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Are Your Humanitarian Heartstrings Being Tugged in the Name of Empire?

Author James Peck's new book 'Ideal Illusions' challenges our basic assumptions about the universal crusade for human rights.

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“There is a conspiracy theory—that what happened was planned in D.C.,” USAID quotes a former mayor in Georgia. “It’s not true. What this assistance did, it made civil actors [come] alive, and when the critical moment came, we understood each other like a well-prepared soccer team.” The United States did not “cause” the color revolutions, argued another Ukrainian activist. Fallen rulers may blame “outside interference” for their defeats, but U.S. aid “only serves as a source of ideas and inspiration”—and funding. Or as USAID puts it: “It is only when citizens and local leaders in each country decide to change things that countries move from authoritarian rule towards democracy.”

The United States had a more subtle view of its role. The task, a USAID study said, was to keep the “donor assistance package” from looking like it had been externally imposed. “Legitimating means getting a buy-in from the appropriate people in the country to push the reform process forward.” The aim is to foster “the emergence of a well regarded ‘policy champion’ (an individual or group who believes in the policy) to take on leadership for the subsequent implementation tasks.” For intervention “to be smoothly implemented and successful,” the assistance to “stakeholders” must be “welcomed or ‘owned’ by those receiving it.” Of course, this is not always possible, the study conceded. Those on the “receiving end” may not actually have proposed the ideas in the first place.

Publicly, human rights organizations greeted the color revolutions with enthusiasm, supporting NGOs, advocating for a free media, and demanding electoral transparency. They praised the Czech Republic’s Velvet Revolution as the glorious precursor of those that followed. When the Orange Revolution shook Ukraine, “U.S. pressure for reform and support for Ukrainian civil society and political pluralism played a positive role,” Human Rights Watch declared. Human rights organizations defended United States–funded groups when they were repressed in several Central Asian countries, though usually with little reference to where their money came from. And when such information did become public, it was contrasted with the imperial meddling of the Kremlin, its double-dealing support for repressive dictators. One Human Rights Watch report detailed Vladimir Putin’s moves against NGOs in Russia; yet even though it began with Putin’s assertion that for some NGOs, “the priority is to receive financing from influential foreign foundations,” it offered barely a word about foreign funding.

After a color revolution, human rights groups often issued detailed reports on signs of repression in the new government, calls for greater democratization, demands for further reforms. But Western funding or military assistance were seldom considered much of an issue. Human rights leaders rarely commented on Washington’s obvious geopolitical considerations in promoting the color revolutions. (The great powers are “competing not only for influence” in the region, Anthony Lake, Clinton’s national security advisor, wrote, “but for oil and potential control over the pipelines that will carry the ‘black gold’ to the west.”) Nor did they balk at the number of former national security people advising such operations: Brent Scowcroft, James Baker, Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, John Sununu, and so on.

One might well argue that there is nothing wrong with an American ambassador’s and various U.S. and EU groups’ participating in, even orchestrating, such democratizing efforts. And if things need to be done covertly now and then, well—it’s for a good cause; one can’t be an innocent in a world of thuggish, murderous regimes. The same might be said of a billionaire like George Soros (though it rarely is)—that it’s quite okay for him to promote his vision of democracy by committing funds to certain groups in a foreign country he sees moving in the right direction, regardless of what critics in that country might think.

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