Carl Gershman has been President of the National Endowment for Democracy since 1984. Mr. Gershman oversees NED's grant programs in various countries ranging from Africa to the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Before taking the job at NED, he held various posts at the United Nations, served as the U.S. Representative to the U.N. Third Committee that deals with human rights issues, and as Alternate Representative of the U.S. to the U.N. Security Council. NED was formed after President Ronald Reagan took office in 1981 to "promote democracy around the world." NED has not been without controversy. It has critics from both the left and the right who claim that the group supports certain organizations and political parties and candidates with a specific agenda.
At a recent event NED offered the Green Movement in Iran an award. Rooz interviewed Carl Gershman in his office in Washington, DC.
Q: What does NED represent?
-We are both a publicly funded and a non-governmental institution. There was an NED act passed in 1983 by the US congress. But you could say that it was an act desired by the American people to assist people around the world who share our values regarding human freedom and democracy.
Q: In your statement in the NED Annual Report, you speak about the Green Revolution. How is NED helping the Iranian struggle for democracy? Don't you think that this is not a revolution but rather a movement?
-I agree with that. This is obviously not a revolution because the government is still in power. This is more like the solidarity movement in Poland in 1980. It did not bring about democracy and there was a serious period of turmoil. It was a mass movement as is the Green Movement. Eventually it did bring about democracy like the Green Movement will to Iran.
Q: Can you compare the two examples of Poland and Iran?
-Of course there are similarities. Both are mass movements towards democracy, seeking to have a voice, to have dignity. These are movements that are demanding a more open and democratic society.
Q: A lot of Iranians might say, well we had a democracy between 1951- 1953 and foreign powers, namely the US and Great Britain interfered and brought down a democratic government. What would you say to that?
-No I don't. That was before my time. I think the Iranians are asking for democracy today. And they hope moral support would be coming from this country and it should be.
Q: People who read this interview may want to know what the scope of the work that NED is doing around the world is. NED, as I saw in your booklet, funds many organizations and NGO's in different countries. As an example, in Kyrgyzstan where according to news reports, there is a civil war and a thousand people have been killed so far. Do you think it is possible to attain democracy in countries without a functioning civil society or where oppression and sectarian divisions and corruption are rampant?
-Democracy is not a single end state; some kind of idyllic state that somehow people achieve. Even in our own country when we started with a revolution against the British and we had a constitution in 1787. Women didn't have the right to vote and we had slavery. It was a long struggle. We had a civil war. The county had 30 million people at the time and almost a million died. And then slavery was abolished but it took a hundred more years for blacks to have equality. We had a system called Jim Crowe where blacks were segregated. Then the Civil Rights Movement took place. You had the voting act in 1964 and equal employment in 1965 but even after that you had riots. They were the worst riots in our country. What does that say? It says that this is a long and a difficult process. We were able to do it and why can't other countries do it? Why can't people in Kyrgyzstan do it?
Q: You mention that in Russia, autocratic tendencies are very much alive. There is corruption, alcoholism, its economy is dysfunctional and diseases such as AIDS are widespread. We also know that anyone who speaks out against the government and especially against Putin runs the risk of being imprisoned or even murdered. Do you believe that Russia is better off today than it was under communism? Why or why not?
Q: No I don't mean under Stalin; let's say under Gorbachev?
-Of course it is better. Gorbachev was the last phase. The collapse of communism was not a permanent state. Frankly at that time Gorbachev was not wanted by the people. It was a system really leading to his downfall because communism was not a system that could be gradually reformed and it eventually collapsed. Are they better off? Ask some of the Russians. There may be some people who have gone through different periods and sometimes a more chaotic one. Some people may long for the ancient regime but is it better that Russia is not a totalitarian system? Yes, I think it is much better. But again it is part of a process. It's one step at a time. Russia is a country that had an authoritarian system under the Tsars and before the 1917 Revolution. That was the beginning toward a period of a more open society and towards the West. They freed the serfs. They had a more modern economy and then came the 1917 Revolution and closed all that off. You then had a horrendous period in the Soviet Union which was an Empire where tens of thousands of people were killed, sent to the gulags and millions more were murdered. It was a disastrous period and gradually they came out of that. The 1960's saw the rise of the dissident movement and eventually communism collapsed. And again it is part of a historical process. Russia is going through a serious crisis today. It is not just a social and political crisis it is also a demographic one. Russia is a country that is losing its population, 700 to 800 thousand people a year. There are problems of alcoholism and health. They have a very low birth rate. It can't even replace its population. My view about Russia is that if they concentrated on internal problems and stopped focusing so much on eliminating any kind of opposition in the Caucasus, they would be better off. Instead of making the problems worst and fighting these nasty wars, they should focus on their own internal problems.
Q: In an editorial in Time magazine, Joe Klein was critical of Senator McCain for his lack of knowledge of Iran and making baseless statements. Up until recently McCain called for an attack against Iran's nuclear facilities. Now, he is more for peaceful change. Do you believe that many US policy makers are not aware of the complexities of a country like Iran and in fact are projecting Israel' official line? According to Klein, even under Ahmadinejad, the Islamic republic has done some positive things for the poor.
