Infesting the World with the Democracy of Choice

Indonesia is Washington’s Current Target for a Pliable Government

By Luke Peterson

Jan/Feb 2024

Visit the National Endowment for Democracy’s (NED) homepage in November of 2023 and you will find a smooth, colorful, visually pleasing, and easy-to-navigate website available in half a dozen global languages. On this website, this Washington-based nonprofit organization touts its mission to promote peace, stability, and democratic institutions around the world. 

The site’s homepage includes a “Democracy Digest Feed” which publishes internally generated reports testifying to the promotion of civil institutions, predicting the impact of new technologies on global democracy, and/or warning of threats to democratic movements generated by authoritarian governments throughout the world. Readers are warned that those threats emanate most immediately from Russia and China with a new, headlining report on the website promising to describe, “How China and Russia Undermine Democracy in Africa.” In short, on initial approach, NED presents itself as a benevolent, nonprofit institution that serves to spread democracy around the world and to report on those nefarious actors intent on stopping that spread. Clearly, NED and the individuals associated with it, view their collective works as a powerful force for good in the world.

But things are not all as they seem at NED. Founded in 1983 by a Reagan administration intent on eliminating the leftist Sandinista Movement in Nicaragua (Reagan’s picture still adorns the website homepage), NED promised then, as it promises now, “to foster the infrastructure of democracy” around the globe. But when the true nature of the Reagan administration’s disreputable activities to subvert democracy and the rule of law in Latin America came to light through the very public Iran-Contra Affair, the motivations of the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Council were rightly called into question. 

Enter NED. 

Since the late 1980s, NED became the legitimate face of subversive and anti-democratic Reagan era policies in Latin America which would include the training and funding of right-wing death squads in Nicaragua, the Contra rebels, who killed, maimed, and raped their way through the Nicaraguan countryside targeting anyone sympathetic to the leftist Sandinistas. NED was Reagan’s backdoor entrance to regional politics in the Global South facilitating the transfer of bad money after good by funneling cash to Reagan era allies in the form of millions in grant monies supplied directly by Congress (U.S. tax dollars still fund NED activities around the world today).

For their part, NED publicly proclaims itself to be both nonprofit and independent focused exclusively upon funding those initiatives that have the potential to extend human rights and democratic institutions to diverse communities everywhere their reach can touch. Practically, though, as with murderous Reagan administration partners in Latin America in the 1980s, the initiatives NED funds are typically in lockstep with policy priorities emanating from Washington which have much more to do with the extension of American hyperpuissance in the world that they do with the fatuous notions of democracy promotion touted by NED on its website. Some analysts have even claimed that NED operates as a fully engaged wing of U.S. foreign policy in the contemporary geopolitical context. A cofounder of the organization, Allen Weinstein, put a finer point on the group’s intended global reach stating plainly that: “A lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA.”

Venezuela and Beyond

In addition to cutting their teeth on bloody political infighting in Nicaragua, for example, it is understood today that NED had a substantial hand in undermining the democratic election of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela in 2000 which it accomplished by shifting hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant money to elitist Venezuelan groups opposed to Chavez’s socialist agenda. These efforts were initially successful and Chavez was forced to spend days in exile before returning to his position as legitimately elected Venezuelan president (a return facilitated only by massive popular demonstration in Caracas and elsewhere throughout the country). Though from NED’s perspective, and the broader view of Washington writ large, the concept of legitimacy is, apparently, subjective as explained by a spokesman from the second Bush administration: “legitimacy is something that is conferred not just by a majority of the voters.” Even then Secretary of State Colin Powell would go on to publicly endorse the architects of the attempted coup as the “legitimate” government of Venezuela. All that these U.S. officials needed to subvert democratic processes in the name of American interests was an innocuous foot in the proverbial door. As in Nicaragua, in Venezuela, NED was that foot, and they wouldn’t stop there.

NED remained active during the two decade-long War on Terror funding initiatives in both Afghanistan and Iraq while U.S. bombs and bullets killed more than a million in Iraq and at least 70,000 in Afghanistan over the course of the twentieth century. In 2015, Vladimir Putin outlawed NED amongst other international NGOs for activities conducted in Russia that were contradictory to Russian sovereignty. For his part in 2016, incoming President Donald Trump did not seem at all bothered by this cancellation. He was keen in any case to defund NED as part of his administration’s idiosyncratic alteration of the functions of the American government both at home and abroad. But NED would survive the reign of Trump and come out of that administration with a renewed vigor in pushing forward an American neo-imperialist agenda deep into the twenty-first century. 

Today, among their thousands of ongoing projects undertaken in at least 100 countries worldwide and all intended to extend American influence, NED is particularly focused on Indonesia. In February of 2024 populist leader Joko Widodo is set to step down from the office of the president after having served the two-term maximum. During his tenure, Widodo has been a thorn in the side of the Washington consensus working hard during his presidency to eliminate soft money from Indonesian politics and to minimize foreign influence over Indonesian affairs. Widodo is, in fact, the only president in Indonesia’s history not drawn from the ranks of the political or military elite and his popularity in his home country is testimony to both his honesty as a politician as well as to his measurable success in improving the lives of average Indonesians during his time in office.

Given that a presidential term limit now ensures that he will step down, efforts are underway within Washington to see to it that a much more agreeable, much less independent powerbroker takes his place. Washington is seeking a pliant Indonesian president near China in the event of an all-out war in East Asia. Even if war should not come to pass, a submissive Indonesia with its massive consumer population and strategically important location would be highly beneficial to the ever-expanding U.S. military and attendant support industries. Operations are already underway to push these policy goals forward (Leaked: CIA Front Preparing Color Revolution in Indonesia”, The Mint Press, Sept. 6, 2023).

NED is at the forefront of these clandestine activities. It has allegedly funded anti-Widodo rallies, directly paid protestors to take to the street during the campaign season and have infiltrated labor unions and other pro-Widodo institutions to try to sow discord amongst some of the president’s strongest supporters. Recently uncovered intelligence documents from Indonesia indicate the feverish efforts of BIN (Badan Intelijen Negara)), Jakarta’s State Intelligence, are working full out to ensure free and fair elections in Indonesia once Widodo has left office. The BIN has communicated its disapproval of NED’s ongoing disruptive activities in no uncertain terms to the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, but leaked intelligence documents inform that American officers within that embassy remain “concerned” about the coming Indonesian elections. Embassy officials, including its Political Officer, Ted Meinhover, have even made suggestions to Indonesian government officials about how their electoral rules might be changed to allow for a larger candidate pool, and therefore, more pliable and pro-U.S. candidates to come to the fore. As of the time of this writing, this attempted U.S. interference in another sovereign country’s national elections remains ongoing.

Whatever the outcome in Indonesia as elsewhere, it seems clear that NED’s mission in the world goes far beyond their declared aim to promote democratic initiatives abroad. One wonders where this continued American overreach stops and precisely what consequences will continue to befall countries that open their arms to operational fronts for American neo-imperialist policy goals. 

Luke Peterson, Ph.D., Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, The University of Cambridge — King’s College, investigates language, media and knowledge surrounding political conflict in the Middle East. He lives in Pittsburgh, where he regularly contributes to local, national, and international media outlets.

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