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The National Endowment for Democracy
Until I read an item at Media- Transparency.org about the election of former Congress- person Vin Weber as chair of its Board, I didn't realize the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) was still in business.
Weber, who represented his Minnesota district from 1980 through 1992, is currently the managing partner at the consulting firm Clark and Weinstock where he's built a reputation as a “super-lobbyist.” He is one of the founders of the conservative Washington, DC policy institute, Empower America, and is a regular guest on a number of television's talking head programs.
One of Weber's most enduring contributions came during 1982/ 1983 when he, along with Newt Gingrich and several other conservative “young Turks” in Congress, founded the Conservative Opportunity Society (COS). COS rousted the old GOP leadership and then laid the groundwork for the “conservative revolution” that took control of Congress in 1994.
Weber's election as NED Board chair is a signal that the NED will once again play more of a role shaping and supporting U.S. foreign policy objectives.
Over the years the NED has been especially active in Central America, the Philippines, Eastern Europe, and in its support of the Cuban exile community. It describes itself as a “private, nonprofit, grant-making organization created in 1983 to strengthen democratic institutions around the world.” This description doesn't do the organization justice. In reality, throughout the 1980s the NED helped turn Central America into low-intensity killing-fields.
Carl Gershman, president of the NED, told Congress in 1997, that its “four affiliated institutes, the International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI), the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE), and the Free Trade Union Institute (FTUI) …operate a host of programs that strengthen political parties, promote open markets, advocate the rights of workers, and many related activities.”
In reality, the NED functions as a full-service infrastructure-building clearinghouse. It provides money, technical support, supplies, training programs, media know-how, public relations assistance, and state-of-the-art equipment to select political groups, civic organizations, labor unions, dissident movements, student groups, book publishers, newspapers, and other media.
The organization's Board of Directors is a collection of high- powered inside-the-beltway longtime foreign policy “experts.” In February, six new members were elected to the board: Frank Carlucci, current chairperson of the Carlyle Group, a banking firm, and former Secretary of Defense and National Security Advisor in the Reagan administration; General Wesley K. Clark (U.S. Army Ret.), currently associated with the Stephens Group, a venture capital outfit, and former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe and Commander in Chief; Julia Finley, a Republican Party activist working on NATO expansion issues; Francis Fukuyama, political scientist and author, most notably, of The End of History; Richard C. Holbrooke, outgoing U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations; and Weber.
In 1996, the Heritage Foundation's James Phillips, senior policy analyst and Kim R. Holmes, vice president and director of Foreign Policy and Defense Studies, praised the NED, speaking out strongly in support of continued government funding. “The NED is a valuable weapon in the international war of ideas. It advances American national interests by promoting the development of stable democracies friendly to the U.S. in strategically important parts of the world,” they concluded. “The U.S. cannot afford to discard such an effective instrument of foreign policy at a time when American interests and values are under sustained ideological attack from a wide variety of anti-democratic forces around the world.”
Not every conservative has such a glowing assessment of the organization. In 1993, Barbara Conry, a foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute, noted that the NED “has a history of corruption and financial mismanagement, is superfluous at best and often destructive. Through the endowment, the American taxpayer has paid for special-interest groups to harass the duly elected governments of friendly countries, interfere in foreign elections, and foster the corruption of democratic movements.”
In 1991, Allen Weinstein, who helped draft the legislation establishing the NED, pointed out that “a lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA.” On the Third World Traveler website, an excerpt from William Blum's book Rogue State: A Guide to the World's Only Superpower (Common Courage Press, 2000), reminds us that in the years just prior to the NED's founding, Washington was all a-buzz with several major investigations of the shenanigans of the CIA going on simultaneously, including the Church committee of the Senate, the Pike committee of the House, and the Rockefeller Commission, created by the president.
“The idea was that the NED would do somewhat overtly what the CIA had been doing covertly for decades,” Blum writes, “and thus, hopefully, eliminate the stigma associated with CIA covert activities. It was a masterpiece. Of politics, of public relations, and of cynicism.”
An active partner of the Reagan administration during the 1980s, the NED worked to destabilize and crush the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. As might be expected, the organization got caught up in the maelstrom surrounding the Iran- Contra affair. According to Blum, the NED funded “key components of [Col.] Oliver North's shadowy ‘Project Democracy' network, which privatized U.S. foreign policy, waged war, ran arms and drugs and engaged in other equally charming activities.
Blum writes that the NED has been involved in promoting its candidates in dozens of elections in countries around the world. However, “because of a controversy in 1984—when NED funds were used to aid a Panamanian presidential candidate backed by Manuel Noriega,” Congress enacted a law prohibiting the use of NED funds “to finance the campaigns of candidates for public office.”
The NED figured out ways to get around the law and “successfully manipulated elections in Nicaragua in 1990 and Mongolia in 1996 and helped to overthrow democratically elected governments in Bulgaria in 1990 and Albania in 1991 and 1992. In Haiti in the late l990s, NED was busy working on behalf of right wing groups who were united in their opposition to former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his progressive ideology.”
In short, despite the fact that there had been free democratic elections in the above-mentioned countries, the “NED… made its weight felt in the electoral-political process.”
With Vin Weber as chair of the Board, and several of Ronald Reagan's key Central America operatives, including Otto Reich, John Negroponte, and the scurrilous Elliot Abrams appointed to posts within the Bush administration, expect the NED to once again emerge as a foreign policy player. As Bush fashions a harder line toward Cuba, the NED is almost certain to become a lifeline to the Cuban exile community. In the past is prologue department, look for the fingerprints of the National Endowment for Democracy all over this November's Nicaraguan presidential election. Z
Bill Berkowitz is an freelance writer covering conservative movements.