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U.S. imperialism: Hidden in plain sight

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By Stephen Gowans

The dominant U.S. approach to exercising influence over people in foreign countries is to operate through locals who are committed to U.S. imperialist values or fiercely oppose U.S. enemies. Locals, whether rulers, politicians, military officers, journalists, scholars or activists, are provided with opportunities, funding, training, equipment and support in exchange for assuming leadership roles on behalf of U.S. interests or against U.S. targets. The sine qua non of the paradigm is the appearance of independence. While locals may express admiration and support for U.S. positions, their own pro-U.S. stances, or opposition to U.S. enemies, are to be understood to have been arrived at independently. And, in many, if not most, cases, this is true. Locals who assume leadership roles on behalf of U.S. interests are often educated or trained in the United States, where they have absorbed pro-imperialist values. At the same time, the ubiquitous U.S. mass media convey pro-imperialist values to locals who haven’t been educated in the imperial nerve center. And some may, for their own (often class) reasons, be passionate opponents of individuals, groups or movements the United States government would like to eliminate. What matters is not how pro-U.S. positions, or anti-U.S.-enemy passions, are arrived at, only that some locals have them and that U.S. funding and support provide them with a platform to influence the political, military and informational landscape of their home country.

A recent example of how this paradigm operates is provided in an August 16, 2009 New York Times article by Thom Shanker (“U.S. turns to radio stations and cellphones to counter Taliban’s propaganda.”)

Shanker quotes Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. proconsul in Afghanistan and Pakistan, who acknowledges that the United States is losing the information war to the Taliban. In this, Holbrooke reminds us that war is multi-faceted, comprising not only military action, but other elements, as well. Warfare may be waged concurrently with or independently of military action: through economic means (trade sanctions, blockades and financial isolation); through non-violent warfare (destabilization); through sabotage; through cyber attacks; and through what concerns Holbrooke, information. Information warfare is “variously named public affairs, public diplomacy, strategic communications and information operations.” In plain language, it’s propaganda, a term invariably applied to the other side’s public affairs, public diplomacy, strategic communications and information operations, but propaganda all the same.

U.S. officials say they’re losing the information war because their “efforts to describe American policy and showcase American values are themselves viewed as propaganda.” The other reasons, unacknowledged by Holbrooke, are that the U.S. military has created considerable hardship, fear, and bloodshed in its efforts to quell opposition to its attempted conquest of Afghanistan and because, as the New York Times reported on July 28, 2009, the Taliban has bolstered its popularity by pursuing “a strategy intended to foment a class struggle,” rewarding “landless peasants with profits of the crops of the landlords,” the Taliban has ousted. To counter the Taliban’s growing popularity, Washington plans to “amplify the (anti-Taliban) voices of Afghans speaking to Afghans, and Pakistanis speaking to Pakistanis” by spending up to $150 million per year to “step up the training of local journalists and help produce audio and video programming, as well as pamphlets, posters, and CDs denigrating militants and their message.” By operating through locals, Washington hopes to conceal the “‘Made in the U.S.A.’ stamped on the programming.”

