I have to laugh when I see the International Republican Institute (IRI) described by the international media as an "organization that promotes democracy" (in this case, on NPR). The IRI is in the news lately because Egypt's military government has put some of its members on a "no-fly" list and thereby trapped them in the country, facing investigation and possible trial. I am wondering just how credulous these journalists and editors are: if I were to describe the Center for Economic and Policy Research as "a magical organization that transforms scrap metal into gold", would that become CEPR's standard description in the news?
The IRI is an international arm of the US Republican party, so anyone with the stomach to watch the Republican presidential debates might doubt whether this would be a "democracy-promotion" organization. But a look at some of their recent adventures is enough to set the record straight: in 2004, the IRI played a major role in overthrowing the democratically elected government of Haiti. In 2002, the head of the IRI publicly celebrated the short-lived military coup that overthrew the democratically elected government of Venezuela. The IRI was also working with organizations and individuals that were involved in the coup. In 2005, the IRI was involved in an effort to promote changes in Brazil's electoral laws that would weaken the governing Workers party of then President Lula da Silva.
Most recently, in 2009, there was a military coup against the democratically elected government of Honduras. The Obama administration did everything it could to help the coup succeed, and supported "elections" in November of 2009 to legitimize the coup government. The rest of the world – including even the Organization of American States (OAS), under pressure from South American democracies – refused to send observers. This was because of the political repression during the campaign period: police violence, raiding of independent media, and the forced exile of political opponents – including the country's democratically elected president.
But the IRI and the National Democratic Institute (NDI) – its Democratic party-linked counterpart – went there to legitimate the "election". But don't take my word for why they chose to participate. Here is what the USAID, part of the US State Department and the major funder of IRI and NDI activities, had to say about their role (pdf) in Honduras:
"The absence of the OAS and other recognized international observation groups made NDI and IRI's assessment/observation processes more meaningful in the eyes of the international community. The recognition of a free, fair and transparent electoral process provided a strong argument to support the new government. […] The international "assessment" conducted by NDI and the "observation" conducted by IRI, even if they did not fulfill accepted standards, partially achieved the sought-after impact."
Who knows what the IRI is doing in Egypt? But we know what the US government has done there: supported a brutal dictatorship for decades right up to the point where mass protests made it clear that Washington could not stop Mubarak's ouster by a real, popular, democratic movement last year.
The IRI and NDI are core grantees of the National Endowment for Democracy, an organization that conducts activities "much of [which]" the "CIA used to fund covertly", as the Washington Post reported when the Endowment was being created in the early 1980s. These organizations will sometimes support democracy, but often do not, or are even against it. This is not because they are inherently evil, but because of the position of the United States in the world. The United States government, more than any other in the world, is running an empire. By their nature, empires are about power and control over other people in distant lands. These goals will generally conflict with many people's aspirations for democracy and national self-determination.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the Middle East, where the US government's policy of collaboration with Israel's denial of Palestinian national rights has put it at odds with populations throughout the region. As a result, Washington fears democracy in many countries because it will inevitably lead to more governments taking the side of the Palestinians, and opposing other US ambitions in the region, such as its desire for military bases and alliances. Even in Iraq, where Washington brags about having toppled a dictatorship, the people had to fight the occupying authorities for the right to hold national elections, and then to kick US troops out of the country.
This creates a vicious cycle in which hated and often repressive governments are supportive of US foreign policy, and these governments receive US support, increasing regional animosity toward the United States. In some cases, it also leads to terrorist attacks against US institutions or citizens, which is then used by our leaders to justify long or endless wars (for example, Iraq and Afghanistan). A poll of Arab public opinion (pdf) by the University of Maryland and Zogby International, which included Egypt, asked respondents to "name two countries that are the biggest threat to you": 88% named the United States, and 77% named Israel; only 9% chose Iran.
Another ugly side-effect of US government-sponsored "democracy-promotion" is that it helps governments that want to repress authentic, national, pro-democracy movements. Most of the repressive governments in the Middle East and North Africa have tried to delegitimize their opponents with the taint of association with Washington, in most cases falsely. In Egypt, before the raids on foreign organizations, the government arrested youth activists associated with the April 6th movement, and other activists.
Here in Washington, there seems to be little awareness that "pro-democracy" groups funded by the US government might have a credibility problem in most of the world. But this is true – even when these groups aren't actively opposing democracy. Their funding would be a good target for budget cuts.