On The National Endowment For Democracy
by Michael Barker
"Democracy cannot be exported or imposed, and the processes of self-liberation and empowerment central to democratic societies should be led by indigenous populations."
—National Endowment for Democracy (2007)
(Swans - October 20, 2008) The opening quote (or "fundamental principle") taken from the National Endowment for Democracy's 2007 Strategy Document (pdf), represents a prime example of the world's leading democracy manipulators rhetorical cynicism. Despite describing themselves as "a private, nonprofit organization" dedicated to "strengthen[ing] democratic institutions around the world through nongovernmental efforts," the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) is in actuality a key instrument of the US government's imperial war chest.
Another "fundamental principle" allegedly guiding the work of the NED is that: "Democracy assistance is not an exercise in top-down social engineering." However, the honesty of this guiding principle is a little far-fetched given that the NED selects, supports, and sometimes helps create nongovernmental organizations operating in foreign countries, a process that could be perfectly well described as social engineering. To make things clearer, the NED's final fundamental principle states that: "In carrying out its mission of promoting democracy, NED advances the American national interest and embodies America's highest ideals." Thus we might say that the NED exports the US's special brand of neoliberal "democracy" by engaging in foreign social engineering, and so its activities might better be described as those of an imperial democracy manipulator.
Of course Democrats are as much a part of the activities of the NED as are the Republicans, (1) although the NED doesn't seem to understand this, as they describe the board of directors which govern their activities as independent and nonpartisan. Yet the classifiers independent and nonpartisan are hardly words that come to mind when one reviews their board, perhaps capitalist neoliberal ideologues might provide a more accurate descriptor. Here it is useful to briefly review the backgrounds of some of the NED's principle officers.
NED Board Chair Vin Weber was a member of the neoconservative Project for a New American Century (PNAC), and in the lead-up to the war -- rather, illegal destruction wrought -- on Iraq, played a key role in a PNAC subsidiary, a group called Americans for Victory Over Terrorism. Next up, the vice-chair of the NED's board is Missouri Democrat Dick Gephardt, while their president (since 1984) has been Carl Gershman, an individual who formerly served as the executive director of Social Democrats USA. Finally, the NED's secretary is Jean Bethke Elshtain, a scholar whose role at the NED is particularly interesting as she also serves on the editorial advisory board of the academic journal, Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice. Moreover, in February 2002, as Edward S. Herman and David Peterson point out in their excellent article There Is No "War on Terror", the Institute for American Values (which was and is presently chaired by Jean Bethke Elshtain) categorically declared the war on terror a "just war." Strange values indeed!
Needless to say, the US mainstream media rarely draws attention to the NED's democracy manipulating activities, despite the fact that the NED has played an integral part in their government's foreign policy apparatus since its birth in 1983. (2) Yet at the same time some parts of the mainstream media, have occasionally provided useful, albeit decontextualized, information on the NED's operations. Thus this article will provide the first critical investigation of the US media's portrayal of the NED by reviewing the coverage of it work in the United States' "paper of record" The New York Times.
"[P]romot[ing] the American way of life"
The first Times article that mentions the NED was a short briefing published on October 22, 1983, which noted that the NED "will be an agency that sends people around the world to promote the American way of life." (3) Despite the noncritical tone of this description that accepts the ideological premises of the NED as uncontroversial, this article did however raise some limited criticisms of the NED's planned work, noting that Representative Bob Dole (Republican of Kansas) expressed "fears [that] the endowment could be used to satisfy the wanderlust of some Congressional staff members." Arguably, such limited critiques of the NED simply serve to project the illusion of objectivity in the Times reporting. In May 1984, Carl Gershman (a former aide to the famous neoconservative Jeane J. Kirkpatrick) became head of the NED, a group that the Times at the time described as a "federally financed foundation designed to compete in the worldwide struggle for people's minds by financing 'democratic institution-building' in foreign lands." (4) In the same article, Ben Franklin goes on to note how:
The notion of a Project Democracy first gained attention when President Reagan mentioned it in a speech to the British Parliament two years ago. As later presented in a proposal to Congress, it would have been operated by the United States Information Agency. But controversies surrounding the U.S.I.A. director, Charles Z. Wick, inspired House Democrats, led by Mr. [Dante] Fascell, to the alternative of an independent National Endowment for Democracy.
