The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Controversial U.S. Groups Operate Behind Scenes on Iraq Vote

by Lisa Ashkenaz Croke and Brian Dominick

Washington-funded organizations are hard at work providing assistance to political campaigns in the lead up to next month’s nationwide elections, but critics suggest their participation is anything but benevolent.

Dec. 13, 2004 – Even as the White House decries the ominous prospect of Iranian influence on the upcoming Iraqi national elections, US-funded organizations with long records of manipulating foreign democracies in the direction of Washington’s interests are quietly but deeply involved in essentially every aspect of the process.

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"As should be clear, the electoral process will be an Iraqi process conducted by Iraqis for Iraqis," declared United Nations special envoy, Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, in a September 14 statement to the Security Council. "It cannot be anything else."

But in actuality, influential, US-financed agencies describing themselves as "pro-democracy" but viewed by critics as decidedly anti-democratic, have their hands all over Iraq’s transitional process, from the formation of political parties to monitoring the January 30 nationwide polls and possibly conducting exit polls that could be used to evaluate the fairness of the ballot-casting.

Two such groups -- the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI) -- are part of a consortium of non-governmental organizations to which the United States has provided over $80 million for political and electoral activities in post-Saddam Iraq.

Both groups publicly assert they are nonpartisan, but each has extremely close ties to its namesake American political party, and both are deeply partial to the perceived national interests of their home country, despite substantial involvement in the politics of numerous sovereign nations worldwide.

Campbell estimated that NDI’s contributions are probably disproportionately helpful to the more obscure, less experienced Iraqi parties.

NDI is headed by former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, who took over the chair from former president Jimmy Carter. Republican Senator John McCain chairs IRI. Both groups have highly controversial reputations and are described throughout much of the world as either helpful, meddlesome, or downright subversive, depending on who you ask. In some places their work has earned praise from independent grassroots democracy advocates, but in many Third World republics, both groups have been tied to alleged covert plans to install US-favored governments.

The groups’ separate but overlapping mandates in Iraq include educating Iraqis on the democratic process, training Iraqi organizations to monitor the elections and deal with electoral conflicts, and providing impartial advice and training to political parties, according to the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the official governmental organ funding the consortium's operations in Iraq. USAID contracts with and provides grants to private organizations that uphold its objectives, which include, according to the Agency’s own literature, "furthering America’s foreign policy interests in expanding democracy and free markets while improving the lives of citizens in the developing world."

Far from the United Nations’ mission to oversee the election process itself, the American groups are actively engaged in cultivating political parties, and IRI appears to be working most heavily with parties and politicians favored by Washington.

IRI's relationship with parties dominating Iraq's interim government raises the question of how much influence the American group has had in determining the makeup of current coalitions

Critics have expressed alarm, if not surprise, that policies carried out in other countries over the past two decades appear to be repeating in occupied Iraq. "USAID has learned that ‘legitimate’ leaders are not just found, they're made," wrote Herbert Docena, a research associate specializing in Iraq at the Bangkok-based activist think tank, Focus on the Global South. "Before the US withdraws from the scene, it first has to ensure that its Iraqis will know what to do."

According to Docena, USAID’s activity in Iraq, as carried out by non-governmental proxies, is drawn straight out of the Agency’s handbook, which advocates "capitalizing on national openings" and "[taking] advantage of national-level targets of opportunity" as they emerge, all while looking for a "strategic doorway" -- called an "entry point" -- that enables an Agency project to "anchor its program and optimize overall impact" in a target area.

"In Iraq, the ‘entry point’ was the invasion," Docena explained. "The ‘national opening’ was the collapsed state left in its wake."

In October, Reuters obtained documents from the US State Department suggesting that the parties benefiting from US support of the Iraqi political process would be limited to those considered by the US to be "democratic or moderate," and that the Department was spending $1 million on polling to determine "which candidates and parties are attracting the most support from the Iraqi people."

According to the documents, Washington will provide "strategic advice, technical assistance, training, polling data, assistance, and other forms of support" to "moderate, democratically oriented political parties."

According to Robinson, the perception of an alignment between the US government and private organizations it funds is well deserved.

Such US-backed groups, including the Islamic Dawa Party and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution (SCIRI), which now dominate the 100-member National Council selected amid controversy last August, participated in a series of six "training conferences" hosted by IRI this June.

