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

A number of the groups and individuals directly involved in the revolts and reforms sweeping the region, including the April 6 Youth Movement in Egypt, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and grass-roots activists like Entsar Qadhi, a youth leader in Yemen, received training and financing from groups like the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House.

Through these organizations, the U.S. government was able to deny responsibility for fomenting the revolutions. But, wrote the Times, “The work of these groups often provoked tensions between the United States and many Middle Eastern leaders, who frequently complained that their leadership was being undermined.”

Russia soon took action against similar organizations in its country. In November 2011, Vladimir Putin accepted his party’s nomination for president with these words: “The representatives of certain foreign governments gather people to whom they give money—so-called ‘grantees’—whom they instruct, find them ‘suitable work’ in order to influence the result of the election campaign in our country.” After his election the following year, Putin’s government expelled USAID in September, two weeks before local elections, saying the agency was making “attempts to influence political processes—including elections at different levels—through its distribution of grants.”

The government compounded the move weeks later with a law requiring foreign-funded groups to register as “foreign agents.” The State Department opposed this, with department spokesperson Victoria Nuland promising, “We will continue to be vigilant in supporting democracy, human rights, civil society in Russia. We’ll just do it another way.”That prompted the Russian government to complain about America’s “gross interference.” Said Russian prime minister Dmitri Medvedev: “Imagine if an NGO in the U.S. dealing with politics received money from the Russian federal budget. There would be an outcry.”

On October 1, RT put the NED on notice. An editorial declared:

Russia needs to enforce its decision and shut operations of NED and its all [sic] four mandated grantees, namely the International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) and the American Center for International Labor Solidarity (ACILS).

It continued, “The fact that Washington is planning to redirect USAID funding through ‘private’ organizations reflects an outrageous level of disrespect for the decision of the Russian government.” This agitation quickly got results.

In October, the NDI pulled most of its staff out of Russia, transferring employees to nearby Lithuania. In December, the IRI followed suit. “They have to pull out, given the conditions,” Senator John McCain told Foreign Policy magazine. McCain, a leading proponent of democracy promotion, is chairman of the IRI. On December 28, things got worse, with Putin signing the notorious law prohibiting U.S. citizens from adopting Russian children. The bill also suspended activities of nonprofit organizations that receive money from the United States. In response, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution condemning the ban. Senator Roy Blunt, a Republican from Missouri who adopted a son from Russia several years ago, called the adoption ban “outrageous.”

Nonetheless, in February of this year, at a meeting with top officials of the main successor agency to the KGB, the Federal Security Service, Putin put all foreign NGOs on notice, warning them against “meddling in our internal affairs.” He told officials at the agency that they must be prepared to thwart foreign attempts to derail plans for Russia to integrate with its neighbors. “They may use various instruments of pressure, including mechanisms of the so-called ‘soft power,’” he said. “The sovereign right of Russia and its partners to build and develop its integration project must be safely protected.” Democracy promotion thus directly undermines relations between the United States and a regional power that the Obama administration had hoped to woo back into constructive relations.

In the face of such governmental hostility, some dissidents in foreign countries have demonstrated a certain level of wariness toward America’s Democracy Establishment. In 2006, then secretary of state Condoleezza Rice asked Congress to transfer $85 million into the Iran Democracy Fund to, as she put it, “promote political change inside Iran.” Most controversially, $20 million of that was to support the efforts of civil-society groups—media, legal and human-rights NGOs—both outside and inside Iran. An internal State Department memo obtained by the Center for American Progress confided that the money was meant in part to “reach out to the Iranian people to support their desire for freedom and democracy.”

It soon became apparent that the money wasn’t wanted, for it undermined other human-rights work under way inside Iran. “The [democracy] money is a blade,” an Iranian journalist named Emadeddin Baghi told the New York Times. “Our government accuses us of receiving money from the Americans. All of a sudden, my normal human rights work becomes political.” In 2009, the Obama administration killed the fund. Individuals in the Democracy Establishment were apoplectic, but Iranians weren’t. Akbar Ganji, Iran’s most famous political dissident, told the BBC:

The US democracy fund was severely counterproductive. None of the human right activists and members of opposition in Iran had any interest in using such funds, but we were all accused by Iran’s government of being American spies because a few groups in America used these funds.

The Iran Democracy Fund also soured already-fractious relations between the United States and the Iranian government. Iran deplored such activities as efforts to upend its government. “Is there even a perception that the American government has democracy in mind?” Iran’s former ambassador to the United Nations, Javad Zarif, asked a reporter. “Except among a few dreamers in Eastern Europe?”

A POIGNANT example of when NGO activity intersects with U.S. covert action involves the case of Alan Gross, who worked for a private contractor—Development Alternatives Inc., an employee-owned development corporation—that was granted $6 million in USAID funds to promote democracy in Cuba. During several trips to the island nation, he provided communications equipment to the Havana Jewish community as a way of breaking the Cuban government’s “information blockade,” as the Washington Post put it. After his trips, he or other Development Alternatives officials filed reports to USAID.

He was arrested in December 2009 by Cuban officials who accused him of being “contracted to work for American intelligence services,” an allegation heatedly denied by U.S. officials. In March 2011, he was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. His sentence unleashed a torrent of protests from U.S. lawmakers and Jewish groups, and in early December 2012 the U.S. Senate passed a resolution calling for Gross’s release, based in part on reports of serious health problems. Yet he carried out his Cuban activities in what clearly appeared to be a clandestine fashion and was aware of the risks involved, according to USAID reports that were later published. And the USAID funds that fueled his activity were appropriated by Congress as part of a law that called specifically for regime change in Cuba. When U.S. citizens engage in foreign activity born of idealism but predictably seen as threatening by targeted governments, the potential fallout can be highly significant.

The sad Gross episode also underscores two fundamental yet rarely acknowledged realities about America’s democracy-promotion movement. The first is that ultimately it is about regime change. That’s because any regime adjudged by that movement to be insufficiently democratic will, sooner or later, come under pressure from the vast democracy-promotion machinery.

The second is that these democratic evangelists are not independent operators. The prodemocracy activists may insist they are independent from Washington as they go about their missionary work in nations run by leaders who don’t want democracy and may even harbor well-honed philosophical objections to it. But to a very real extent they are doing the work of a U.S. government that often seems fixated on democracy promotion.

Yet the question emerges whether this is smart diplomacy for the United States at a time of upheaval around the world and powerful new developments in the global balance of power. Can Russia realistically be expected to cooperate with the West’s efforts to deal with Iran when its government is being openly undermined by the United States? How do Egyptians see it when Washington openly sides with certain factions in the midst of a low-level civil war? And in regions such as the Middle East that have experienced centuries of Western interference, how is American intervention perceived?

These questions don’t seem to get asked at the comfortable NED headquarters on F Street or the other major NGO offices throughout Washington—or their far-flung outposts around the world. But they are questions that yearn for answers as the world faces a future that many believe holds in store the reality of American decline. Whatever the merits of the prediction of American decline, it is certain that the country’s standing in the world will be challenged more severely in the future than it has been over the past seven decades. And the sprawling prodemocracy project of America’s NGOs could actually hamper its efforts to address those challenges.

Jordan Michael Smith, a contributing writer at Salon and the Christian Science Monitor, is a contributing editor at the American Conservative.

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