The National Endowment for Democracy

Bill Berkowitz

Until I read an
item at Media- 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.

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.

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

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


Berkowitz is an freelance writer covering conservative movements.