There’s little new here. For decades the C.I.A amplified the voices of citizens talking to citizens by funding anyone who had anything negative to say about the Soviet Union and Communism. As Frances Stonor Saunders revealed in her book The Cultural Cold War, anti-Communist leftists were particularly favored with C.I.A lucre, often channelled through philanthropic foundations – foundations parts of the Western left continue to receive funding from today. Just as Shanker reports that U.S. officials say they’ll amplify the voices of Pakistanis and Afghans who “denigrate the enemy”, so too did the C.I.A amplify the voices of Westerners who denigrated the Soviet Union and Communism. Since social democrats, Trotskyites and anarchists were already fiercely opposed to the Soviet Union, and being leftists could be presented as credible critics of Soviet Communism, they received the bulk of covert funding from the U.S. state, funding whose origins many were unaware of or chose to turn a blind eye to. Their mission: denigrate the U.S.S.R and Communism. This they were already doing, but C.I.A funding allowed them to do it more visibly, to a wider audience, and therefore more effectively. By doing so they justified U.S. engagement in the Cold War and, acting knowingly or unwittingly as U.S. agents, used Uncle Sam’s money to denigrate a shared enemy. Today, the common understanding of the Soviet Union and Communism carries over from the C.I.A amplifying the voices of Communism’s, the U.S.S.R’s, and Stalin’s political enemies. The amplification of categorically critical voices so thoroughly polluted scholarly histories of the U.S.S.R that historians have had to discard what was produced in the Cold War period and start afresh. It’s time too that Western leftists did the same. The fear of British historian E.H. Carr — that only the worst aspects of the Soviet experiment with socialism would be remembered, while the astonishing achievements would be forgotten – has been realized, thanks in no small part to the C.I.A and the anti-Communist leftists whose voices it amplified. Advances in human progress as significant as those achieved by the Soviet Union (full employment, free health care and education through university, no inflation, gender equality, mild and shrinking income inequality, low-cost housing and transportation, worker participation in enterprise management, support for national liberation movements, industrialization of underdeveloped regions) should no longer remain concealed behind the muck of C.I.A-backed Cold War propaganda.

While the paradigm is a long-standing one, what’s different today, from when the C.I.A covertly channelled funds to voices that served Washington’s interests, is that funding is no longer provided covertly. Washington learned a lesson when C.I.A support for anti-communist, anti-socialist and anti-national liberation movements came to light. Washington’s revealed hidden hand immediately undermined the legitimacy of these movements, setting back U.S. efforts to counter opposition to the unchecked spread of U.S. financial, military and corporate domination. From that point, greater openness was injected into funding individuals, groups and movements working against U.S. enemies. Rather than concealing Washington’s hand, Washington’s objectives would be concealed behind a rhetorical screen. Funding would be targeted at democracy promotion, international development, and public diplomacy – carried out openly, so that no one could say the hidden hand of U.S. imperialism was involved (though the overt hand of U.S. imperialism certainly was.) By dressing up U.S. imperialism in clothing that appealed to the sartorial preferences of the non-Communist left, the overt hand of U.S. imperialism was concealed behind honeyed phrases. Social democrats didn’t see imperialism; they saw humanitarian intervention, democracy promotion and the responsibility to protect vulnerable populations. Anarchists and Trotskyites didn’t see U.S. efforts to dominate other countries on Wall Street’s behalf; they saw the fight against tyrants, dictators and Stalinists.

And so it is that U.S. imperialism is concealed in plain sight. Washington’s funding of fifth columns, quislings, phoney ‘independent’ journalists and overthrow movements may be on the public record, but few know it, and even fewer are prepared to spend the time to make it widely known. Those who do are dismissed by social democrats, Trotskyites and anarchists – unwilling to rock the boat of U.S. imperialism under its humanitarian, anti-despot guise – as revealing nothing of significance. The money, training, equipment and support that flow in cataracts from the hands of Western governments, wealthy financiers and corporate foundations make no difference, they counter weakly. In this milieu, U.S. officials are now able to openly talk in the pages of the New York Times about how they plan to win the information war against the Taliban by enlisting locals as their mouthpieces – and openly acknowledge they are doing so to conceal the “Made in the U.S.A” stamped on the programming – without fear the exercise will be seen as illegitimate.

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August 21, 2009 at 7:32 pm

Nonviolent warfare: Questioning ends, not means

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By Stephen Gowans

Brian Martin, a professor of social sciences at the University of Wollongong in Australia, has written a reply to my article Overthrow Inc.: Peter Ackerman’s quest to do what the CIA used to do and make it seem progressive. Martin is the author of a number of books and articles on nonviolence, including Nonviolence against Capitalism, Technology for Nonviolent Struggle, and “Nonviolent strategy against capitalism” (in Social Alternatives, Vol. 28, No. 1, 2008, pp. 42-46.)

Martin’s criticism of my article is below. My reply follows.

Martin’s criticism

Stephen Gowans’ article presents a point of view but lacks credibility through not addressing contrary evidence.

