Don’t Mourn “Democracy Promotion”

The National Endowment for Democracy is a vehicle for Putin-style foreign meddling. Yet some liberals are now bemoaning Trump’s assault on the organization.

A National Endowment for Democracy event in 2005 in Washington, DC. Mark Wilson / Getty Images

Donald Trump is continuing his assault on America’s democratic norms by ending funding for a three decade-old initiative aimed at spreading democracy in countries where it’s sorely lacking.

That’s the narrative, anyway. On Sunday, Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin reported that the State Department’s 2019 budget request is quietly going to slash funding for the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and end its relationship with two of its chief grantees, the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and International Republican Institute (IRI). The move was described as an assault on their “pro-democracy mission,” and represented the US “turning its back on supporting brave people who share our values.”

The idea that Trump was abandoning the US government’s “historic support for democracy promotion” quickly spread. The New Republic interpreted it as an effort to undermine an agency tasked with “promot[ing] democracy and human rights abroad,” part of “Trump’s disdain for democracy promotion.”

And it makes sense. Gutting an agency whose sole mission is to help spread democracy and human rights is exactly the kind of thing Trump would do.

Except that’s never been all the NED is.

This isn’t the first time politicians have attempted to defund the NED. It’s faced at least three attempts to defund it through the 1980s and 90s. The prospective defunders in those instances weren’t authoritarian rightists like Trump, but liberal Democrats, who were supported in this effort by the Nation and liberals like columnist Mary McGrory. Meanwhile, its supporters included the Heritage Foundation, Wall Street Journal, conservative columnists George Will and Charles Krauthammer, and Iraqi scholar Kanan Makiya, who played a key role in advocating for George Bush’s invasion of Iraq.

There’s a good reason for this. Simply put, the NED has since its inception been more of a tool for US political interests than an inoffensive vehicle for democracy promotion, an instrument for overtly carrying out the kinds of influence operations the CIA used to carry out covertly.

That’s not to say the NED is all bad of course. It has always supported the kind of humdrum activities needed to conduct free elections, such as poll watching and voter registration. And it’s supported movements like Poland’s Solidarity, the various anti-Milošević groups in former Yugoslavia, the pro-democracy side in Chile’s referendum, and provided support and training for the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa.

But by and large, the NED’s role has been to shape the domestic politics of other countries in ways conducive to the interests of US policymakers, which more often than not has been in an anti-left direction.

The Puppeteer

A wary Congress only agreed to create the NED in 1983 on the condition that the CIA not be involved, something then-CIA director William Casey promised, but didn’t follow through on: at the last minute he had language prohibiting the involvement of CIA personnel removed from the bill. The NED also appears to have been Casey’s idea in the first place; he wrote a White House official that he was in favor of a “National Endowment in support of free institutions throughout the world.”

The NED was initially placed under the auspices of the National Security Council and one Walter Raymond, Jr, a CIA propaganda expert who, according to the late Robert Parry, for years acted as liaison between the program and Casey. Raymond also drew charming doodles like this, depicting himself as a literal puppeteer controlling many different strings.

The organization was stacked with prominent neoconservatives like Lane Kirkland, John Richardson, and Allen Weinstein. Carl Gershman, a longtime professional anticommunist, was its first and so far only president. One of its current board members, Elliott Abrams, is a war criminal with a history of subverting democracy overseas.

To prevent the odor of US imperialism from contaminating the NED’s work, the Reagan administration made it a private organization that in turn funded several more private institutions, including the NDI and IRI. But the fact that it was routinely staffed with former US officials and got its funding from the US government has always made this a dubious conceit.

Equally dubious was the idea that its task was simply to promote democracy. Two of its “core grantees” — which receive around 70 percent of its funding — are explicitly right wing: the IRI, which is a GOP-led institution that once described its goals as advancing “democracy, the rule of law, and free-market economics”; and the Center for International Private Enterprise, a project of the US Chamber of Commerce. Even the Solidarity Center (formerly the Free Trade Union Institute), which is affiliated with the AFL-CIO, went on to support conservative causes. Only the NDI, the Democrats’ arm, could be said to be anywhere left of center. Overall, the NED’s track record tilts decidedly to the right.

