Back in the 1980s, it seemed the right thing to do. Groups were emerging in Eastern Europe that were just saying no to the Cold War, to the human rights abuses of their governments, to the stultifying lack of democracy in their societies. I joined the growing network of activists in the West that supported these groups in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and elsewhere. Across this East-West divide, we didn’t agree on everything. But we rejected war and dictatorship. We imagined a new kind of Europe and a new kind of trans-Atlantic partnership rising up from below: peaceful, Green, democratic. When, one by one, civil movements dislodged the communist governments in the region and ecstatic East Berliners tore down the Berlin Wall, we rejoiced too. Our efforts had succeeded. Score one for people power.
But there’s another, more conspiratorial version of this history, and its echoes can be heard today in some commentary on Zimbabwe, Venezuela, and Burma. According to this version, the U.S. government stage-managed the whole affair in Eastern Europe in the 1980s. The CIA was hard at work behind the scenes. The National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a U.S. government-funded operation, was handing out cash to anti-communist groups. The Soros Foundation, created by Hungarian-born financier George Soros, was meeting the technical and logistical needs of these new, independent movements. Forget about people power. The fall of communism was all about Reagan, “democracy promotion,” and big business licking its lips over all the new markets beckoning in the East.
And now the U.S. government is using this model to get rid of governments and leaders it doesn’t like around the world: Mugabe, Chavez, Castro. According to this updated worldview, the opposition movements in places like Burma or Zimbabwe are on the take. They are, whether they know it or not, agents of U.S. policy.
This conspiracy theory is not totally off the wall. The U.S. government has long been involved in these “soft” approaches to regime change, dating back at least to the CIA’s funding of the Christian Democratic Party in the crucial 1948 elections in Italy. Take the more recent case of Venezuela. In 2002, when a coup nearly toppled Hugo Chavez, the International Republican Institute (IRI), which is a part of NED, celebrated the news and its own role in supporting what would ultimately be only a short-lived insurgency. Writes FPIF contributor Mukoma Wa Ngugi in John McCain and the International Republican Institute, “No matter what one may think of Chavez, coups are not avenues to democracy. Chavez was the democratically elected president of Venezuela meaning that the IRI was working against the popular vote of the Venezuelan people in order to serve U.S. interests.”
But there’s a huge difference between acknowledging the U.S. role in behind-the-scenes manipulations around the world and asserting that Washington has pulled all the strings in a half-century-long global puppet show. The Polish people, not Ronald Reagan or NED, brought democracy to their own country just as Zimbabweans are desperately trying to bring democracy to theirs. Washington’s support of opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai doesn’t mean that he and his opposition movement are U.S. creations. By that argument, the U.S. civil rights movement was a creation of the Soviet Union simply because Moscow approved of what was going on and attempted to support it.
As FPIF senior analyst Stephen Zunes argues in Sharp Attack Unwarranted, a defense of nonviolence activist Gene Sharp, “the right has given the United States unjustifiable credit for many of the dramatic transitions from dictatorships to democracies that have taken place around the world in recent decades. This, in turn, has led some on the left to see such ahistorical polemics as ‘proof’ of the central U.S. role because the imperialists are ‘admitting it.’”
Yes, the U.S. government has given “democracy promotion” a bad name. But progressives should not withhold support from movements in other countries fighting nonviolently against tyranny. Progressives worked with South Africans against apartheid, and now we are working with Burmese against the military junta, Pakistanis against Musharraf, Zimbabweans against Mugabe. Forget the National Endowment for Democracy – this is the People’s Endowment for Democracy. Nor is it a recent invention. Polish nobleman Tadeusz Kosciuszko fought in the American Revolution under the slogan of “for your freedom and ours.” Many of us on the Western left were able to return the favor in the 1980s by supporting the democratic movement in Poland. And we continue that tradition today, ever mindful of the U.S. government’s often self-defeating promotion of its own version of democracy.
Out of Gas
The numbers don’t look good, reports FPIF columnist Michael Klare. The major oil fields are showing signs of declining output, and it’s not just the fringe doomsayers delivering the news. Preliminary drafts of an International Energy Agency report suggest that we are running out of known reserves faster than previously expected.