Gowans omits to mention the efforts by ICNC (International Center for Nonviolent Conflict) and AEI (Albert Einstein Institution) to introduce nonviolent strategy to movements challenging US client governments. By discussing only those cases allegedly in support of US imperialism, he avoids having to explain equivalent cases apparently in opposition to US imperialism. This is a major flaw in his argument.

Economic sanctions, such as used against Iraq, are often presented as an alternative to violence, but they aren’t nonviolent because they rely on military force to be enforced. A voluntary boycott is a different matter, but what was applied to Iraq wasn’t a boycott of this sort. So Gowans’ implication that nonviolence can lead to mass death via sanctions is erroneous.

Nonviolent action can be used to attack governments or to defend them. Gowans gives only one side of the picture. There are plenty of cases in which nonviolent action has been used in defense of governments, for example to oppose coups.

A piddling amount of money in support of nonviolent movements doesn’t begin to explain their success. A government can easily match $1 million or $30 million – their security budgets typically run in the billions. So they could easily support nonviolent movements in their own support. If nonviolent action is so powerful, why doesn’t Gowans recommend this? Saying that nonviolent movements keep repeating slogans is not an explanation, because governments have far more resources to repeat their own slogans – and they do.

Nonviolent action is not about taking power, as Gowans would have it, but about waging conflict without using physical violence. It can be used to challenge (or defend) a government; it can also be used to challenge a successor government. It was used against the Iranian government in 1978-79 and is being used today against the current Iranian government.

Gowans says “The major proponents of NVR are not independent grassroots organizers, socialists or anarchists”. This is wrong. He doesn’t mention any of the hundreds of nonviolent struggles going on around the world with which ICNC and AEI have had no connection. He doesn’t mention War Resisters’ International, anti-nuclear direct action, ploughshares activists, rank-and-file worker direct action, anti-corporate globalization actions, environmental direct-action campaigns and many others. Gowans says that NVR is “not used by grassroots organizations in the West to force their own governments to change reactionary policies, …” I don’t know how anyone familiar with nonviolent action could make such a statement.

My reply

Brian Martin’s criticism is based on two confusions:

1. He misunderstands the sense in which I’ve used the term nonviolent resistance (NVR.)
2. He misunderstands my article to be an attack on nonviolent warfare as a method, rather than on the ends to which the most celebrated and large scale applications of NVR have been put.

I’ll show that I’ve used NVR in the sense in which Peter Ackerman, the subject of my article, uses it, and not in the different sense in which Martin apparently uses it. And I’ll show that defenders of Peter Ackerman and Gene Sharp have failed to recognize that the pair regards NVR (appropriately) as a means to an end, and not an end in itself. NVR by itself is neither good nor bad. The critical question is: What is it used for?

While supporters of NVR often regard nonviolent warfare as an end in itself (see for example Peace Magazine), we ought to be careful to distinguish means from ends. NVR, as defined by Peter Ackerman, following his docent, Gene Sharp, is a means to an end, not an end in itself. The end is taking political power. This is the aim ICNC founder Ackerman (not me, as Martin seems to think) attributes to NVR. Indeed, Martin agrees. While denying that NVR is about taking political power, he defines two of three possible uses of NVR as: 1. challenging a government and 2. challenging a successor government. What does challenge a government mean, if not overthrow it, in order to take power? The third possible use, in Martin’s view, is to defend a government, in which case NVR is about defending political power. In either case, NVR is about political power – either taking it, or keeping it. In any event, if Martin thinks NVR isn’t about taking political power, he ought to address his comments to Ackerman. It was Ackerman, not me, who wrote, along with Jack DuVall in a 2002 Sojourners Magazine article, that NVR is “not about making a point, it’s about taking power.”

If NVR is about taking (or defending) political power, we ought to ask: To what end? The answer can be found in the answers to two key questions: (1) Who has promoted the most celebrated uses of NVR? (2) What have been the outcomes (and who has benefited)?

