- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 9, 2004

President Bush’s new strategy of promising democratic reform in the Middle East has singled out the National Endowment for Democracy to be its spearhead, doubling its annual $40 million budget.

Suddenly a little-known and modestly funded nonprofit corporation has been thrust onto the front line of U.S. foreign policy.

“There is a lot of change taking place,” in the Middle East, said NED President Carl Gershman. “We know how to get support to the right people.” Deciding who are the right people is tricky business, however, and the NED’s choices are not always without controversy.

There is little argument the NED’s methods have on occasion proved effective. Its strategy of supporting pro-democratic indigenous groups especially in their early stages has squeezed large results from small investments in places from Poland to South Africa.

Mr. Bush announced his commitment to changing the political structure of the Arab world in his State of the Union address.

“As long as the Middle East remains a place of tyranny and despair and anger, it will continue to produce men and movements that threaten the safety of America and our friends, so America is pursuing a forward strategy of freedom in the greater Middle East,” the president said.

Mr. Bush proposed doubling the appropriation to fund the NED “to focus its new work on the development of free elections, and free markets, free press, and free labor unions in the Middle East.”

About $219,000 in NED grants were already going to Iraqi exile groups and organizations in northern Iraq before the U.S.-led war to oust Saddam Hussein. NED’s influence there will inevitably grow.

Mr. Gershman visited Iraq last fall, and his organization’s money is already supporting independent opinion polling, independent media, democratic education, political party building and voter and civic education.

NED is also active in Afghanistan, where its institutes gave $680,000 in 2002 to organizations working to develop a free press, increase human rights awareness, build political parties and ensure equal political representation for women and other groups.

Other NED grants already go to groups across the Middle East and to more than 80 countries worldwide. The NED’s money has gone to Iranian dissidents ($75,000 in 2002), human rights and international business groups in Egypt ($656,000) and women’s rights groups in Jordan ($209,000).

Mr. Gershman said the NED would be able to expand its work significantly with increased federal funding.

“We have these relationships,” he said.

It is important to note NED support comes in the form of grants only. The 1983 law that established public funding for the endowment strictly prohibits it from carrying out any programs directly. It has to work through other, mainly indigenous, institutions. That accounts for its modest budget.

This restriction reflects the NED’s beginnings, which can be traced to the 1960s discovery of covert CIA funding for opposition parties and anti-Soviet activists in countries with a strong Soviet influence.

Covert funding felt uncomfortably underhanded to many in the United States, and was officially ended by the administration of President Johnson, which called for a “public-private mechanism” to fund foreign pro-democracy groups openly.

The plan took more than a decade to realize, culminating in the complicated structure of the NED. Mr. Gershman jokes that some endowment employees can’t explain how the organization works, but this is not hard to believe: The NED, while fully private, is funded almost entirely with a federal appropriation.

In 2002, it received a federal appropriation of about $40 million the amount the Mr. Bush proposes to double about $9.5 million in other federal money and about $500,000 from private sources.

The endowment distributes 55 percent of its grants equally through its four partisan institutes: the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, the AFL-CIO’s American Center for International Labor Solidarity and the business-backed Center for International Private Enterprise.

In 2002, disbursements averaged about $4.5 million per institute. Those payments are usually only a small part of the institutes’ total funding, but are important because they are not restricted in the same ways many institute donations.

The remaining 45 percent of NED’s grant money is distributed to groups chosen directly by the endowment.

In addition to awarding grants, the endowment supports a fellowship program in Washington, the high-profile quarterly Journal of Democracy, the World Movement for Democracy that coordinates international pro-democracy groups, a library of democracy resources, and a series of international meetings to discuss emerging democracies.

Echoing its composite structure, the NED takes pains to reflect all political points of view. Its board includes former Democratic presidential candidate and retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, postmodern political philosopher Francis Fukuyama, and Michael Novak, director of the American Enterprise Institute of Social and Political Studies.

Broad representation is a response to the sensitive nature of NED’s work, but does not always keep the endowment free of controversy.

Mr. Gershman stresses that the NED is unique in its ability to be active in countries and political situations too chaotic for many international nongovernmental organizations. While many NGOs only work in countries where they can maintain an office, NED channels money to groups in countries that don’t permit the presence of many international groups.

Some of its support goes to groups that are illegal in the countries where they operate. Solidarity, the group that worked to reform Poland before the fall of the Iron Curtain, was an illegal group funded in part by NED.

“We’re not going to accept the judgment of a dictatorship,” Mr. Gershman said.

Some governments opposed by NED-supported groups are, however, less clearly dictatorial than the former Soviet Union. Groups in favor of overthrowing democratically elected Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, for example, were indirectly supported by the NED.

Rep. Ron Paul, Texas Republican, was not the first to voice criticism of the endowment when he wrote last October: “What the NED does in foreign countries, through its recipient organizations the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute would be rightly illegal in the United States.

“The NED injects ‘soft money’ into the domestic elections of foreign countries in favor of one party or the other. Imagine what a couple of hundred thousand dollars will do to assist a politician or political party in a relatively poor country abroad.”

Mr. Gershman denies that the NED ever pushes specific parties.

“We’re not supporting one party against another, we’re supporting the capacity to have a competition,” he said.

He added that his organization does not create opposition movements, but simply provides “sun and water” to pro-democracy groups struggling or being actively repressed. That policy’s contribution to further development of democracy in the Middle East remains to be seen.

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