“Covert Action on a Broader Scale”

The NED walked into controversy early when it crossed paths with the Iran-Contra scandal. For example, Oliver North named his portfolio of covert activities “Project Democracy,” which raised eyebrows because that also happened to be what the NED had been called in its incipient stages. But there was more to it than just the name. Raymond, who oversaw the NED, was a close colleague of North, and part of the White House Working Group on Central America, which helped coordinate pro-Contra projects. Later there emerged a secret 1982 White House memo on the minutes of a cabinet meeting discussing “Project Democracy.” It read: “We need to examine how law and Executive Order can be made more liberal to permit covert action on a broader scale, as well as what we can do through substantially increased overt political action.” All of it suggested that the two programs — one secret, one public — were two sides of the same coin.

Sure enough, one of the NED’s first actions was to provide financial support to the Project for Democracy in Central America (PRODEMCA), a private group that supported the anti-Sandinista contras in Nicaragua and Honduras. At the same time Congress was bitterly debating whether to continue giving aid to the contras, PRODEMCA was receiving funds from NED and covert funds from North, most of which it then funnelled to opposition groups; it used other funds to pay for advertisements in US newspapers and mailings to congresspeople in support of Reagan’s position. It also offered all-expenses-paid trips to contra camps to Sandinista critics.

This was just the start of a long list of questionable actions, typically carried out through the IRI. It financed the right-wing opposition to the Nobel Peace Prize–winning president of Costa Rica (a stable democracy), including initiatives that attacked his peace plan for Nicaragua. It funded the conservative opposition to Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, ultimately leading to his violent ouster, which plunged the country into further chaos. It provided pivotal funding and training to neoliberal parties in Mongolia, whose policies sent the country further into devastating poverty while also opening it up to international business interests. In an instance of deep irony, it was closely involved in ensuring Boris Yeltsin’s re-election in Russia.

This isn’t simply ancient history. NED money supported the opposition groups that led the abortive coup against Hugo Chávez in Venezuela in 2002. The organization was also very active in Ukraine in the lead-up to the overthrow of its government in 2013.

The AFL-CIO’s affiliate has engaged in equally unsavory initiatives. In 1980s France — hardly a democracy under siege — the FTUI approved $1.5 million toward combating François Mitterand’s socialist government. $575,000 of this went to the far right National Inter-University Union, an arm of an extremist, nationalist paramilitary. The FTUI also gave money to a union supporting a military-backed presidential candidate in Panama, over the objections of the US ambassador. It provided $5.7 million to the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines, which supported the Marcos dictatorship and worked with a death squad to take on a rival union.

Officials were shocked at the success of this gambit of carrying out previously shadowy influence operations in broad daylight. A Washington Post piece in 1991 gushed that covert action had become obsolete in favor of activities out in the open, and that “propaganda” could “now simply be called information.” “A lot of what we do today was done covertly twenty-five years ago by the CIA,” said Allen Weinstein, who helped create the NED nearly a decade earlier.

And this leaves aside the NED’s history of influence laundering or the opaque way it spends its funds. The IRI attempted to transition to private funding for many years, at which point it was funded by virtually every major corporate name and Washington lobbying firm you can think of. When John McCain ran for president, the New York Times noted that under his tenure, the IRI raised money from 560 defense contractors, lobbying firms, oil companies, and other corporations, creating numerous conflicts of interest for the senator that until then had escaped scrutiny. Lobbyists routinely served in the NED, and its staff routinely serve double duty as foreign agents or business owners, such as a former chairman who was also a registered agent for Turkey.

There’s a rich irony in the fact that a number of the figures now denouncing Trump for potentially gutting the NED — John McCain, Russia conspiracist Molly McKew, Rogin himself — are also some of those most outraged by Russian interference in the 2016 election. As this history demonstrates, one of the NED’s chief purposes from its inception to today has been to engage in the very same kind of manipulation of other countries’ domestic politics, albeit out in the open.

There’s also something ironic about the newfound outrage from liberals over the gutting of the NED, given that liberals led past attempts to end the NED, often spurred on by revelations about its many outrageous acts of interference. The NED will almost certainly survive this latest challenge. But let’s not whitewash its disreputable legacy.