED)….” And back in 2003, then-Senator Joe Biden sponsored a bill reaffirming support for the NED on its twentieth anniversary. It passed unanimously. In the House, there was one vote opposed. So, when it comes to the NED, bipartisan support is pretty much a given.
What, then, is so bad about that? With such broad support, is it just possible that our concern is unwarranted?
The NED is over 90 percent funded by the Federal Government, yet it undertakes foreign policy programs and objectives without significant public oversight, no open books. In other words, it carries out foreign policy in the name of the US people without being answerable to them—and that is cause for concern.
The NED has helped fund, train, and coordinate organizations that have overthrown popular, elected governments, such as it did in Haiti in ’04 and tried to do in Venezuela in ’02. More often, the tactics aren’t coup attempts, but electoral interferences that would be blatantly illegal if the same were to occur in the United States. What US citizen would tolerate major foreign funding for campaigns in this country? Yet that is exactly what the NED does all the time—even when it breaks the laws of other countries. The US spent more money per voter in the Nicaraguan elections in 1990 than was spent in the US Presidential elections in 1988 by both candidates combined. During the past two Presidential elections, persons connected to the NED acted as campaign advisors in contravention of Mexican law helping rob the presidency from legitimately elected Center-Left candidates. These are just two examples among many.
While the NED budget is relatively small, it brings together a coalition of transnational corporations, public relations consultants, media and information professionals, politicians, intelligence and military ex-personnel, and segments from big labor to coordinate projects that are carried out in the shadows of US foreign policy. The NED has four core institutes which also funnel funds from other sources such as USAID. USAID programs are not necessarily pernicious—they can aid development and poverty alleviation efforts, for instance. But the NED has only one purpose: manipulating elections to secure governments friendly to transnational corporations and US political and military objectives. (The four core institutes of the NED are the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, the Center for International Private Enterprise, and the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, aka the Solidarity Center.)
Even when Republicans and Democrats disagree about foreign policy tactics and strategies, they mostly support the same political-economic objectives. Iraq is a case in point. For us to understand US “democracy building” in Iraq today, we have to understand US democracy destruction there in the past. Many of us remember when former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld went to Iraq to negotiate arms sales with Saddam Hussein for the Reagan Administration. That was in 1983, ironically, the birth year of the NED. The US gave Iraq military and other kinds of support throughout the 80s. This was at a time when Hussein was busy crushing the largest secular democratic movement in the Arab world. The reason the US undermined Iraqi democracy for so many years was because it had both a socialist and a nationalist orientation that had no interest in turning over Iraq’s national resources for huge corporate profits or in cooperating with US political and military plans for the region.
Today, however, the US is busy crafting democracy in its own image. Why the turn-around? Because we are building a particular kind of Iraqi democracy, with power concentrated in the hands of big oil and oil infrastructure companies. Depsite whatever opposition to the war exists, almost all members of the US Congress agree that passage of the Iraq Oil Law by the Iraqi parliament should be considered a bench mark of democracy. But how can that be true when the law is opposed by two thirds of Iraqis, across ethnic, gender, class, and geographical lines, and when it would lead to the biggest oil profit giveaway in the Middle East? The reason is simple: liberal (or, more correctly, neoliberal) democracy measures political freedom by transnational corporate access to resources. Voting is only “democratic” when it does not challenge private economic power and development. The idea that the public might manage resources to their own benefit is, paradoxically, considered an unacceptable form of democracy.
That is what (neo)liberal democracy looks like in action. (Neo)liberal democracy is what the NED is busy building in Iraq and around the world. It is an oversimplification, perhaps, but true enough to say that the NED’s version of “democracy” boils down to this: one dollar, one vote.
During the Bush administration, the International Republican Institute (IRI) (an affiliate of the NED chaired by Senator John McCain) was having a true hey-day. Highlights included support of the unsuccessful coup in Venezuela in 2002 and the 2004 coup in Haiti, in which the IRI provided funding and training to all the major players. In Iraq, the IRI has been funded as much as three times more than its other partners in the NED.
Of course, the other core institutes were hardly idle. In 2004, the National Democratic Institute commissioned a poll that was carried out by a hardly disinterested Venezuelan opposition group, Súmate that claimed Hugo Chavez would lose an upcoming recall by almost twenty percentage points. They were off by 38 percent in an election that President Chavez won by a landslide, certified by organizations such as the Carter Center, the United Nations, the NAACP, the European Union, and the Organization of American States.
The past is the past, though, one might hope, and now, in 2008, change is an option. Without doubt the election of Barack Obama as the nation’s first African-American president is a historic occasion. But what will the election of Pres. Obama mean for the National Endowment for Democracy? Will this be a time for renewed respect for the sovereignty and electoral integrity of nations?
Certainly, there are reasons for optimism. The fact that one of President Obama’s first orders was not only to close the Guantanamo detainee camp, but all secret CIA prisons, was encouraging. And, despite his frequent verbal attacks against these countries and their leaders, President Obama has also shown a willingness to sit down and talk with the leadership of Cuba and Venezuela and with other governments that are bucking the trends of neoliberalism. It is also significant that Pres. Obama has proposed renegotiating NAFTA and has criticized Colombian repression of labor unions.
