Saturday, July 10, 2004

Back to the future
Bill Berkowitz - WorkingForChange

07.27.01 - Until I read an item at about the election of former Congressman Vin Weber as Chairman 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 talking head programs.

One of Weber's most enduring contributions began with the 1982/1983 founding, along with Newt Gingrich and several other conservative "young turks" in Congress, of the Conservative Opportunity Society (COS). First they rousted the old GOP leadership and then COS laid the groundwork for the "conservative revolution" that took control of Congress after the 1994 election. Empower America's Web site boasts that Weber "helped lay the foundation for the Republican congressional majority and a balanced federal budget."

Weber's election as NED Board Chair goes beyond the "there's always another job for a battle-tested conservative with room on his time card" department. It is a signal that the NED will once again begin to play more of a role shaping and supporting U.S. foreign policy objectives.

To paraphrase those late-night Time-Life nostalgic music infomercials - "sit back, get comfortable and remember those days; Reagan ruled the roost and America's foreign policy mission was operating on all cylinders."

Over the years the NED has been particularly active in Central America, with projects as well in the Philippines and Eastern Europe. They've also focused a lot of organizational support on the Cuban exile community. The NED 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 the organization's "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."

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. It's aim is to destabilize progressive movements, particularly those with a socialist or democratic socialist bent.

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 chairman 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 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 of, most notably, "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 think tank 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."

A CIA surrogate

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." At the Third World Traveler Web site, 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 a-buzz with several major investigations going on simultaneously into the shenanigans of the Central Intelligence Agency. These included 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. At one point in 1987, a White House spokesman stated that those at NED 'run Project Democracy.' This was an exaggeration; it would have been more correct to say that NED was the public arm of Project Democracy, while North ran the covert end of things. In any event, the statement caused much less of a stir than if--as in an earlier period--it had been revealed that it was the CIA which was behind such an unscrupulous operation."

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 their 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 Chairman 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. And as Bush fashions a harder line toward Cuba, the NED is almost certain to become a lifeline to the Cuban exile community.

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