According to IRI’s website, the prominent parties were joined at the training by dozens of small and medium-sized organizations. "Topics ranged from candidate leadership skills to platform development," reads the group’s report, "thus offering emerging Iraqi civic and political organizations a chance to learn a full array of successful campaign techniques. Results were promising -- participants expressed great enthusiasm during the proceedings and many actively pursued closer working relationships with the Institute."

Representatives of IRI would not speak with TNS on the record, but the group’s website page on Iraq -- which does not appear to have been updated since early summer -- suggests IRI was involved in organizing last August’s National Conference, purportedly held to elect an interim assembly that would oversee Iraq’s current interim government. That event was widely viewed as a calamity, not least because no vote ever took place. IRI would not comment on its involvement in the Conference or even evaluate its success on the record.

Other IRI programs have employed a "top-down approach," the group’s website states, providing instruction specifically for Iraq's interim governing bodies, from the original Governing Council to the present administration. Such a policy would appear to offer those already in power, mostly US-backed parties, a disproportionate share of IRI's resources and a precedent of involvement not shared with Iraq's fledgling opposition parties.

Right wing critics have also questioned the record of National Endowment for Democracy and its affiliate organizations.

IRI's relationship with parties dominating Iraq's interim government raises the question of how much influence the American group has had in determining the makeup of current coalitions being formed to vie for the 275-seat National Assembly come January 30, which will in turn select a new government and write Iraq’s permanent constitution.

Unlike its counterpart, NDI spoke at length with The NewStandard. Insisting that NDI’s advice does not favor any of Iraq’s numerous political parties over any others, Les Campbell, the organization’s regional director for the Middle East and Africa, said, "We work with all the parties, including the big and well-known ones, but we actually … spend special efforts to find, for example, Sunni parties -- ones that might represent the Sunni population."

Campbell estimated that NDI’s contributions are probably disproportionately helpful to the more obscure, less experienced Iraqi parties -- the ones that need assistance at nearly every level. "We have spent special effort trying to find people and parties that might reflect the views of the urban, sort of secular intellectuals," Campbell said, "because we think that they are disadvantaged."

Nevertheless, Campbell was careful to point out that NDI officially has no interest in the outcome of the Iraqi elections. "I have no idea, and nor do we ever really worry about whether or not our assistance has any affect on the [elections’] outcome," he said. "We’re not even slightly outcome-oriented."

Both NDI and IRI say they are maintaining low profiles in Iraq primarily for the security of their staff and the Iraqis to whom they provide political assistance. But Campbell said there are other reasons, at least for NDI, that they do not stand out as a defining feature of the transition to democracy in Iraq. "We’re not an organization that generally seeks credit," Campbell insisted. "We always perceive ourselves to be standing behind and supporting people. We’re not trying to lead the parade anywhere; and we’re certainly not trying to lead the parade in Iraq."

Critics of the work carried out elsewhere by NDI and IRI are concerned that the groups’ low profiles in Iraq are not driven just by security or institutional modesty. Professor and author William I. Robinson of the Global and International Studies Program at the University of California, Santa Barbara calls groups like NDI and IRI "extensions" of the US State Department.

Robinson agrees with Campbell that groups like NDI are in danger in Iraq to the extent they are identified with the United States government. But according to Robinson, who has researched and written extensively on US foreign political and economic policies, the perception of an alignment between the US government and private organizations it funds is well deserved.

"I suspect that [NDI and IRI] are … trying to select individual leaders and organizations that are going to be very amenable to the US transnational project for Iraq," Robinson said. He described those actors as willing to engage in "pacifying the country militarily and legitimating the occupation and the formal electoral system." Robinson added that developing relationships with "economic, political and civic groups that are going to be favorable to Iraq’s integration into the global capitalist economy" would prove even more important for US-based organizations in the long run.

This would include, Robinson said, altering Iraq’s political and economic infrastructure to be more open to international trade and investment, as well as more favorable to global financial lending institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Robinson sees the Middle East as one of the few viable areas of the world yet to be drawn into the US’s sphere of economic influence, and concludes that, more than a way to exploit oil, the US-led invasion and occupation serve as potential doorways into broader, more advantageous economic engagement in the region.

NDI and IRI are two out of four core organizations of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a self-described "nonprofit, non-governmental, bipartisan, grant-making organization" the stated purpose of which is "to help strengthen democratic institutions around the world." Created during Ronald Reagan’s first term as president to enhance overseas political influence weakened by Jimmy Carter’s 1977 ban on CIA democracy front groups, NED’s reputation as a promoter of democracy never truly thrived outside the United States.

