Uncle Sam Plays John Huang

How the United States meddles in foreign politics.

Uncle Sam Plays John Huang How the United States meddles in foreign politics. By David Mastio
(993 words; posted Saturday, March 15; to be composted Saturday, March 22)

      If it is true that the Chinese have been mucking around in U.S. politics, as has been charged, they didn’t manufacture the idea domestically. They borrowed it from us.       Last year, one government-funded nonprofit, the National Endowment for Democracy spent almost $2 million in China and about $28 million more around the globe. The endowment’s mission is to promote “democracy.” Its projects range from the blatantly political (funding a group last year to lobby on South Africa’s constitution) to the completely irrelevant (funding a Chinese-language newspaper with a circulation of 500 in China, also in 1996).

The program was created at the height of Ronald Reagan’s Cold War buildup. The idea was simple–a nimble nonprofit, unencumbered by government rules but powered by federal funding, would be a powerful ally in promoting democracy and fighting communism. To assure bipartisan support, Congress chose four core grantees to receive the bulk (originally 70 percent, now 55 percent) of the money: institutes set up by the Republican and Democratic parties, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the AFL-CIO. The rest of the funds are spent directly by the NED.
      The money poured out to political and civic groups in more than 100 countries. The NED brought in polling and campaign consultants, helped fund party-building activities, and promoted a free press–it even bought off-road vehicles for voter registration in countries with few roads. The reaction for the most part has been applause and, indeed, many of the results were good. The NED played a small part in promoting Poland’s Solidarity union and provided monitors to help ensure that elections in many newly democratizing countries were fair and free.
As recently as last summer, the NewYorkTimes and the Washington Post praised the NED for the role it played in promoting democracy in Albania and Mongolia. Campaign-finance-reform hero Sen. John McCain of Arizona heads the Republican-affiliated institute. Now however, both papers and the heroic Republican senator are stunned that a foreign power would muck around in another country’s election process. President Clinton, who requested a 66 percent funding increase for the NED in 1994, is equally shocked that this could happen.
     It’s hard to be against the angels of democracy and human rights, but imagine how Americans would feel if the Chinese Communist Party openly gave a million bucks to the Republicans for a voter-registration drive (not to mention the fact that U.S. law makes most political contributions by foreigners illegal here). But we do similar things in other countries all the time, and call it high-minded. Our most thoughtful senators and most prestigious editorial writers endorse the practice, until it’s practiced on us. But an old-fashioned American double standard is only the beginning of the story, because the NED’s pursuit of all that’s best for mankind has a darker side.
As a nongovernmental, nonprofit entity, the NED has not received the same external scrutiny accorded regular government agencies. Its internal oversight capability is weakened by the presence on its board of members who simultaneously sit on the boards of the recipients of its largess. From 1984 to 1988, at least 82 percent of the NED’s funds were divided up among groups whose officers or directors sat on the endowment. Among these double-seated notables were Madeleine Albright, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Orrin Hatch, Lane Kirkland, Henry Kissinger, Walter Mondale, Edmund Muskie, and Albert Shanker.
     The result is a program with a history of: 1) involvement in scandals–the NED was used as a conduit to the Contras according to a report by the Interhemispheric Resource Center; 2) ill-advised plans to promote democracy–from 1986 to 1988, the NED supported the political opposition in Costa Rica, a country that celebrated a century of democracy in 1989; and 3) corruption–a series of General Accounting Office audits from the beginning of the program showed that grants were made with little proof that recipients could carry out their plans and little follow-up to see if they did, much less to see if they did any good.
Sometimes the U.S. aid is simply embarrassing, like the time in the mid-’80s when the AFL-CIO affiliate approved $1.5 million to defend democracy in France, or last year, when the Republican affiliate helped run local elections in China in which the only legal party was the Communist Party (although independents could run).
     Other times, the NED has tried to do things that were outright illegal, such as giving $3 million to Violeta Chamorro to contest the 1990 Nicaraguan elections against Communist Daniel Ortega. After the direct campaign contributions turned out to violate U.S. law (the NED is allowed to make “soft” money contributions for things like “party building” but not “hard money” donations to candidates), the funds were channeled to help her indirectly. NED has done similar things in Czechoslovakian, Panamanian, and Chilean elections.
At its worst, U.S. interference can divide the reformist forces of a country where democracy is weak or nonexistent. Often the most well-established and popular pro-democracy groups disdain the taint of U.S. aid. But once the NED decides to go in, its forces will find a group to take the money, creating rivalry and dissension where there was none before. In Russia, where we spent $1.5 million last year, critics of the NED say that a chasm grew between NED recipients and “authentic” Russian groups.
     The fact is the Chinese are pikers when it comes to sticking their noses in other people’s business–since the NED’s creation, we’ve spent hundreds of millions of dollars. And when it comes to making life difficult for the Communist codgers in Beijing, NED’s $2 million last year is just the beginning. Last year, Voice of America spent $1 million on Tibetan-language broadcasts and $6 million on Mandarin Chinese broadcasts. Radio Free Asia spent $5 million and the U.S. Information Agency spent about $2 million–$16 million in total, compared with the $3 million to $4 million the Chinese are accused of trying to donate to Democrats.
Links To see how the National Endowment for Democracy bills itself, check out its Web page. Visit the site of the AFL-CIO, the NED-fund recipient popular with Democrats. And see the U.S. Chamber of Commerce site for a glimpse at the NED recipient popular with Republicans. See Time magazine’s expression of horror over the possibility that the Chinese might have influenced American democracy–the article even has a photo of Sen. McCain looking all riled up. David Mastio is a member of the USA Today editorial board.

Illustrations by William L. Brown