The biggest promoter of NVR is Ackerman, an immensely wealthy investor who is connected to the US foreign policy establishment through the Council on Foreign Relations, the premier U.S. ruling class think-tank. Robert Helvey, another visible proponent, is a 30 year veteran of the US Army who became interested in Gene Sharp’s destabilization techniques as a possibly more effective way of overthrowing foreign governments than armed struggle. Sharp, the “Clausewitz of nonviolence” as he’s known among NVR enthusiasts, has been aptly described as “being the first person to study rigorously the techniques of mass civil disobedience and place them in the context of traditional military strategy.” All three see NVR as an alternative or adjunct to traditional military methods, in pursuit of US foreign policy goals. It is NVR, in this context, and aimed at achieving imperial goals, that I’m concerned with in my article (not with the use of NVR to pursue anti-imperialist or socialist goals.)

Successful destabilization campaigns, of the type my article considers, have invariably led to the strengthening of U.S. financial and corporate interests abroad, and the coming to power of governments oriented to opening doors to US investment and exports. This has been true in Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine.

Significantly, successful destabilizations have been massively funded by the United States, other Western governments, corporate foundations and wealthy individuals (among them Ackerman and George Soros.) The use of NVR techniques to “challenge” US client states, as Martin puts it, happens infrequently, and receives none of the backing, funding, material, logistical, and information warfare support that successful destabilizations against US target governments receive. Martin mentions hundreds of nonviolent struggles going on around the world with which the ICNC and AEI have no connection. These are little known, and can boast modest accomplishments, at best, precisely because they’re grassroots supported, and aren’t backed by massive infusions of aid from imperialist foundations and governments. Without money and material and information warfare support, NVR is at a severe disadvantage and has little chance of achieving its goal of taking political power, absent a severe destabilizing crisis, whether war or economic collapse. Indeed, successful NVR campaigns have often been helped along by actual or threatened military intervention and economic hardship created by sanctions or blockade.

Arguing, as Martin does, that Western government- and foundation-supported NVR campaigns operate independently of US foreign policy goals because the ICNC and AEI have introduced nonviolent strategy to movements challenging US client governments, is tantamount to claiming the New York Times is not dominated by a US ruling class perspective because it has a few token left-liberal columnists. (Martin’s points would be more compelling if he backed them up with evidence, rather than simply making unsubstantiated statements, a common practice among supporters of Ackerman, Sharp, and Helvey. For example, he ought to let us know what US client governments the ICNC and AEI are helping foreign dissidents overthrow, citing relevant documents.)

There is, I think, a misconception that Martin labors under. He seems to believe that I have attacked NVR as a technique and have set my sights on discrediting War Resisters’ International, anti-nuclear direct action, ploughsares activists and any other group that uses nonviolent warfare to achieve its goals. That’s not the case. At the end of my article I point to the possibility that NVR “may stimulate Western leftists to think about how they too might use the destabilizers’ techniques to take power in their own country to win the authentic battle for democracy.” This goal is on the same level as Ackerman’s (taking political power) rather than the level on which I suspect Martin operates (pressuring elites, with no intention of replacing them.) In any event, I take issue not with nonviolent warfare, but with the ends to which the most successful and large scale applications of NVR have been put. NVR can be used for good, or bad. It is no more an end in itself than military warfare is. To believe that all NVR campaigns are good (or bad) simply because they’re based on nonviolent warfare is unsupportable. I fear that Martin, like the principals of Peace Magazine, has failed to distinguish means from ends, or has set nonviolence itself as an end, irrespective of what nonviolent warfare is used to achieve.

It’s not clear whether Martin is sincerely confused or whether he is dishonestly trying to portray Ackerman, Helvey and Sharp as champions of a progressive cause. It could be that he believes that resolving conflicts nonviolently is a goal to be aspired to, and doesn’t particularly care about who wins in conflicts, so long as the winners prevail through nonviolent methods. If so, then nonviolence as a value has been elevated above freedom from oppression and freedom from exploitation. Indeed, anyone who seeks to intensify oppression and exploitation, so long as he does so nonviolently, would be all right in Martin’s book and worthy of being defended. Would Martin applaud the Nazi’s pursuit of Lebensraum, had it been pursued through nonviolent warfare?