Well, okay, let’s just get out there and find us some new oil. Not so fast. “Despite a sharp increase in spending on exploration and development, the rate of new reserve discovery has been falling steadily for the past 30 years,” Klare writes in the End of the Petroleum Age? “According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the last decade in which new discoveries exceeded the rate of extraction from existing fields was the 1980s. Since then we have been consuming more oil than we have been finding – a pattern that can only result, eventually, in the complete exhaustion of the world’s known petroleum reserves.” If we don’t move quickly to find sustainable sources of energy to replace petroleum, to quote last year’s great, bone-chilling film, there will be blood.
Meanwhile, on the topic of that other commodity experiencing sharp price increases, FPIF contributor Sameer Dossani analyzes the financial underpinning of the current food crisis. “The World Bank and the IMF have pushed for the deregulation of trade in agriculture, and therefore it is much easier today for the private sector to invest in a global food market,” he writes in The Commodities Bubble. “Once big investors and analysts begin to act as though food commodities are a safe bet, the herd mentality kicks in, more and more investors join the fray and eventually you have an over-inflated food market in the same way as you had an over-inflated mortgage market.” Dossani further applies this analysis to one region of the world in Africa’s Unnatural Disaster: “The heart of the agriculture crisis that Africa and the world are currently experiencing lies in the failed policy paradigm promoted by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, institutions that still have enormous control over economic policy in many African countries.”
All Over the Map
The U.S. military is hunkered down in Iraq. And the news from Afghanistan isn’t particularly good either. There were more U.S. and allied combat deaths in Afghanistan in May than in Iraq. And increasingly, the war has been spreading to Pakistan where the U.S. military is targeting various extremist groups. The Pakistani government, meanwhile, is trying to secure a measure of peace by negotiating with the Taliban along its frontiers. FPIF contributors Mehlaqa Samdani and Sharad Joshi took different positions on these negotiations in commentaries several weeks ago. Now they are back in Pakistan and the Taliban: Strategic Dialogue, along with FPIF contributor Tarique Niazi, to take the discussion to the next level. Samdani challenges the notion that the negotiations amount to appeasement of the Taliban. Joshi identifies numerous loopholes in the agreements that will allow the Taliban to continue to conduct attacks across the border in Afghanistan. And Niazi sees cooperation between the United States and a newly democratic Pakistan as central to successful negotiations.
FPIF contributor Andre Vltchek, meanwhile, finds the U.S. military even in tropical paradises like the Marshall Islands where radar stations, missile interceptors, and rotting military equipment litter the beaches and lagoons. “The main ‘symbol’ of Ebeye is its garbage,” he writes in his Postcard from…Kwajalein. ”It is everywhere, next to the roads and on the beaches. It is the only playground for local children. This garbage includes old and rusting U.S. military and transportation equipment as well as ‘you don’t ask, we won’t tell’ metal containers like the one in the photograph.” Click on the link and see what Vltchek saw.
Finally, some potentially good news from the U.S. military. In early June, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates suggested that the tours of duty for U.S. soldiers in South Korea might increase from 12 to 36 months. “According to current U.S. policy, the overwhelming majority of U.S. troops stationed in Korea are required to serve 12-month unaccompanied tours, meaning that military members are not permitted to bring their spouses or children with them during their assignment,” writes FPIF contributor Van Jackson in North Korea No Longer an Enemy? “This policy results from the U.S. designation of Korea as a war zone, a Cold War label that reflects the armistice that stopped open conflict with North Korea but never officially ended the Korean War. Although tripling the duration of military assignments to South Korea may at first seem like entrenching military forces against North Korea, it actually reflects a softening of the U.S. stance. Symbolically at least, the United States no longer considers itself at war with North Korea.”
Coming up this summer, FPIF will be hosting a film series in Washington, DC., beginning with the documentary Taxi to the Dark Side on July 3 beginning at 5:30 p.m. at Busboys and Poets. It’s free and a great way to escape the summer heat.
Also: last call for applications for the new job at IPS that will include coordinating promotion and outreach for FPIF. Here’s the job description: https://ips-dc.org/about/joinus#jobs