-I have not seen the article. I did not know that Joe Klein was a specialist on Iran. Does he have a deeper knowledge of Iran than Senator McCain? Maybe this is just a political disagreement with McCain. My point is that Senator McCain gave a strong speech in embracing the Green Movement and called upon the US to give it more moral support. Obviously Joe Klein differs with that. It is not who knows Iran better. He has a different point of view and this has to do with the internal US politics.
Q: My impression is distinctly different when I traveled in Iran five years ago. I saw a lot of improvement for the poor, from bringing electricity to remote areas to building schools and roads in small villages.
-That is the line of the Islamic Regime. They give a lot to the poor in order to bring them out to political rallies. Iran is a country that is going through a lot of problems. When the Revolution took place, the level of per capita income was the same as Turkey. Today Turkey is four times ahead of Iran. That is what they have done for the people of Iran. The people of Iran are suffering. The system of government is corrupt; they are not doing anything for the poor. Obviously they have a populist line and they provide money to the poor especially during the rallies but in terms of a systemic effort to help the poor, I don't think so.
Q: Do you think Israel influences US policy towards Iran?
-I don't even know what you are talking about.
Q: Well, the line has been that if need be Israel will attack Iran's nuclear facilities.
-That is the decision Israel has to make. These are two separate counties.
Q: This goes back to Senator McCain that at some point he was for attacking Iran's nuclear facilities.
-McCain may have that view. I don't know. He did not address that in his talk here at NED. But if he has that view that is his own. Why can't he have a view as a US senator about US foreign policy?
Q: Wouldn't that be disastrous for all parties involved?
-Well Americans can debate that. There are people with different views on that. I don't think the administration shares that view.
Q: You mention in your message "George W. Bush's second Inaugural address and the elevation of the promotion of democracy to a central place in US foreign policy. For a number of reasons, President Obama seems to have stepped back from this expansive vision." Do you believe that the Obama administration is not doing enough to help the democracy movement in Iran?
-We were gratified that he sent his representative Samantha Power to the meeting and she read a statement to the award ceremony. She gave a strong statement herself but she read also a statement from the President.
Q: The Islamic republic is sensitive to NED. Your organization just awarded a prize to the movement. Do you not believe that it puts the human rights defenders at risk? They are the ones who are suffering persecution, torture, oppression, etc?
-Who received that award on behalf of the Green Movement?
Q: I was not there but I think it was Simin Behbahani.
-Is she a legitimate person in Iran? Is she respected? She thought it was a good idea.
Q: Yes of course, absolutely. She is more than respected. But I think she is one of those people whom you can call untouchable.
-She was free to say that if it were a bad idea she would have said it would be harmful. But she didn't. She gave a statement. There was a taped message from her. My experience has been that in this work over many years, during the time of the Soviet Union there are always people who may say closer relations with the US and supporting human rights was hurting the activists. I never encountered a single activist who did not want this support. Andre Sakharov, Avital Sharansky, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Vladimir Buraksky. They all wanted our support. And it is understandable. The only people who were against were apologists for the regime.
Q: Which country has NED been most successful or had the greatest impact on?
-NED is active all over the world. If you look at the report, it is hard to pinpoint one place. It is hard to determine what is success. Sometimes it is enough to stop people from being killed, preventing a country from moving in a backward direction. When you are supporting people who are exposed, who are in vulnerable situations it is important. This coming Wednesday we will honor one of our friends who was murdered in the Congo with a memorial service. We had been supporting him for 20 years. He was our friend. He was called into the police station and shot right there. He was the most important human rights activist in the Congo. We have supported Journalists in Somalia, in Russia; these are heroic people who have great courage, and I think to support them is important. This can be seen as being a historical significance like the Solidarity movement in Poland but we also supported the democratic movement in Chile, in South Africa, and in the Philippines.
Q: In Chile after Allende?
-Yes, NED only came into existence after 1980's. In the 1980's there was a democratic movement in Chile and under the Chilean constitution there was a vote whether to continue with the Pinochet regime or to have a free election. We were supporting democrats in that situation. So in 1988 they voted for a free election. And we were invited and supported groups which monitored that election. In Nigeria, in the 1990's we were supporting a lot of NGO's in the period of dictatorship. We kept a lot of people alive during that period. It has been a very difficult situation in Nigeria but one can point to many of these changes that you can see the transition. NGO's who support human rights, free media, promote civic organizations, promote women's rights, young people, and engage them as citizens. Around the world you have a genuine movement towards democracy, at the grassroots level. What is important is that you have a genuine movement in Iran. Iran is now part of a global movement towards democracy. There is now an Iranian partner. I think that is really important.
