Trump is gutting the National Endowment for Democracy, and that’s a good thing

Students during an anti-government protest in Caracas, Venezuela on Feb. 17, 2014. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro accused Washington of plotting with the protesters and expelled three US diplomats in retaliation. - JUAN BARRETO/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
Students during an anti-government protest in Caracas, Venezuela on Feb. 17, 2014. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro accused Washington of plotting with the protesters and expelled three US diplomats in retaliation. – JUAN BARRETO/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

THANK YOU, President Trump! Finally you have made a foreign policy recommendation that is logical, overdue, and in the long-term interest of the United States. Congress will probably reject it, but you deserve credit for making the effort.

Trump’s budget for the coming fiscal year proposes to gut the National Endowment for Democracy by cutting two-thirds of its budget. The endowment is one of the main instruments by which the United States subverts and undermines foreign governments. In a less Orwellian world, it might be called the “National Endowment for Attacking Democracy.” Cutting the budget would signal that we are re-thinking our policy of relentlessly interfering in the politics of other countries.

That kind of interference is the National Endowment’s mission. Whenever the government of another country challenges or defies the United States, questions the value of unrestrained capitalism, limits the rights of foreign corporations, or adopts policies that we consider socialist, the Endowment swings into action. It pours over $170 million each year into labor unions, political factions, student clubs, civic groups, and other organizations dedicated to protecting or installing pro-American regimes. From Central America to Central Asia, it is a vivid and familiar face of US intervention.

President Ronald Reagan established the program in 1983, following years of scandals that tarnished the Central Intelligence Agency. Soon it took over many of the tasks that the CIA used to perform. When the United States wanted to interfere in the Italian election of 1948, for example, the CIA did the job. Decades later, when Washington sought to push its favored candidate into the presidency of Nicaragua, our instrument was the National Endowment for Democracy. More recently, it has sought to influence elections in Mongolia, Albania, Bulgaria, and Slovakia. “A lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA,” one of the organization’s founders explained during the 1990s.

By its own account, the Endowment is “on the leading edge of democratic struggles everywhere,” donating money to “groups abroad who are working for democratic goals.” Its central principle is that the only proper way to run a country is the American way. Governments that disagree become its targets.

Because its job is to shape the course of other countries, the Endowment has become a darling of Washington’s regime-change crowd. Shortly after ordering invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, President George W. Bush pushed to double its budget. That made sense, because bombing and organizing “peaceful” revolutions are two ways of achieving the same goal: forcing countries to bend to our will. Both reflect our insistence on judging foreign governments, deciding which may survive and which must be attacked.

Leaders of the Endowment include some of our country’s most militant interventionists. One of its board members is Elliott Abrams, who helped direct anti-Sandinista projects in Nicaragua during the 1980s and was later convicted of lying to Congress about the Iran-Contra affair. Another is Victoria Nuland, who as assistant secretary of state in 2016 flew to Ukraine to encourage protesters to overthrow their government.

Many grants are funneled through two sub-groups that reflect the bipartisan Washington consensus favoring intervention in foreign countries. One, the International Republican Institute, is run by a board headed by Senator John McCain, who never saw a war he didn’t like and salivates at the thought of deposing unfriendly regimes. Its counterpart, the National Democratic Institute, is headed by Madeleine Albright, who famously pronounced the principle that the United States should guide the world because “we are the indispensable nation, we stand tall and we see further than other countries.”

Abrams, Nuland, McCain, and Albright exemplify the interventionist mindset that has brought the United States and the world so much pain and grief. The National Endowment for Democracy is one of their cherished projects. McCain protested the proposed budget cut by saying group’s mission “is at the heart of who we are as a country.” So it is.

As soon as the leftist Hugo Chavez was elected president of Venezuela 20 years ago, the Endowment began pouring money into Venezuelan opposition groups. It has also subsidized groups working to undermine Presidents Oscar Arias of Costa Rica, Jean-Bertrand Aristide of Haiti, and Manuel Zelaya of Honduras, all of whom committed the sin of pursuing independent foreign policies. In 2013 the Endowment issued a report saying that “Russia remains the main priority country.” Soon afterward, the Russian government announced that it was banning the Endowment from operating on its territory.

In response, the organization has intensified its efforts build anti-Russia movements in nearby countries, focusing on Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Serbia, Kosovo, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. It provides training material and advice on how to publish newspapers, run computer networks, and organize political meetings. Once a group agrees to accept American money, the Endowment hails it as an “independent” agent of freedom and liberation.

American politicians and news outlets are howling about Russian interference in our last presidential election. Against this background, the National Endowment for Democracy seems more glaringly hypocritical than ever. Promoting democracy is a wonderful idea. We should begin at home. If we want other countries not to meddle in our politics, we should refrain from meddling in theirs.

Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.

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