The U.S. Democracy Project

The U.S. Democracy Project

Mini Teaser: American NGOs that push for democratic change abroad are facing growing resistance.

by Author(s): Jordan Michael Smith

The Washington nonprofit community soon joined in. As the NED’s Gershman puts it, democracy-promotion forces go “where the action is.” The result was a wave of new democracy-promotion enterprises and the emergence of today’s Democracy Establishment. Even before the 1989 collapse of the Soviet empire, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems was established “to support electoral and other democratic institutions in emerging, evolving, and experienced democracies.” Founded by Republican Party consultant F. Clifton White and now headed by businessman and former Democratic consultant Bill Sweeney, the organization gets some 95 percent of its $103 million operating budget from the State Department and USAID, according to its 2011 tax filings.

IF THE West’s Cold War victory spawned new democracy-promotion entities, the 9/11 attacks on the American homeland by Islamist terrorists generated an even greater wave as many democracy champions concluded that such attacks and the angers behind them resulted from the Middle East’s closed societies. Some new organizations were born, while others expanded their Middle East activities.

One new organization involved in that effort was the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), which was founded in 2006 as an organization devoted to “examining how genuine democracies can develop in the Middle East and how the U.S. can best support that process.” POMED hosts seminars and conferences and publishes policy briefs on the state of democracy in the Middle East. It brings Middle Eastern activists, dissidents and civil-society workers to the United States for training sessions and to meet with officials at the White House, State Department and USAID, as well as with members of Congress. Former congressmen Jim Kolbe, an Arizona Republican, and Jim Moody, a Wisconsin Democrat, sit on its board of advisers.

Stephen McInerney, executive director of POMED, disavows any intent to foster the protest movements of the Arab Spring, which erupted in December 2010 and brought down governments in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya the following year. But he claims credit for enhancing their effectiveness. “We didn’t fund them to start protests,” he told the New York Times, “but we did help support their development of skills and networking. That training did play a role in what ultimately happened, but it was their revolution.”

An older organization that expanded its role after 9/11 is Freedom House, established in 1941. It became more widely used by the U.S. government following 9/11. In 1997, Freedom House merged with the National Forum Foundation, enhancing its capacity to conduct on-the-ground projects in fledgling democracies in target areas such as Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkans and the former Soviet Union. Although Freedom House gets at least 75 percent of its $41.5 million annual funding from the U.S. government, it describes itself as independent. But it isn’t merely the group’s financial independence that can be questioned. R. James Woolsey, a former head of the CIA, was Freedom House’s chairman for many years, a connection that inevitably raised questions abroad about the independence of Freedom House from U.S. foreign-policy aims.

Freedom House has been prominently on the side of major U.S. interventions, including the Iraq War. On the eve of that war, the organization called for a long-term occupation of Iraq and waxed eloquent on the importance of the mission: “We fervently hope that the war effort American forces are now engaged in goes well and that Saddam Hussein’s tyranny falls with minimal loss of life,” the organization said.

Freedom House’s activities sometimes reflect a tendency to allow the wish for democracy to become a perception of emerging democracy. In 2003, the organization assured its members that the “Gulf monarchies of Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar are moving toward constitutional rule in which significant power resides with democratically elected representatives.” A year later, events demolished that optimism. And, in the wake of the Arab Spring, we know that Bahrain’s monarchy is prepared, with the help of Saudi Arabia, to do whatever is necessary to suppress democracy movements there—with U.S. acquiescence. Stability in Bahrain, home to a crucial U.S. naval base, is more important to Washington than democracy.

Freedom House retreated similarly in subsequent assessments of democratic trends in Qatar and Kuwait. These retreats from initial positive assessments reflect a disturbing trend for the Democracy Establishment: often its members are so focused on their desire to see democracies sprouting in foreign lands that they find themselves viewing the world through rose-colored glasses. Good examples are Egypt and Libya, whose Arab Spring revolutions didn’t lead to the smooth transition to democracy that many had anticipated.

