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March 30, 2006

Democracy on Defense
Posted by Derek Chollet

I want to second Shadi’s excellent assessment below of the “democracy backlash” and the challenge this poses for progressives, many of whom are looking on in startled amazement, asking how the current Administration has hijacked the democracy agenda and, in turn, undermined it.  I agree that the role democracy promotion should play in future U.S. national security strategy is one of the most important questions we face – not just for how these policies would work abroad, but how they are supported here at home.

Shadi’s argument focuses on Middle East, which is of course Bush’s main focus.  But as Tom Carothers points out in the recent issue of Foreign Affairs, democracy promotion is on the defense in many other places as well – notably Russia, where Putin has systematically dismantled the free press and threatens to effectively shut down domestic NGOs by tying them up in red tape; to Belarus, where President Lukashenko just “won” another rigged election (a result praised by Putin); to Uzbekistan, which effectively booted Freedom House out.  This is happening outside the former Soviet space as well, in places like Zimbabwe -- where Mugabe has driven out foreign NGOs -- and South America -- where leaders like Venezuela’s Chavez routinely rail against U.S. democracy programs.

Add to this the fact that a few recent free-and-fair elections have not gone as hoped – in the Palestinian territories and in the recent Ukraine poll which the hard-liners won (but because of coalition politics will likely not take power) – and many are asking: why is this a good thing?

A survey released today, called the Confidence in U.S. Foreign Policy Index, illustrates this trend.  I have not studied the numbers in detail yet, but here are the relevant conclusions reached:

“Most of the public ranks promoting democracy in other countries as the least important of the foreign policy goals we asked about and seems to doubt the United States can achieve it. Significantly, Americans are divided on whether it will make the United States more secure even if we pull it off. Only 36 percent believe the United States can actively help other countries become democracies, while 58 percent say that ‘democracy [is] something that countries only come to on their own when they're ready for it.’ Six months ago, 50 percent thought the United States was doing well at promoting democracy; this time the number is trending downward to 46 percent. The public is just as skeptical when asked specifically about Iraq. While six in 10 say the United States can at least do ‘something’ to create a democratic Iraq, only 22 percent say it can do ‘a lot.’ In a more general sense, about half (53 percent) say that when more countries become democratic there will be less conflict in the world.”

The message: for those of us who believe that a more democratic world is in U.S. national interests and therefore promoting democratic principles – rule of law, freedom of speech and press, political pluralism, accountable and transparent governance – should be at the core of American foreign policy, we have a lot of work ahead.


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I have read reports that claim Freedom House, a supposed NGO, receives substantial monies from the US government, laundered through various intermediate groups. Is this true? If it is true, wouldn't that mean that Freedom House is not a non-governmental organization at all, and that another government would be perfectly within its rights in expelling a group that is actually an instrument of a foreign power? Could you direct me to a place where I can find a full accounting of where Freedom House gets its funding?

If an organization is private, then whether or not it wishes to be fully transparent is its own decision. However, if it chooses not to be transparent, then it forfeits its claim to be part of "global civil society", and forfeits along with that claim the protection of the international community.

I worry that much of the so-called democracy promotion movement seems to be made up of old cold warriors who, like the apocryphal Japanese soldiers who were said for years to be continuing to fight World War II from jungle redoubts and caves in Southeast Asia, are still obsessed with surrounding and weakening Russia, picking off its satellites one by one, and toppling the Russian government. The Cold War is over. I can understand the obsessions of people like George Soros and Zbigniew Brzezinski, given their personal histories. And Soros can spend his money on whatever he likes. But I think we should regard this sort of work as something like the missionary work conducted by American religious groups of the past and present. Americans are perfectly free to engage in this sort of transformative work in other countries, if that is their inclination. But I think the US government should keep its hands off programs and organizations that might be involved in fomenting revolution and toppling regimes.

How, exaclty, is Freedom House an NGO when the former director of the CIA and it gets something like 65% of its funds.

The government would seem to be a "majority shareholder" as far as I can tell.

Heaven forbid that an NGO should be influenced by its funding source to provide services of an appropriate quality....

Oh, isn't their director R. James Woolsey, former head of the CIA?

I'm sure that he would never use his professional networks.

Yeah. Right.

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