Franklin observed that "there is a strong belief [in Congress] that private citizens, operating in the open, can be more effective than secret agents in spreading the seeds of democratic ideas." However, within the same article Franklin points out that one of the NED's four core grantees, the AFL-CIO and its American Institute for Free Labor Development have "sometimes [been] accused or suspected of involvement with the Central Intelligence Agency." He adds:
One of the obstacles that Mr. Gershman must overcome is the C.I.A.'s reputed secret involvement in the past in a lot of what the Endowment for Democracy hopes to do in the open: encouragement of political parties compatible with United States interests, of vigorous labor unions and democratic press and church groups and the publication of writings by pro-Western dissidents. As one of its first actions the NED board voted to forbid any employment of C.I.A. personnel or covert C.I.A. agenda in its programs.
Franklin reported that Representative Hank Brown (Republican of Colorado), a "critic of the democracy endowment concept, said today that NED-financed activities in Central America had already drawn criticism from James E. Briggs, the Ambassador to Panama."
Mr. Brown said he had obtained from the U.S.I.A. a paraphrased copy of a cable that Ambassador Briggs sent to Washington in April complaining that the American Institute for Free Labor Development, one of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. affiliates, had been given funds by NED to cover the expenses of "activists" supporting the Presidential campaign of Nicolas Ardito Barletta. Mr. Barletta, the candidate backed by the Panamanian military, narrowly defeated former President Arnulfo Arias Madrid in the May 6 election. (5)
In a second NED article published in June 1984, Franklin reported that the House of Representatives voted 226 to 173 against a $31.3 million appropriation (on May 31, 1984) for the NED, which meant that it "would be left with only the $18 million in start-up money it got from Congress" the previous year. (6) Representative Richard L. Ottinger (Democrat of Westchester) observed that: "I consider this one of the most wasteful and mischievous expenditures of funds in the foreign policy field that we have ever seen... It hands over in large blocks to the Chamber of Commerce and the A.F.L.-C.I.O., and to the political parties, monies to be used without any accountability whatsoever." Subsequently in 1984, Joshua Muravchik editorialised against the House's decision writing that it would be "folly to abandon" the NED, because he noted "if the endowment succeeds, it will be serving our hardheaded national interests." (7) Then on June 29, the Times reported that the Senate voted 51 to 42 to reject the amendment to strip the $31.3 million of funding from the NED. (8) The end result, agreed in August, was that the NED's appropriation would be cut from the requested $31.3 million to $18.5 million, and that there would be a "prohibition against giving any of the money to the Democratic or Republican parties, as originally intended by the endowment." (9) According, to Walter Goodman:
Mr. Gershman cited two precedents for giving government funds to private groups for operations abroad. One is the post-World War II support of anti-Communist political parties and publications in other countries by the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which was discredited by the disclosure that the money was coming from the Central Intelligence Agency.
The lesson that Mr. Gershman draws from that episode is not that such efforts are misguided but that "they should be overt, not covert." To avoid any suspicions of covert connections, C.I.A. personnel are barred from endowment programs.
The other precedent is the aid given by some West European political parties to kindred parties in other countries. Mr. Gershman, a former executive director of Social Democrats, U.S.A., which, despite its title, is ideologically somewhere to the right of the Democratic Party, says the assistance given by West German Socialists to Portuguese Socialists in 1975 helped save Portugal's shaky democracy.
In July 1985, the Times reported that Representative John Conyers Jr. (Democrat of Michigan) "said he planned to offer an amendment to the State Department appropriation bill that would cut off further money for the National Endowment for Democracy." (10) The Times noted that "Mr. Conyers said he opposes the project because its grants were likely to be counterproductive and interpreted by other countries as an attempt to manipulate local politics." Later in the year, the NED came under more Congressional criticism when it was determined that "$1.4 million in endowment money has been secretly channelled through an overseas branch of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations to two center-right groups in France that have opposed the policies of President Francois Mitterrand's Socialist Party." (11) Then in June 1986, David Shipler provided the first marginally critical report of the NED, observing that since its creation it had so far dispensed a total of $53.7 million...
...for such undertakings as helping the Solidarity labor union print underground publications in Poland, buying materials for an opposition newspaper in Nicaragua, bolstering the opposition in South Korea, aiding a party in Northern Ireland that is a member of the Socialist International and getting out the vote in Grenada and Latin American countries. (12)
Shipler outlined some of the NED's other dubious activities which included providing "$180,845 to train teachers, conduct literacy courses for rebel [Afghan] fighters, reopen some schools and publish new textbooks with unflattering accounts of the Soviet role in Afghan history," and he drew attention to the significant NED-CIA-connection, noting that: "In some respects, the program resembles the aid given by the Central Intelligence Agency in the 1950's, 60's and 70's to bolster pro-American political groups." However, he added that the "current financing is largely public... and appears to be given with the objective of shoring up political pluralism, broader than the C.I.A.'s goals of fostering pro-Americanism." Moreover, he added that the NED's chairman was John Richardson, "who was president in the 1960's of Radio Free Europe, which was funded by the C.I.A." Yet despite this obvious CIA link, Shipler cites the words of the NED's president Carl Gershman, who said, "It would be terrible for democratic groups around the world to be seen as subsidized by the C.I.A. We saw that in the 60's, and that's why it has been discontinued. We have not had the capability of doing this, and that's why the endowment was created."
