Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential candidate, has adopted the rhetoric of change which has captured the imagination of many Americans and non-Americans around the world.
But when it comes to the foreign policy, there are enough reasons to remain sceptical. Will he adopt a foreign policy with objectives which differ from those of George Bush, the current US president, or will he merely change Bush’s strategies and tactics?
Some, like French political theorist Raymond Aron in his book The Imperial Republic, hold that the US is essentially founded on two principles — Empire and Republic. Its foreign policy, from the start, has therefore consistently been torn by the tensions between Empire and Republic. In 1903, Beckles Willson made a similar argument in his book The New America: A Study of the Imperial Republic.
National Endowment for Democracy
At the height of the Cold War, in 1983, Ronald Reagan, the late US president, ordered the establishment of the bi-partisan, private, and non-profit National Endowment for Democracy (NED).
“We must work hard for democracy and freedom, and that means putting our resources — organizations, sweat, and dollars — behind a long-term program,” Reagan said in its inaugural speech.
“I just decided that this nation, with its heritage of Yankee traders, we ought to do a little selling of the principles of democracy,” Reagan added.
NED’s brief history shows that Reagan’s notion of selling principles of democracy was in fact the practice of funding opposition groups in unfavorable states to destabilize and ideally topple their governments.
These governments would then be replaced with US-allied local politicians who in many cases had already risen to fame through the work of NED-funded local human rights, labor, or democracy NGOs.
This has long been one of the main missions of the US intelligence organizations such as the CIA.
In fact, NED admits on its own website that what it is doing now was being done by the CIA: “When it was revealed in the late 1960’s that some American PVO’s [or NGOs, as they’re called today] were receiving covert funding from the CIA to wage the battle of ideas at international forums, the Johnson Administration concluded that such funding should cease, recommending establishment of ‘a public-private mechanism’ to fund overseas activities openly.”
The most famous example of NED’s work came as a coup against Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president, in 2002. But this eventually failed.
In Eastern Europe, however, NED’s attempts have been more successful. In the past few years, Ukraine and Georgia’s ‘Orange and Rose revolutions’ have effectively transformed the two countries into the most faithful American allies in Russia’s backyard.
NED’s funding and consultants, along with funds and support from similar American organizations such as George Soros’s Open Society Institute, largely contributed to their metamorphoses.
In fact, as reported in 2004 by the Guardian, NED and its subsidiaries such as the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI), as well as United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Open Society Institute (OSI), and Freedom House, were involved in financing and organizing those campaigns in Serbia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Georgia.
Since 9/11, NED has expanded its operations in the Middle East and has slowly and quietly been training and expanding networks of pro-American civil society and human rights activists, journalists, and labor unions.
“Our future and the future of that region are linked,” Bush said in a speech on the 20th anniversary of the establishment of NED.
NED in Iran
NED’s interest in Iran was initiated in 1995 in the form of a fellowship program.
Among the first group of Iranian Fellows was Haleh Esfandiari, whose research was focused on women’s issues in Iran.
She later became the director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s program on the Middle East and kept close contact with Iranian women’s NGOs.
In 2007, she was detained and charged with “conspiring against the Islamic Republic of Iran,” but was released on bail after three months. Interestingly, Senators Barack Obama and Joe Biden were among the senior US politicians who called the arrest unjust and explicitly demanded her release.
Around the same time of Esfandiari’s detention, Kian Tajbakhsh, another Iranian-American was also detained, charged, and freed on bail.
The ministry of intelligence said he was identified with the help of Esfandiari as the representative of the OSI in Iran. OSI later confirmed in a statement that Tajbakhsh has been indeed a consultant to the organization in Iran.
Ramin Jahanbegloo, who was a Reagan-Fascell fellow at the NED in 2001 and continued contributing to NED’s Journal of Democracy, was detained in 2006 (according to the Iranian Fars News agency over his ties with NED) and was charged with acts threatening the state.
The Iranian ministry of intelligence, reported by IRNA, stated at the time that the Woodrow Wilson Center’s activities and program related to Iran were sponsored and financed by the Soros Foundation (or Open Society Institute) which had played a key role in the ‘color revolutions’ in the former USSR republics in recent years.
Obama and NED
While Obama objects to military intervention, he is, like Bush, a big supporter of the kind of activity that NED is doing — and interestingly enough, more avidly than Bush.
In an interview with the Washington Post, Obama said that he would “significantly increase funding for the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and other non-governmental organizations to support civic activists in repressive societies.”
He promised to “start a new Rapid Response Fund for young democracies and post-conflict societies that will provide foreign aid, debt relief, technical assistance and investment packages that show the people of newly hopeful countries that democracy and peace deliver, and the United States stands by them.”
Joseph Biden, Obama’s running mate is not much different. In an article for Washington Monthly in 2005, he criticized Bush for not putting his money where his mouth is: “Promoting democracy is tough sledding. We must go beyond rhetorical support and the passion of a single speech. It’s one thing to topple a tyrant; it’s another to put something better in his place.”
“The most effective, sustainable way to advocate democracy is to help those moderates and modernizers on the inside build democratic institutions such as political parties, an independent judiciary, a free media, a modern education system, a civil society, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and a private sector,” Biden said.
It was the same Joseph Biden in 2002 who, in a ceremony for the NED’s annual Democracy award, introduced Mehrangiz Kar, a ‘reformist’ Iranian women rights activist who now lives in the US.
The similarities between Bush and Obama’s view of the American role and duty towards the rest of the world might be striking, but for those whose concept of history goes beyond searching Google, there is no surprise.
In his book, Hegemony or Survival, Noam Chomsky cites John Stewart Mill, the British philosopher and one of the champions of the American notion of liberty, and shows how the same rhetoric of liberty and democracy has been used by the British Empire to justify its attempt at hegemony over the world.
He refers to a selfless country that only acts “in the service of others,” even though the fruits of its success will be shared “in fraternal equality with the whole human race.”
Chomsky traces this non-partisan ‘altruist’ foreign policy in the US back to Woodrow Wilson, who served two terms as the American president from 1913 to 1921.
“The primary principle of foreign policy, rooted in Wilsonian idealism and carried over from Clinton to Bush II is ‘the imperative of America’s mission as the vanguard of history, transforming the global order and, in doing so, perpetuating its own dominance’,” wrote Chomsky.
In his 1968 book, Woodrow Wilson and the Modern American Empire, Norman Gordon Levin, puts this eloquently: “The needs of America’s expanding capitalism were joined ideologically with a more universal vision of American service to suffering humanity and to world stability.”
Talking to Iran
When it comes to Iran, Obama’s tactics indeed look quite different from Bush’s — engagement versus isolation.
But their goals are no different; both want to replace the only independent oil-rich state in the Middle East with an obedient regime, similar to the infamous Anglo-American coup in 1953 when Iran nationalized its oil industry.
Obama’s tactics are perhaps best articulated by Abbas Milani, an influential ‘liberal’ researcher on Iran who co-directs the Iran Democracy Project at the conservative Hoover Institute and is a supporter of Obama.
He said to the New Yorker Magazine in 2005 that the Americans should talk to Iran “but with the purpose of overthrowing them.”
Hossein Derakhshan is a London-based media analyst and freelance journalist. He writes about Iran in a bilingual blog in Persian and English at hoder.com which is blocked by the Iranian government.