Politics & Policy

Mad Macedonians

Spinning U.S. support for social experimentation abroad.

On January 6, NRO published a piece I wrote describing graphic pro-homosexual materials in the Balkan nation of Macedonia, bearing the seal of the U.S. embassy. Billboards, posters, and brochures produced by a Macedonian NGO, the Center for Civil and Human Rights (CCHR), portrayed photographs of a homosexual lifestyle offensive to an overwhelming majority of Macedonians.

The story continues to unfold–or unravel, depending on which side of full disclosure the parties involved stand–at a frantic pace.

The revelation about this gross misappropriation of U.S. taxpayer money has motivated both the House and the Senate to review diplomatic budgets and hunt down additional inappropriate “projects.” The Macedonian press is relentlessly covering the story, and the taxpayer watchdog group Americans for Tax Reform even awarded Lawrence Butler, the U.S. ambassador to Macedonia, its “Enemy of the Taxpayer” award.

U.S. grants totaling $50,000 were given to three NGOs in Macedonia, Croatia, and the Kyrgyz republic for projects clearly described as advocating a gay lifestyle in their grant requests and in the State Department’s approval documents.

These grants were given under the Democracy Commission, a program providing low-level funding to indigenous NGOs for community-based projects supporting the transition to free-market economies and democratic policies. This small grant program, instituted in 1994 by the Clinton administration, is available in 27 countries. Individual grants cannot exceed $24,000. Last year, total funding in Central and Eastern Europe under this program was $4.5 million, with $275,000 provided to Macedonian organizations, including CCHR and a radio station promoting American jazz music.

Supporting local grassroots organizations is a laudable goal. President Bush would like to do something similar here in the U.S.–he calls it his faith-based initiative. However, in funding international NGOs, U.S. interests and policies should always be protected; and our diplomats must vigilantly respect the cultures of their host nations and be held to high standards in this regard by Washington. In funding these particular projects, the State Department has failed dismally on both counts.

The Croatian NGO in question is the Lesbian Organization Rijeki (LORI), and the title on the grant request is “Media Campaign Against Homophobia.” A State Department synopsis of activities covered by the $19,000 grant states, “U.S. Government funds paid for billboards, a television PSA, brochures and posters,” and project goals include “increas[ing] the visibility of homosexuals in Croatian society.”

Unlike the Macedonian billboards, which show men, women, and mixed couples, LORI images are just of women. Although they do not use the seal of the U.S. embassy, prominently displayed on the list of contributors is “Embassy of the United States.”

In the republic of Kyrgyz, another conservative Orthodox and Muslim nation, our grant went to the Public Fund of Protection and Support of Youth–$10,000 for “the creation of a tolerant environment for sexual minorities.” Democracy Commission guidelines prohibit direct social services, yet this grant provided for “a resource center for…sexual minority representatives (for) information and legal advice.” This prohibition was also ignored in Macedonia, where we paid for legal advice and “psycho-social counseling.”

The State Department claims that the use of the seal was unauthorized, and that the billboards were taken down as soon as State was made aware of them. This is, unfortunately, not true.

In a November letter to Arizona senator Jon Kyl about the offending billboards, State’s assistant secretary of legislative affairs wrote, “(your constituent) raised objections to a small anti-discrimination program in which the U.S. government participated. This program adheres to policy promoting diversity and helping Macedonia’s citizens to build a more tolerant society.”

According to CCHR, there were five billboards in Skopje (Macedonia’s capital), 15 outside, and posters were distributed to 19 cities. In two days and in two cities I saw one billboard and two posters. They were awfully hard for anyone to miss.

In 2002, Macedonian TV carried a photo op between Ambassador Butler and the head of the NGO, who referenced receipt of the check. The CCHR president currently says that “the usage of the seal has been previously approved by the (U.S. embassy) and its visible image was requested by Article 12 of the contract granting the funds.” It is not reasonable to believe that our embassy was not aware of the nature of the materials, or that CCHR obtained our seal through the ether.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, U.S. Assistance Ambassador Carlos Pascual has been tasked with explaining the mess to Congress. In staff meetings with the Senate Foreign Relations and House International Relations Committees, Ambassador Pascual has made sincere efforts to sort out the facts, and to propose solutions preventing further grants for projects that contradict our government’s position and offend foreign countries.

However, Ambassador Pascual himself may be getting spinformation rather than facts from our Macedonian embassy. In Capitol Hill briefings, he advised that CCHR had a successful track record, yet CCHR refers to itself on the grant request as “newly formed,” citing this as its first project. The ambassador claims that billboards were not authorized under the grant, but this seems to be a doublespeak exercise in hair splitting, as Skopje did allocate money for posters and a brochure.

“Love is Sex-Free!” “The reason for homosexuality is sought in the genes!” Thus reads the brochure, also with the seal of our embassy in Skopje; my copy of it is printed in English.

Why English? The group is not targeting tourists. One wonders if the English was to make it easier for the embassy to give the approval they claim they knew nothing about.

A State Department press guidance issued in response to my NRO article advises that “U.S. policies and programs do not promote homosexuality.” Yet the Kyl letter, internal State Department grant synopses, and certainly the Macedonian and Croatian billboards themselves belie this position.

Macedonia might not be big in landmass, but it is enormous in its friendship with and support of the United States and, in particular, of President Bush.

It was one of the first countries to publicly support Operation Iraqi Freedom and commit troops to the coalition. An unprecedented regional joint venture between the U.S., Macedonia, and Albania is currently building an oil pipeline through Macedonia, protecting our economic interests as well as providing much-needed regional employment. And President Boris Trajkovski, himself an ordained minister, is the only world leader to have publicly prayed with our president.

In the short term, we must embrace principles of honesty and accountability in government and apologize to our friends for our misjudgment.

Looking ahead, the Department of State should clean house of NGOs receiving funding for projects that run counter to our interests or offend our host nations. Ambassador Pascual has suggested some specific curative first steps, including clear guidelines against U.S. funding of lifestyle-advocacy projects; requiring explicit permission for use of an embassy seal; and pre-approval by our embassies of any U.S.-sponsored and NGO-printed material.

Diplomacy should include identifying priorities, and if asked, Macedonians would say that theirs are security and economic growth. Matters of internal Macedonian social policy are the responsibility of Macedonians. In the Heritage Foundation’s most recent Economic Freedom Index, Macedonia ranks 73rd out of 155 countries. It is in everyone’s best interests that we focus on helping them do better on that front, instead of agitating for unwelcome social change.

Kerri Houston is vice president of policy for Frontiers of Freedom.

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