October 11, 2005

October 11, 2005 | Commentary on

Improving the N.E.D.

Words matter.

In politics, for example, people tend to equate "Republican" with "conservative." But as we've learned in recent years, plenty of Republicans aren't all that conservative. They're happy to spend more and more taxpayer dollars as long as doing so buys votes in their district.

That's why it's important to be as precise as possible in our descriptions. Otherwise, well-meaning people can feel misled.

In that vein, it's time for a good organization to become even better by changing one word in its title. The National Endowment for Democracy ought to become the National Endowment for Freedom. Make no mistake -- "democracy" is an excellent system and well worth promoting on its own. But by promoting "freedom," we'd be promoting an even larger concept -- in fact the concept that makes democracy possible.

None of this is a knock on the N.E.D. The organization started in 1983 and has enjoyed notable successes since, including providing support to the Polish trade union Solidarity -- the union that helped trigger the crack-up of the Soviet bloc. It's no wonder President Bush recently delivered a major address about Iraq to members of the N.E.D. But times have changed.

In the 1980s, the major threat to freedom was the Soviet Union. Moscow ruled an "evil empire" stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the East German border. Millions were trapped under Soviet dictatorship, in conditions so horrible that many were willing to risk their lives scaling the Berlin wall in an attempt to escape.

Democracy was the natural antidote to Soviet tyranny. In fact, the Soviets feared democracy so much that they attempted to hijack the very word. East Germany was officially the "German Democratic Republic," when in reality it was a dictatorship. And there was certainly no republicanism in the "Union of Soviet Socialist Republics." During the Reagan years it made perfect sense to promote democracy as the antidote to totalitarianism.

Today, though, communism has all but collapsed. Cuba and North Korea (officially the Democratic People's Republic of Korea) are basically the last bastions of a failed doctrine. What these countries, and many more, including Egypt, Syria and Iran (where people can vote, but don't actually get to choose their leaders) need now is freedom.

Consider one of the countries where the National Endowment for Democracy is at work: Venezuela. Democracy is very much present there, but it hasn't brought freedom. In fact, it's had the opposite effect.

President Hugo Chavez is a virtual dictator, but he was indeed elected to his post. He later forced changes to the country's constitution that guaranteed his hold on power. But again, those changes were agreed to through a national referendum.

As the N.E.D. puts it on its Web site, "In recent years in Venezuela the trade unions have been threatened with dissolution, journalists have been put at risk with their freedom curtailed, and democratic institutions and processes have been manipulated and undermined."

Last year, the N.E.D. spent more than $874,000 funding 13 projects in Venezuela. It also helped finance a 2003 referendum on Chavez's regime. The results of that referendum were probably fraudulent, but Chavez did prevail in it, so in the end it probably did as much harm as good. A dictator remains in power, but he can point to an internationally sanctioned vote and claim legitimacy.

The money would have been far better spent if it had gone to encourage real freedom in Venezuela instead of a vote that likely was manipulated to produce the desired outcome.

Freedom means more than having elections. It also means having the ability to choose where to live, what to do for a living and how many children to have. Those are the goals that deserve our support through a strengthened National Endowment for Freedom.

Ed Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
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