But, if we want to close the NED, we will need to mobilize to educate policymakers about the real role the NED plays in undermining democracy. In general, despite positive indications, Pres. Obama’s stated intention to escalate the war in Afghanistan and his willingness to carry out military actions in Pakistan; his silence during the Israeli invasion of Gaza; his commitment to many of the same failed US policies regarding Colombia and Cuba; his appointments to the cabinet and other positions of some of the Democrat’s biggest hawks and free trade proponents; all would dampen undue expectations that Pres. Obama will alter the basic pro-corporate orientations of US foreign policy. We have already seen how strong the personal support of both President Obama and Vice President Biden is for the NED.
One very hopeful sign came when the State Department announced that the Obama Administration regarded as an “internal matter” the Feb. 15 referendum in Venezuela on whether or not to do away with term limits for the office of the presidency and other elected positions. (It passed, by the way, by over eight percentage points.) Certainly this was a far cry from the behavior of the Bush Administration. One must compare the attitude of the State Department today to what was happening in late 2007, when a whole package of constitutional reforms were being voted on in Venezuela. The US government spent as some $8 million trying to manipulate the electoral outcome and several coup plots were uncovered leading up to the vote. In that case, the reform package lost by less than 2 percent.
Yet the very week that the State Department was announcing its new position, the Venezuelan government arrested two National Guard captains who were discovered making coup plots in communication with US military personnel. Was there any connection between this plot and NED funding? Probably not, because the NED generally works through political parties, NGOs, coalitions, or campaigns—not through a network of individuals. However, if one were to try and get a definitive answer, it would mean waiting a few years—because not even brief descriptions are available about NED funding for the current or previous year. Needless to say, it would be nothing but naïve the idea that Venezuela, or any other country, is free of the prospect of US interference just because of the recent election. NED programs are still being funded and carried out in Venezuela that were begun under the Bush administration. But it is crucial to understand that even new programs are not subject to the will and oversight of elected political power. There is nothing to guarantee that the IRI, for instance, should cease the nature of its interference—because its books are closed and it is not subject to US voters.
The NED’s bipartisan support just cannot be understated. The newly chosen President of the NED is (like Sec. of State Hillary Clinton) a former US Democratic Party Presidential contender and Iraqi force approver, Dick Gephardt, who was previously the Vice Chair of the NED Board of Directors. The NED has funded coup plotters that have tried to overthrow elected governments not only in Haiti and Venezuela, but in Bulgaria, Ukraine, Mongolia, and elsewhere. The NED has funded known Nazi collaborators in Eastern Europe, such as Lazslo Pasztor, of the Free Congress Foundation, who, in 1990, counseled the NED about groups to support in Hungary. Democratic leadership not only stood silently by while these travesties occurred—in repeated cases, they participated in them.
The NED was founded by Congress in 1983 at the initiation of the Reagan Administration, and Congress sets its budget every year. However, it is considered a private organization. Why? Because Congress says it is. For most of us, it is beyond our comprehension that a taxpayer funded organization created by and funded through Congress is somehow considered “private”.
But that “privacy” is the core problem here: the loophole that frees the NED from public oversight and scrutiny. This kind of shadow foreign policy is what makes it possible for the State Department to declare a Venezuelan election an “internal matter” at the very same time that US supported coup plots may be underway. No matter how progressive a direction our elected government may be moving, as long as we have shadow institutions like the NED, pernicious efforts can be pursued in our names, with our taxes—and without our approval, oversight, or knowledge. Allen Weinstein, who helped write the legislation creating the NED, said in a 1991 interview, “A lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA.”
Michael Plattner is a Vice President for the NED. In an article for the Journal for Democracy, he spells out quite clearly the endowment’s overarching world view:
“Globalization has fostered democratization, and democratization has fostered globalization. Moreover, both trends generally have furthered American interests and contributed to the strengthening of American power….It is worth emphasizing that the international order that sustains globalization is underpinned by American military predominance.”
The ascendancy of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States must be analyzed first and foremost not through its leadership, but through the base that brought this election to fruition. That base is fundamentally more progressive than its leadership. It is this organized base that is most capable of making the old adage true: “If the people will lead, the leaders will follow.”
But there are two central matters we must understand about US and (neo)liberal democracy in relation to the worldwide struggle for participatory democracy:
One: the biggest reason that it makes sense to close the NED is that, even under the best of circumstances, details about and the true nature of NED activities remain hidden. Its very structure is anti-democratic, no matter what the name says.
Two: the Democrats and their leaders are not going to fundamentally challenge the apparatus of US manipulation of foreign elections for which the NED is its avante garde unless you and I force them to. In fact, when called on, they will step to the fore to lead it.
One solid and crucial way to build a movement for real democracy is to join the Respect for Democracy Campaign and to circulate the Respect for Democracy petition demanding that the NED be closed. (More information about this campaign can be gotten at www.respect4democracy.org or by calling 202-544-9355.)
When we ask ourselves what the Democratic landslide and election of President Obama means for our struggle, the answer is simply this: It’s not up to anyone else, it’s up to us. We, the people, must create the movement from the ground up for an end to the NED. We must wage the struggle for real People Power both at home and around the world.
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