President Trump declared in his inaugural address, “We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone.” There’s one thing he could do, above all others, that would herald the seriousness of this pledge: kill the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). This federally funded institution, established in 1983, has been called a kind of “neocon slush fund,” sloshing tens of millions of dollars annually into the coffers of various nongovernment organizations (NGOs), so they can do what Mr. Trump says the United States now won’t seek to do — namely, spread our way of life into nations deemed insufficiently like us.
Killing the NED would have another big benefit to America and the world: It would end the meddlesome activities of the endowment’s longtime leader, Carl Gershman, who as president of the organization since its founding, has acted as a kind of grand-scale global busybody, dispensing some $100 million a year in behalf of efforts to undermine governments around the world.
Mr. Gershman and his organization played an instrumental role in the February 2014 Ukrainian coup that ousted the elected government of Viktor Yanukovych and sent him packing to Moscow just ahead of a gang of street fighters, who surely would have killed him had he stuck around. In the months before the coup, as Mr. Gershman distributed lavish funds to anti-Yanukovych forces, he wrote a piece in The Washington Post hailing Ukraine as “the biggest prize” in his ongoing democracy project.
But in the same column he indicated his regime-change ambitions actually extended to an even bigger prize. Once Ukraine could be pulled out of Russia’s sphere of influence through a Western-supported regime-change operation, he declared, “Russians, too, face a choice, and Putin may find himself on the losing end not just in the near abroad but within Russia itself.”
So here we had an American official, supported and sustained by federal funds, going around advocating the destabilization of a major regional power with a nuclear arsenal of ominous destructive capacity. This is incendiary — precisely what Mr. Trump was talking about in issuing his promise of U.S. forbearance on such matters.
Not surprisingly, many Russians take a dim view of all this. Moscow’s propaganda newspaper RT (Russia Today) has argued that organizations such as the NED “are nothing but funding channels for activities that used to be run by the CIA under the title of ‘subversion.’” That allegation may seem easy to dismiss based on the source, but it happens to be correct. One of the NED’s early backers, Allen Weinstein (later U.S. archivist), once explained, “A lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA. The biggest difference is that when such activities are done overtly, the flap potential is close to zero. Openness is its own protection.”
Indeed, the NED was created during the dark Cold War period of the early Reagan years at the behest of the CIA itself and its powerful director, William Casey, who wanted a substitute for the kinds of CIA operations that had led to scandal through abuse and were subsequently shut down by Congress. In his behind-the-scenes advocacy for such an organization, Casey wrote to White House counselor Edwin Meese III, “Obviously we here [at the CIA] should not get out front in the development of such an organization, nor should we appear to be a sponsor or advocate.”
That’s precisely what he was, though. But the openness hailed by Weinstein and others hasn’t blunted the angers stirred abroad by the meddling of the NED and similar organizations in the internal dynamics of sovereign nations. After Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak was ousted from office through massive street demonstrations, supported by idealistic Western entities such as those funded by NED, the Egyptian government raided the offices of 10 local civil-society organizations, including two core NED grantees. Some 43 NGO workers, including 19 Americans, were arrested and charged with crimes. It looked harrowing until the aid workers were released some months later. Russia also has taken steps to diminish the impact of such NGOs within its borders.
But there’s still plenty of potential for mischief. Consider the ongoing Ukraine drama. By wresting that tragically split country out of Russia’s sphere of influence, the West forced Russia into entirely predictable actions aimed at protecting its regional interests. That included the annexation of Crimea, with its crucial Black Sea naval base at Sevastopol, and actions to protect ethnic Russians in Ukraine’s eastern sectors. That, in turn, seriously tattered relations between Russia and the United States, with sanctions, recriminations, hoof pounding and military maneuvers.
Democracy in Ukraine is never going to be easy or smooth, given the country’s ethnic mix and cultural split. But it had a duly elected government until the West moved to undermine it, with Mr. Gershman leading the cheers and his federally supported Paladin operation financing the opposition. The result has been not only the destabilization of Ukraine but also serious and potentially ominous tensions in the region and even more ominous tensions in U.S.-Russian relations.
All this was unnecessary, the result of a cultural sanctimony and international intrusiveness reflected so revealingly in Carl Gershman and his National Endowment for Democracy. If President Trump really is serious about ensuring that America won’t seek to impose its way of life on other nations, he will move to shut this thing down and escort Mr. Gershman into the private sector.
• Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington, D.C., journalist and publishing executive, is editor of The American Conservative. His next book, due out from Simon & Schuster in September, is a biography of William McKinley.