However, despite writing a fairly critical article about the NED in 1986, by March 1990 Shipler appeared far less critical of the NED, and in reference to the NED's support for Nicaraguan opposition parties he noted that "Nicaragua's election has vindicated Washington's fledgling program of providing public, above-board funding to help democratic procedures take root in countries with authoritarian regimes." (13) Indeed he went so far as noting that the NED's electoral success "has proved that open, honorable support for a democratic process is one of the most powerful foreign policy tools at Washington's disposal." Shipler's mellowing on his NED reporting may have something to do with his appointment -- after working for the Times for twenty years -- as a senior associate at the democracy manipulating Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (from 1988 to 1990), where he then wrote about the "transitions to democracy in Russia and Eastern Europe for The New Yorker and other publications."
Shipler's support of the NED is the norm at the Times, and it appears that criticisms of the NED's work only ever make it into print when there is a Congressional debate about the merits of manipulating democracy. In this way the Times effectively manufactures consent for elite interests with regards to the work of the NED. Typical system supportive reports on NED's activities that are published in the Times usually simply suggest that the group is working to promote democracy, and fail to dig beneath the surface of their rhetoric as the following examples from 1988 demonstrate.
Thus in Haiti, Shipler reported that the US government is trying its best to help promote democracy, by providing "extensive" "political and financial support for the[ir] electoral process." He notes that: "Before the November elections, the United States contributed $8.1 million toward the $10 million cost of conducting the balloting, according to Dwight A. Ink, assistant administrator in the Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean of the Agency for International Development." He also adds that the NED "financed with Federal money, gave a $110,000 grant to a Haitian organization to conduct forums on democratic procedures," however, no mention is made of the problematic nature of such "democratic" assistance. (14) Similarly in Nicaragua, Stephen Kinzer, writing in 1988, reports that the opposition newspaper, La Prensa, had recently "received about $90,000 worth of equipment and material from the National Endowment for Democracy, a quasi-public agency of the United States Government." (15) And although Kinzer does acknowledge that the "credibility of [La Prensa's] accounts was open to question" he does not provide any critical intergration of the role of the NED, and still opens his article by noting that La Prensa claims "that Nicaragua is in the midst of a 'wave of repression' that includes the use of jails 'dreadful enough to recall Treblinka and other Nazi concentration camps'." (16)
In Chile, the same pattern holds, and Shirley Christian reported in 1988 that the NED "has made $600,000 available to organizations working to defeat Gen. Augusto Pinochet in a coming plebiscite." (17) Again the funding is not problematized, but is merely recounted. (18) Moreover, although Christian points out that the NED "distributes money that Congress designates for promoting democratic activities abroad," when she reports on complaints from the Pinochet government about this democratic interference she writes that this support has "revived the frequent charges by General Pinochet and his supporters that the opposition is dependent on financial assistance from foreign governments, political parties and foundations" (which of course it is, it is clearly not an unjustifiable allegation). Another Times report in 1988 notes that "two South African groups -- the Institute for a Democratic Alternative for South Africa and the Black Consumers Union" received a total of $600,000 in 1988, but there is no critical analysis of the implications of this funding for the anti-apartheid movement. (19) The democracy manipulators support for Polish political parties received the same type of reporting, thus in 1988 Robert Pear wrote:
Poland has a huge underground publication network, much of it supported by the United States... Some of the money is openly appropriated by Congress. Some is provided through the National Endowment for Democracy, a private nonprofit corporation that receives almost all its funds from the Federal Government and seeks to encourage democratic institutions around the world. (20)
Although connections have been made between the work of the CIA and the NED, the reporting undertaken in the Times can hardly be considered to be critical of the modus operandi of the NED. Instead it appears that most of their reporting has been influenced by political infighting which simply concern elites arguing which is the most effective way to export neoliberal democracy. Even when in 1992 a public TV documentary, "Campaign for Cuba," alleged that the controversial Miami-based exile group the Cuban American National Foundation had received nearly a million dollars in grants from the NED, there was next to no critical coverage of the issue: this is despite the fact that the Times noted that:
By just about any standard, no Cuban-American is more influential than [Jorge Mas Canosa] through the Cuban American National Foundation, the group he helped to found 11 years ago as a source of political support for the Reagan Administration, Mr. Mas has become the most visible member of the Cuban-American community and one of the most effective power brokers in Washington for his cause, the fall of the Castro regime. (21)
However, although there has been no serious scrutiny of the NED's democracy-manipulating work in the Times, there have been ongoing Congressional attempts to limit it operations. In July 1993, the Times editorialised against a Congressional motion -- proposed by Representative Paul E. Kanjorski (Democrat of Pennsylvania) -- that was supported by a vote of 243 to 181 and which aimed to eliminate the NED's funding. (22) In the end the NED's funding was of course not eliminated, as the importance of the NED to the US government democracy manipulating apparatus is at the end of the day too strong for foreign policy making elites. (23)
In a rare critical commentary on the NED in 1997, John Broder noted that while "[m]embers of both political parties express horror at accusations that the Chinese may have tried to use covert campaign donations to influence American policy,.. the United States has long meddled in other nations' internal affairs." (24) He went on to then draw a comparison between the work of the CIA and the NED, noting that the NED was created "to do in the open what the Central Intelligence Agency has done surreptitiously for decades," and he went on to list many important antidemocratic interventions in the CIA's history.