The organization and its affiliates regularly encounter allegations that they have supported opposition candidates and promoted subversive movements in countries where governments -- some democratically elected -- are seen as threatening to US interests.

According to Campbell of NDI, both his group and its Republican counterpart originally became involved with political party formation and civil society efforts in Iraq shortly after the Spring 2003 invasion, using NED funds while getting their feet wet. By the next winter, administrators at the US-run Coalition Provisional Authority, along with others at the State Department and the National Security Council, began showing interest, Campbell explained. Then, in early 2004, the US government allocated $25 million to the NED to spread among its affiliate groups. Finally, in preparation for the 2005 vote, USAID gave more than $80 million to NDI, IRI and others involved in the consortium set up to provide technical and political assistance to the electoral process.

In Robinson’s view, ulterior motives of US groups aside, the idea that Western advisors can help democratize a society like Iraq also appears shortsighted. In reference to NDI’s stated practice of providing advice to politically vulnerable groups, Robinson said: "It’s not at all clear that Iraqi women need the advice of people from the US telling them how to organize -- or that students do, or so forth. And it’s not clear what value that advice could possibly have, other than trying to create a political bloc inside the country which will conform to the larger US vision for Iraq."

Robinson also says that US-based organizations, serving as private proxies for the government, will back numerous political parties in Iraq, just as IRI and NDI say they do; but Robinson says there will be stricter limits on that assistance than such organizations would lead the public to believe. "It wouldn’t be that the US would put its eggs behind one party, but [rather] a number of parties within a political spectrum -- representing different constituencies, but all within boundaries.

"What remains outside of those boundaries," Robinson continued, "is an alternative vision for Iraq -- a completely different vision which might well be the vision a majority of Iraqis would have."

Right wing critics have also questioned the record of National Endowment for Democracy and its affiliate organizations. In an analysis written for the conservative libertarian CATO Institute, Barbara Conry wrote that the NED’s "mischief overseas" has amounted to US taxpayers funding "special-interest groups to harass the duly elected governments of friendly countries, interfere in foreign elections, and foster the corruption of democratic movements."

Last year, Representative Ron Paul (R-Texas) took aim at the Endowment -- particularly the roles of NDI and IRI -- writing that the purposes for which both organizations are utilized elsewhere in the world "would be rightly illegal in the United States."

The apparently impromptu public protest in the Ukraine following the now-rescinded win by Russia’s favored candidate, Victor Yanukovich, is believed to have been at least partly orchestrated by the National Endowment for Democracy. According to reports in The Guardian, both NDI and IRI were involved in developing extremely active popular campaigns in support of Victor Yushchenko, the opposition candidate favored in the West whose defeat was immediately followed by condemnations of vote fraud in the US, by both the State Department and the mass media.

Further, the Associated Press reported on December 10 that the Bush Administration spent $65 million over the past two years to support opposition candidates in Ukraine.

Other recent examples of NED-affiliated groups meddling in the affairs of sovereign nations include political upheavals in both Venezuela and Haiti.

An article in the current edition of Mother Jones specifically ties IRI to the 2002 armed coup that briefly removed populist President Hugo Chavez from power in Venezuela. According to Mother Jones, IRI was also involved in sponsoring parties that led to last January’s violent uprising against democratically elected Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, which itself culminated in Aristide’s exile and the dissolution of his government on February 29. Haiti is currently ruled by the county’s chief Supreme Court Justice, who replaced Aristide. Haiti currently has no functioning parliament and new elections have yet to be held.

One of the mechanisms US-backed groups typically use to challenge unfavorable election results is exit polls and other tracking methods, which almost invariably show Washington’s preferred candidates to have edged out their opponents. It is unclear whether IRI will engage in any exit polling or other verification methods on January 30, but Campbell said NDI will not, citing "security and logistical" concerns that would render such activity impossible.

There remains more to learn and report about the activities of these and other US-based non-governmental organizations in Iraq and the relations between the US State Department and various Iraqi political actors. The NewStandard has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for documents pertaining to the involvement of US-based organizations in Iraq’s upcoming elections.

Regardless of how the January 30, 2005 elections turn out, US-backed nongovernmental organizations are likely to be involved in Iraq well into the future. "We’re digging in for the long haul," said Campbell. "I would fully anticipate NDI being in Iraq five years from now or ten years from now."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.


Lisa Ashkenaz Croke is a contributing journalist.

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