Monday, May 13, 2002

The Tribune ran a 150-word editorial calling for abolishing the National Endowment for Democracy on Saturday, May 4th; this column was my first chance to respond. To his credit, Bob Schuster gave me good placement, along with a drawing of the world partially covered by an American flag, and a breakout quote, in bold, of the "In today's interconnected world" sentence in the next-to-last paragraph.

Endowment promotes values of democracy in international arena

It should take more than eight months after Sept. 11 to revert to thinking that the rest of the world simply doesn’t matter. With the ongoing war on terrorism, and our troops and military advisors deployed in Afghanistan, the Philippines, the Republic of Georgia, and elsewhere, you would think that encouraging democracy is clearly in America’s national interests. You’d be wrong.

Last week, The Tribune editorialized against the National Endowment for Democracy based on reports that NED indirectly funded groups opposing Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. NED funding allegedly fed suspicions that the United States supported the short-lived coup that temporarily deposed Chavez. While the editorial dismissed that assertion, The Tribune still called for eliminating the NED.

(Disclosure: I participated in two programs sponsored by an NED affiliate, one in Albania assessing assessed whether conditions would permit free and fair parliamentary elections, and in a symposium in Georgia for newly-elected members of parliament. Having seen what NED helps accomplish, I’ve become an even bigger supporter.)

The Tribune is wrong on two counts about NED. First, rumors of U.S. involvement in the Venezuelan coup didn’t begin, or much depend, on NED. Public comments by Assistant Secretary of State Otto Reich, National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice, and others left the clear impression that high U.S. officials had spoken with coup plotters both before and afterwards. Bush administration officials, even if not explicitly encouraging or exactly advising the plotters, certainly made no effort to dissuade them or to speak out for democracy.

(No surprise here. We’re busy using U.S. money, power, and prestige to reinstall an elderly king in Afghanistan. The Bush administration believes in democracy--at least when it’s convenient. When not, there’s always the Electoral College. Or, in certain time zones, the divine right of kings.)

The NED connection, indirect and tenuous, is merely a sideshow, intended to distract attention from the administration’s record on Venezuela. You can read more about the administration’s possible involvement in the coup and its “situational” support for Latin democracy at Joshua Marshall’s website.

The bigger mistake, however, is that the work NED supports, while definitely not flashy, is absolutely vital to U.S. interests. With about $33 million a year, the NED funds two nonprofit organizations--the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute, both of which already raise private funds, too. (I’m an NDI contributor.)

IRI and NDI send current and former politicians and experts, from both the U.S. and overseas, to meet with party and elected officials in countries first developing democracy. As private organizations, IRI and NDI can work with political parties and nongovernmental organizations quietly and in ways that U.S. officials simply cannot.

The two organizations often work with different, competing political parties in the same country. IRI and NDI experts offer practical advice, and often the most important lesson is observing the underpinnings of democracy in action: That ideas matter; that political opponents can disagree but still unite in times of national urgency; that the majority must treat the minority fairly, for someday the minority could become the majority.

(These are things Americans need to remember, too. But while we forget them occasionally, countries where NED’s affiliates work are learning them for the first time.)

It took years to develop our democratic traditions; when we started, only white male property owners could vote. It took us a Civil War and centuries. In today’s interconnected world, where technology gives a few fanatics the power to wreak unimagined destruction, we simply can’t wait centuries for other countries to develop modern democratic institutions and traditions.

NED does vital and subtle work, which no other organization will do if NED doesn’t. It’s a small price to pay--and it’s in America’s national interest to pay it.

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