More recently, in 2002, the Times did point out the NED "channelled hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants to American and Venezuelan groups opposed to President Hugo Chávez, including the labor group [Sumate] whose protests led to the Venezuelan president's brief ouster this month." (25) However, despite this controversial story, the reporter in question simply talked to various democracy-manipulating representatives, failed to interview any independent progressive critics of the NED, and ended on a slightly critical note by pointing out that "Barbara Conry, an analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute, said the organizing philosophy behind the endowment was flawed." This type of non-reporting should of course be expected with regard to the Times reporting on Venezuela, as writers in the alternative media have widely noted the key role that the Times has played in supporting the 2002 coup and denigrating Venezuela's democratically elected president. (26)
In another rare article, writing in March 2005, Craig Smith observed how Kyrgyzstan's "Tulip revolution" was financed by the US government, pointing out that: "The money earmarked for democracy programs in Kyrgyzstan totaled about $12 million last year." (27) Moreover, Smith added that: "Hundreds of thousands more filter into pro-democracy programs in the country from other United States government-financed institutions like the National Endowment for Democracy." He then went on to document many of the groups that received support from US-based democracy manipulators, but failed to criticize these activities. Instead Smith simply noted how President Askar Akayev...
began suggesting that the West was engaged in a conspiracy to destabilize the country. A crudely forged document, made to look like an internal report by the American ambassador, Stephen Young, began circulating among local news organizations. It cast American-financed pro-democracy activities as part of an American conspiracy. "Our primary goal," the document read, "is to increase pressure upon Akaev (sic) to make him resign ahead of schedule after the parliamentary elections."
This accusation is of course is not far from the truth, although one would be hard pressed to realize it given Smith's evident agreement with the basic premises of the democracy manipulating communities work.
This article has demonstrated that there are extreme ideological limits evident in The New York Times reporting on the NED. Indeed, other than the generally positive reporting on the NED, the few criticisms of the NED's work that occasionally surface within the Times never seriously challenge the legitimacy of their global activities. Moreover, in general, the Times reporting on the NED actually encourages readers to view the guiding objectives of the NED as benign. Such reporting serves to discourage serious enquiry from concerned citizens who are critical of the US government's imperial foreign policy objectives. Consequently, the Times plays a critical role in manufacturing consent for elite interests by preventing the public from understanding the antidemocratic implications of the NED's antidemocratic work. This occurs because the media in the West, even so-called liberal papers of record like the Times, are powerful corporate actors and staunch defenders of the status quo, as their interests are one and the same as those of transnational capitalism. Thankfully there are alternatives; however, given the low priority that progressive activists place on supporting progressive media outlets (especially online ones), it looks likely that the ideological dominance of the mainstream media will continue to constrain and erode gains made by progressive activists all over the world, until this problem is resolved.
