Carl Gershman is the longtime head of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and a former leading figure in U.S. sectarian politics, dating back to the mid-1970s when he was head of the Social Democrats-USA (SD-USA). Gershman has been a vocal advocate of making democracy promotion a core part of U.S. foreign policy since the early 1980s, when he took over the then newly created NED, which quickly became embroiled in U.S. Cold War politics.
Gershman has also been a supporter of the George W. Bush administration's efforts to impose democratic change in the Middle East, an agenda supported by various political factions in the United States, most notably the neoconservatives, with whom Gershman has long been associated. However, like other erstwhile supporters of this agenda, Gershman adopted a more cautious stance as the conflict in Iraq began to spiral out of control.
In a June 2007 op-ed for the Washington Post, Gershman wrote that part of the problem with the Bush democracy agenda was its focus on the Middle East, where conditions for democracy "are far from favorable." In the Middle East, wrote Gershman, "Liberal reformers occupy a narrow political space between authoritarian regimes and Islamist opposition movements, both of which benefit from their mutual antagonism at the expense of the small democratic center. And the president's call for 'a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East' has been blunted by the continuing violence in Iraq and the deepening crisis with Iran. One cannot expect to see democratic breakthroughs in this troubled region in the near term" (Washington Post, June 8, 2007).
In an apparent criticism of those who pushed for the Iraq War based on farfetched notions of quickly creating a stable democratic regime in the heart of the Middle East, Gershman wrote that the "third wave of democratization in the 1980s and 90s" helped foster "illusions about how democracy comes about and can be properly assisted. It encouraged the view that stable democracy can come quickly even to countries lacking significant democratic experience and that our own will and resources could be the decisive factor in bringing it about." He concluded: "Future opportunities for democratic breakthroughs will present themselves, and we will need to be ready to take advantage of them. As [Ronald Reagan] said at Westminster, 'democracy is not a fragile flower' but 'needs cultivating.' Even in the face of current challenges, providing effective help to people who are fighting for democracy on many fronts should be something we can readily do" (Washington Post, June 8, 2007).
But Gershman recognized from the outset of the U.S. invasion of Iraq that the stakes were high. In November 2003, he said: "If a democracy is established in Iraq, it could have consequences far beyond Iraq's borders. But if it doesn't work, that will also have consequences beyond Iraq's borders" (New York Times, November 9, 2003).
Gershman became head of SD-USA shortly after the Socialist Party-USA split into two factions in the early 1970s: a left wing led by Michael Harrington, and a right wing led by Gershman, Tom Kahn, and Rachelle Horowitz. The right faction morphed into SD-USA, which in the early 1970s rallied around Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson, the hawkish Democrat from Washington State whose staff was made up of several future key neoconservative figures, including Richard Perle, Frank Gaffney, and Elliott Abrams. Like many of these neoconservatives, Gershman was tapped to serve in the Reagan administration. In 1984, Gershman took over the helm of the NED, a congressionally funded organization created by Ronald Reagan in 1982 to support groups that promote democracy in the Soviet Union and other communist countries (see GroupWatch Profile: SD-USA; and "Loose Cannon," Cato Institute, 1993).
Today the NED distributes funds to groups in more than 90 countries. Francis Fukuyama, Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute, and former Sen. Bill Frist (R-TN) are among those on the NED Board of Directors.
Under Gershman's leadership, the NED has frequently been accused of blurring the line between U.S. intervention and mere democracy promotion. In 2004, the NED got caught up in the power struggle in Venezuela. After Hugo Chavez easily won a referendum in August 2004 on his presidency, accusations emerged about the NED's role in supporting anti-Chavez groups. When the government arrested leaders of these groups, Gershman denounced the action, saying: "In the spectrum between democracy and dictatorship, the prosecution against the activists would be moving ... closer to the authoritarian end." Regarding Chavez's claims that the NED was part of a CIA effort to undermine his government, Gershman said: "That's propaganda" (see "Venezuela is Inching Toward Dictatorship, Says U.S. Group," Irish Times, November 11, 2004).
Government ministers in Venezuela have also alleged that some groups receiving NED funds were involved in the 2002 coup against Chavez. Said one minister: "I wonder whether they are really promoting democracy, because they support people who have acted against democracy" (Irish Times, November 11, 2004).
In the mid-1980s, the NED was knee-deep in U.S. intervention in Central America. During the 1984 elections in Panama, for example, it supported a candidate associated with the military, Nicholas Ardito Barletta, despite the fact that the United States was purportedly opposed to military rule in the country. The NED's actions prompted an angry response from the U.S. ambassador, who wrote in a secret cable: "The embassy requests that this hair-brained project be abandoned before it hits the fan" (Cato Institute, November 1993).
"An even more dubious initiative," wrote Barbara Conry for a 1993 Cato Institute report, "was NED's involvement in Costa Rica. Not only is Costa Rica a well-established democracy—former president George Bush visited the country in 1989 to celebrate 100 years of democracy there—it is the only stable democracy in Central America. But Costa Rican president Oscar Arias had opposed Ronald Reagan's policy in Central America, especially his support of the Nicaraguan Contras. Arias received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to dampen conflicts in the region, but he incurred the wrath of right-wing NED activists. So from 1986 to 1988 NED gave money to Arias's political opposition, which was also strongly supported by Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. As Rep. Stephen Solarz (D-NY) commented: 'They may technically have been within the law, but I felt this clearly violated the spirit. ... The whole purpose of NED is to facilitate the emergence of democracy where it doesn't exist and preserve it where it does exist. In Costa Rica, neither of these [conditions] applies.'"
These and numerous similar activities over the past few decades have led many observers to question the value of the NED, as well as to highlight the potential danger it poses to U.S. interests. Concluded Conry: "Promoting democracy is a nebulous objective that can be manipulated to justify any whim of the special-interest groups—the Republican and Democratic parties, organized labor, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—that control most of NED's funds. As those groups execute their own foreign policies, they often work against American interests and meddle needlessly in the affairs of other countries, undermining the democratic movements NED was designed to assist."
The NED has played a central role in the Bush administration's plan to spread democracy. In his 2004 State of the Union Address, Bush asked Congress to double NED funding, from $40 million to $80 million, with the new funding to be aimed specifically at democracy promotion in the Middle East. "As long as the Middle East remains a place of tyranny, despair, and anger, it will continue to produce men and movements that threaten the safety of America and our friends," Bush said. "So America is pursuing a forward strategy of freedom in the greater Middle East. We will challenge the enemies of reform, confront the allies of terror, and expect a higher standard from our friends." Gershman called the president's plan a "very dramatic move," saying that the NED would not "impose our views. This is based on the idea that you have to support indigenous forces" (Boston Globe, January 22, 2004).
Gershman has written for a number of rightist and mainstream media outlets, including Commentary, the New Leader, New Republic, Wall Street Journal, American Spectator, New York Times Magazine, Midstream, Washington Quarterly, and the Journal of Democracy. He is the co-editor of Israel, the Arabs, and the Middle East (1972) and the author of The Foreign Policy of the American Labor (1975).