Finally, Martin claims not to know how anyone familiar with nonviolent action could say that NVR is not used by grassroots organizations in the West to force their own governments to change reactionary policies. This is born of confusion about how Ackerman defines NVR. According to Ackerman, NVR is “the shrewd use of strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience” in addition to mass protests and even nonviolent sabotage, to disrupt the functioning of government and make “a country ungovernable.” If there is a campaign in the United States or elsewhere in the Western world, where activists are using strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience, and nonviolent sabotage to make their country ungovernable, then I’m surely not aware of it. (I am, on the other hand, aware of several such campaigns operating outside the West in countries whose governments Washington openly seeks to overthrow.) One would hope that in the United States, home of the principal proponents of NVR, that strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience, and nonviolent sabotage were being used to make the US ungovernable, in order to replace a state systemically committed to war, imperialism and exploitation, but sadly that isn’t happening. Instead, the only contribution to peace NVR promoters are willing to make is to agitate for the use of nonviolent warfare to overthrow US regime change targets, so that the Pentagon doesn’t have to be called upon to do so. This is a deeply conservative agenda. Clearly, if Martin believes NVR is being used to change the reactionary policies of Western governments, his understanding of NVR is very different from that of Ackerman.

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August 20, 2009 at 10:52 pm

Peaceniks for imperialism

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Canada’s Peace Magazine and the promotion of non-military warfare in the service of US foreign policy goals

By Stephen Gowans

While apparently possessing impeccable leftwing credentials, the Canadian publication, Peace Magazine, is a bulwark of conservatism which virtually operates as a house organ of the Ackerman-Helvey-Sharp destabilization school of US foreign policy. Although it opposes military intervention in the pursuit of US foreign policy goals, it is supportive of liberal-democratic-free-trade capitalist arrangements and the overthrow of governments that operate outside the US axis of domination. It promotes the use of US-sponsored and funded nonviolent resistance (NVR), sometimes called political defiance, or what the CIA calls destabilization, to “take out” governments whose overthrow Washington justifies by demonizing as dictatorial. And it uncritically echoes the pronouncements on official enemies of the White House and US State Department, endorsing from the left US government-provided pretexts for the expansion of US imperialism. The peace that Peace Magazine promotes, is one in which the United States is firmly in control, and the system of government and economy its ruling class favours has been imposed, willy-nilly, in every corner of the earth.

The Ackerman-Helvey-Sharp destabilization school

Peter Ackerman, an immensely wealthy investor and member of the premier US establishment think-tank, the Council on Foreign Relations, and Robert Helvey, a thirty year veteran of the US Army, are the major proponents of a method developed by Gene Sharp for destabilizing foreign governments. While the name NVR gives the technique a fresh look, it is nothing more than CIA-style destabilization, with a twist: it rejects overt CIA sponsorship to escape the taint of being associated with the CIA. Instead, it relies on funding channelled openly through Western government and ruling class foundations. Ackerman defines the technique as: “the shrewd use of strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience” [1] in addition to mass protests [2] and even nonviolent sabotage, to disrupt the functioning of government [3] and make “a country ungovernable.” [4] NVR, then, is equivalent to the CIA-engineered destabilization used to help overthrow Chile’s leftist president, Salvador Allende.

Ackerman, Helvey and Sharp are involved in some capacity in deploying Sharp’s destabilization techniques to countries the US government pressures diplomatically, militarily and economically: Cuba, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, Belarus, Myanmar, Iran, and formerly Georgia, Ukraine and Yugoslavia. Peace Magazine likes the governments of none of these countries, calling Venezuela’s economic policies mistaken [5] and welcoming a nonviolent resistance to (i.e., destabilization of) Hugo Chavez’s government. [6] The magazine’s fondest wishes have been fulfilled. “A couple of people who worked with us, including Bob Helvey, have been there and done a workshop for Venezuelans,” explains Gene Sharp. [7]

The trio illegitimately abstracts destabilization from the multi-tiered approach the United States employs to take out targeted foreign governments, in order to argue deceptively that NVR alone, and not NVR plus the threat or use of military violence plus economic warfare are responsible for regime change successes. For example, the role of a 78-day bombing campaign and economic warfare in the eventual ouster of Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic has been minimized by the destabilizers, whose version of history holds that it was Helvey’s training of US-funded nonviolent mercenaries in Sharp’s techniques that was responsible for Milosevic’s overthrow and his replacement by a US-backed neo-liberal regime.