BUT IN the heady days of that Middle East protest movement, some observers credited U.S. democracy-promotion organizations with providing vital training and support to the protest groups. In April 2011, the New York Times ran an article headlined “U.S. Groups Helped Nurture Arab Uprisings.” The article reported that American officials and others

are seeing that the United States’ democracy-building campaigns played a bigger role in fomenting protests than was previously known, with key leaders of the movements having been trained by the Americans in campaigning, organizing through new media tools and monitoring elections.

The NED also played a role, both before and during the protests. From 2005 to 2011, it gave more than $234,200 to the Libya Human and Political Development Forum, a group that opposed Muammar el-Qaddafi’s rule. According to the NED website, one $105,000 grant was “to foster constructive dialogue and cooperation among Libyan democrats and civic groups inside and outside the country and establish a presence for the Forum inside Libya.” Along with other NED-sponsored groups, this organization helped bring attention to the effort to depose Libya’s longtime strongman leader. That contributed to a dizzying cycle of events that ultimately entangled America in the conflict and posed a need for weapons and other supplies from U.S. companies. In 2011, NATO, with heavy U.S. involvement, established a no-fly zone and launched air strikes in the North African country. By the close of the year, the United States had spent more than $1.2 billion on the Libyan effort.

What that interventionist effort will yield for Libya’s future remains an open question. On the second anniversary of the outbreak of the revolt against Qaddafi, the Economist wrote that “political, economic and security reforms are proceeding at a snail’s pace at best.” Violence is endemic, the national army is weak and civil society is moribund. None of this is to say that Libya was better off under a dictator—but interventions spurred in part by the Democracy Establishment often have unintended consequences.

Those unintended consequences also can affect the United States adversely. When the country helped Qatar and the United Arab Emirates funnel arms to Libya’s anti-Qaddafi groups, some of them ended up in the hands of anti-American Islamists. In October 2012, it was revealed that the United States dispensed $8 million to help the beleaguered Libyan government create a commando force that would establish “Libya’s ability to combat and defend against threats from Al Qaeda and its affiliates,” which were a relatively minor problem in Libya during Qaddafi’s rule.

It’s worth noting, moreover, that Qaddafi, while a brutal leader and once a sponsor of anti-American terrorism, had abandoned his effort to accumulate weapons of mass destruction and his anti-Western posture in exchange for more normalized relations with the West. Hence, he didn’t pose a direct threat to American interests, whereas the subsequent situation in Libya ultimately did. One result was the killing of four American diplomats, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, at the Benghazi consulate. Moreover, questions have been raised about the impact of America’s Libya action on Iran, which is under substantial pressure from the United States and other nations to abandon any nuclear-weapons program it may be pursuing. America’s turnabout in its dealings with Libya, following the two countries’ previous understanding, isn’t seen as strong encouragement to Iranian leaders. Such unintended consequences raise the question of whether the quest for democracy, in any and all circumstances, is the best approach in terms of American interests. A case can be made that American interests should sometimes take a backseat to humanitarian concerns, but the detriment to those interests should at least be acknowledged.

THERE ALSO can be a diplomatic price to pay in U.S. relations with foreign governments bent on protecting themselves from internal dissent and rebel movements. Their hostility toward the American democracy-promotion movement is on the rise. Egypt now has some of the world’s strictest laws governing NGOs. When the Egyptian government raided the offices of ten local civil-society organizations in late 2011, it made clear its aversion to outside forces meddling in the country’s internal affairs. The country’s justice minister said the organizations were “betraying Egypt by deliberately promoting political strife.” After the NGO workers’ release, the country sought to promulgate a law that would require local organizations to obtain permits to receive foreign funding. And foreign NGOs would be required to receive permits in order to operate in the country.

The Russian government quickly embraced the Egyptian crackdown amid suggestions that the U.S. government was fostering antigovernment activities by the American groups. “As the continuing violent crackdown by security forces against the protests has left 17 dead and more than 700 injured this month alone, Egypt’s military is becoming increasingly fearful of foreign interference in the country’s internal affairs,” Russia’s RT website declared immediately after the government raids on NGO offices. The article suggested the United States was behind the fall of the Mubarak government. That assertion was not idle. As the New York Times reported in April 2011:

Image: Pullquote: All NED grants and activities are subject to oversight by the State Department and Congress, which are not in the habit of giving away money without gaining a voice in how it is spent.Essay Types: Essay