1. According to the NED's 2007 Strategy Document the "four institutes embedded in the core of NED's work" are the AFL-CIO's American Center for International Labor Solidarity (ACILS), the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE), the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI). (back)
2. In recent years, the NED (and other assorted democracy manipulators) have been implicated in a series of "colour revolutions," which swept across Eastern Europe (Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan). Other studies have also examined the NED's involvement in other countries, like for example Burma, China, Cuba, Iran, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, and have examined the intimate relationship that exist between the NED and other ostensibly democratic groups like Human Rights Watch, the United Nations Democracy Fund, the Council on Foreign Relations, and even well known peace activists, and celebrated writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Much like many of the people who are tightly involved with the activities supported by elitist liberal foundations:
"It is important to emphasize that many individuals brought into US 'democracy promotion' programs are not simple puppets of US policy and their organizations are not necessarily 'fronts' (or in CIA jargon, 'cut-outs'). Very often they involve genuine local leaders seeking to further their own interests and projects in the context of internal political competition and conflict and of heavy US influence over the local scene. Moreover, old and new middle classes, professional and bureaucratic strata may identify their interests with the integration or reintegration of their countries into global capitalism under a US canopy. These classes may be politically disorganized or under the sway of counter-elites and of nationalist, popular, or radical ideologies. They often become the most immediate targets of 'democracy promotion,' to be won over and converted into a social base for the transnational elite agenda." William I. Robinson, "What to expect from US 'democracy promotion' in Iraq," New Political Science, 26 (3), 2004, pp. 445-6. (back)
4. "Mr. Gershman, who was educated at Yale and Harvard, is a former chairman of the Young People's Socialist League and former executive director of Social Democrats, U.S.A., in effect the right wing of American socialism. At the United Nations, he often castigated the United States' critics from the Communist bloc and third world." Ben A. Franklin, "Project Democracy Takes Wings," The New York Times, May 29, 1984. (back)
5. Franklin also pointed out that "Mr. Brown is now trying to gather support for legislation that would specifically include NED under the Freedom of Information Act. The endowment, because it was set up as a private organization, is not covered by the Act, which requires Government agencies to disclose, on request, nonsecurity information to citizens and the press." (back)
11. Ben A. Franklin, "Democracy Project Facing New Criticisms," The New York Times, December 4, 1985.
Conservative writer William Safire responded in an editorial by noting that: "As a New York Times article pointed out, the Liberation story 'came at a pivotal time for the endowment,' just before a Senate-House committee was to decide its 1986 appropriation. One year ago, a similar story happened to break just before the House voted, causing panicky representatives to cut all funds for the anti-Communist campaign, which were later restored in a House-Senate conference. A pattern of leftist 'keepers' to choke off aid to help free labor unions protect democracy is emerging." William Safire, "Finder's Keepers," The New York Times, December 22, 1985. (back)
13. David K. Shipler, "Nicaragua, Victory U.S. Fair Play," The New York Times, March 1, 1990.
In 1988, Shipler published an article that highlighted the NED's work in Haitian affairs without providing any criticism of the NED's polyarchal intentions. See David K. Shipler, "Washington Is Losing Hope For a Fair Election in Haiti," The New York Times, January 9, 1988. (back)
16. For a detailed account of the NED's work in Nicaragua, see William I. Robinson, A Faustian Bargain: U.S. Intervention in the Nicaraguan Elections and American Foreign Policy In the Post Cold War Era (pdf) (Westview Press, 1992). (back)
18. For a detailed account of the NED's work in Chile, see William I. Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, US Intervention, and Hegemony (Oxford University Press, 1996). (back)
23. Yet again in July 1999 the NYT was again editorialising against efforts led by Judd Gregg (Republican of New Hampshire) to cut the NED's annual funding from $31 million to zero. The editorial concluded by noting that: "The endowment has earned the right to remain healthy and independent." Annon, "A Vote for Democracy Abroad," The New York Times, July 21, 1999. (back)
26. A selection of quotes referring to Chávez taken from The New York Times include: "would-be strongman" (December 1998); "Mr. Chavez has not only stripped the opposition-controlled Congress of all its powers, but also taken control of Venezuela's judicial system" (September 1999); "elected strongman who has bent his country's democratic rules" (April 2002); "Chavez's leftist regime" (April 2002); "Chavez regime was threatening the country's democratic system" (April 2002); "fiery strongman" (April 2002); "Venezuelans stayed tuned for the return of their strongman" (April 2002); "president Hugo Chavez, the angry populist and cashiered army colonel who then eviscerated the legislature and the judiciary" (April 2003); "Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's leftist populist military strongman" (November 2005, written by the imperialist 'humanitarian' foot soldier David Rieff); "Hugo Chavez's regime" (February 2006); "Hugo Chavez has been unable to reproduce his regime in any other country except in Bolivia" (November 2006); "given Chavez's outlandish rhetoric, it is tempting to dismiss him as a madman" (January 2007, David Rieff again); "the old strongman formula of cronyism, corruption and incompetence" (March 2007); "Chavez became increasingly autocratic" (June 2007); "an all-powerful strongman" (August 2007); "beloved strongman" (December 2007); "whims of a strongman" (December 2007); "fiery Venezuelan strongman" (December 2007). (back)
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