Q: This is a two-fold question. A few days ago, I saw a young man in an elevator with his family. He was in a wheel chair having one leg amputated and the other one in a bandage. I saw signs of shrapnel all over the legs. I asked the sister, "was he in the war?" She nodded yes. According to NPR, the rate of suicide has doubled among the soldiers who return from the war. Millions of Iraqis are refugees or have had to deal with the enormous destruction of their country. The Washington Post reported that mental illness due to continuous violence is on the rise in Iraq. Was it worth it?
-Look, the endowment is not a policy making institution. As you know we are a bipartisan or non partisan institution. We don't get involved in policy discussions. But for those who have that concern, of course the loss of life is terrible. But I just recall to attention that there was an enormous loss of life under Saddam Hussein as well. There were hundreds of thousands of people who were murdered. We should be concerned about that as well.
Q: I know NED is not a policy making institution but don't you think that the situation in Mexico is much more urgent with all the murder, mayhem and corruption that are taking place on a daily basis. Don't you think that it is much more pressing for the US and an organization such as yours to address this, being so close to home than a place like Cuba where there is relative stability even if there is no democracy?
-The Mexico issue is a gigantic issue for the US. The North American Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is trying to be helpful and obviously Mexico is a country that has serious crime problems but it is not the only country with drug problems. To the degree that the US can be helpful and NED in its own small way, we support groups that are active in opening up the society, in monitoring the government and corruption. For seventy years, Mexico had a one-party system. We support groups that are doing good work. The fact about Cuba is that there is a real movement there. Cuba is a tough dictatorship and they are very tough with dissidents. A movement was going to emerge, called the Varela project led by Paya [Oswaldo]. The Cuban Constitution says that if 10,000 people sign a petition calling for a particular action the National Assembly has to act upon that. Even though it is a dictatorship Paya got 30,000 citizens to ask for free elections and it was totally repudiated. Immediately after that petition was presented 75 dissidents were arrested. Most of them are still in prison. As we speak, the cardinal Ortega of Cuba sat down with the government and tried to negotiate the release of these prisoners. In April, Cardinal Ortega [Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino, the Archbishop of Havana] gave an interview with the press in which he said Cuba is in deep economic crisis and of civil society. Cuba is a dictatorship and they have to find a way out of this problem. There is now a movement in Cuba at the grassroots, workers and young people; the Damas De Blanco, women in White, who march every Sunday. They are being harassed, as in Iran. They send out thugs to harass these women. So there is a process that is begging. But believe me; people in Cuba don't want dictatorship anymore than the people in Iran. The government of Iran will say, yes we have stability and change will bring about instability and people who rule these dictatorships will always say that, but people want freedom and dignity. Sometimes they make a deal with the people and will say, look we will give you economic growth and opportunity if you will just accept slavery, but that doesn't work because dictatorships tend not to be economically successful and, as Lord Atkin once said, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. These dictatorships become deeply corrupt and people want power and voice; people want dignity and slavery does not give people dignity. The only question is whether people who are struggling for freedom should receive moral support and some modest technical support or should they be abandoned. We exist to give that support; we share their values, which is freedom. This is only possible by rejecting violence and embracing freedom through non-violence. If you want a different kind of system which is based on human rights, the idea of pluralism and that nobody has access to the full truth. That is why you have democracy. So that people can find a peaceful way of resolving their differences. Democracy is based upon the notion that nobody has the full truth. And I regret to say that the Islamic Republic is based upon the notion that somebody has the answer to the truth. And I think the dissidents in Iran have proven otherwise. This is what Vaclav Havel said when he became the President of the Czech Republic. He said that they were living not the truth because they were challenging a system where the center of power was also the center of truth. You need a pluralistic system and that is what Iranians want.
Q: You don't think democracy should try to eliminate poverty?
-If you try to equal the levels of development, the countries that have democracy tend to do better than countries that don't have them it, and studies that are done to show that. Democracy does have this instrumental purpose; it also requires leaders who will adopt intelligence policies. Yet this doesn't automatically mean that democracy will produce economic equality.
Q: What about the current crisis in the US. Don't you think that a democracy such as this can face major crisis both socially and economically if it does not pay attention to detail as we see today?
-The advantage of democracy is that with a free press, independent judiciary and civil society, free elections and all the other aspects of democracy and democratic accountability, it has the capacity for self-correction when crises occur. Autocratic systems don't have that capacity, which is why there is a greater likelihood that they will break down as crises intensify.
Q: As President of NED, what would you like to see happen in Iran? How can the US and Iran find common ground?
-The US has much better relations with countries that are democratic than with countries that are not democratic. We had awful relations with South Africa when South Africa was ruled by Apartheid because Americans couldn't accept apartheid and that was basically an obstacle to closed relationship with S. Africa. Obviously it had bad relations with the rest of the world. During the Pinochet regime in Chile, there was great tension between our two countries because there was a large part of our country and congress that was very much against the dictatorship in Chile. Once Chile became a democracy we had wonderful relations. If Iran becomes a democracy I have absolutely no doubt that Iran and the US will have friendly and close relations. Because we will share common values and then we will have much deeper people to people contacts
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