Peace Magazine amplifies this deception, acting as an indefatigable cheerleading squad for Sharp, Helvey and Ackerman and their views. All three have been frequently featured in the magazine, through major interviews, or through the wholesale adoption of their positions in editorials, or both.

Promoting capitalist democracy

Editor Metta Spencer frequently adulates democracy, whose imposition on other countries has formed one of the enduring pretexts for US interventions. The democracy she celebrates is the multi-party parliamentary democracy dominant in the West, and not the original idea of rule by or for a previously subordinate class or people – the original sense having always been regarded as dangerous and undesirable by property-owning classes (and social democrats, too, to say nothing, I suspect, of Peace Magazine.) To be sure, it is not democracy in its dangerous and original sense that Spencer adulates. It is democracy tamed by the wealthy that she celebrates.

In an interview with Seymour Martin Lipset, Spencer invites the academic to refute Western democracy’s Marxist critics.

Spencer: But people sometimes say, “Don’t tell me Canada and the United States are democratic. Look at the way money controls the outcome of the elections…”

Lipset: …It is obviously true that money has enormous influence on elections. However, that does not determine everything. [8]

The Marxist critique of Western democracy isn’t that money determines everything, but that those who own productive property and therefore have immense wealth have the means to dominate the electoral process and shape its outcomes to favour their interests and to encroach upon the interests of everyone else. They don’t always get their way, true – but they often do. That the wealthy don’t always win, however, is hardly a ringing endorsement of capitalist democracy, and hardly a reason to be satisfied with it or work for its promotion. Nevertheless, Lipset and Spencer believe that so long as the majority can influence the government some of the time on some issues in some way, all is well.

Cuba’s democracy, based on the election of individuals unaffiliated with political parties (as opposed to ambitious, exhibitionist lawyers who have been vetted by political parties financed overwhelmingly by wealthy individuals and corporations) doesn’t count as democracy in the Peace Magazine view. Cuba, instead, is denounced by the magazine as a tyranny, and Cuba’s former president, and presumably its current one, too, is regarded as being on the same plane as Hitler, Pinochet, Saddam Hussein, and Ida Amin. So too are Lenin and Stalin. [9] That Peace Magazine’s democratic sympathies lie with those of the dominant property-owning class in the West, and not with revolutionaries guided by a definition of democracy closer to the original meaning, is evident in Spencer drawing on the arch-establishment figure, imperialist and war criminal Winston Churchill, for support. “As Winston Churchill pointed out,” she reminds us sententiously, “democracy is the worst system of government — except all others.” [10]

In Spencer’s view, “Democratic states virtually never are involved in wars against other democratic states” (only against “repressive” or “failed” states). [11] The absurdity of this view hardly needs to be pointed out. Israel, a multi-party democracy along Western lines, attacked Gaza, precisely because the Palestinian territories are a democracy which elected a party, Hamas, which Israel refuses to accept. The only way this nonsense can be made true is by defining the democratic states that other democratic states attack as being repressive or failed. But the logic is circular. In 1999, Yugoslavia, a federation that had adopted Western multi-party democracy, was attacked militarily by Western democracies. But in the circular logic of Peace Magazine, Yugoslavia was attacked because it was repressive, and therefore not truly democratic. But how do we decide when a country is truly democratic, and when it is repressive or failed? Moreover, who decides? The answer, in the Peace Magazine view, is that Washington does.

Legitimizing imperialist intervention

The Peace Magazine modus operandi is to accept all US government pronouncements on the threats posed by foreign governments as true, and then to propose the use of Sharp’s destabilization techniques as an alternative to military intervention to deal with the threats.

For example, Peace Magazine contributor John Bacher wrote in a 2004 review of a Robert Helvey book that, “Rather than attempting to build costly and leaky shields for missiles from Iran and north Korea, why not seek non-violently to change these regimes into democracies?” [12] Apparently, it never occurred to Bacher to ask why Iran and North Korea would attack the West, since it would mean their immediate annihilation, nor inquire into what possible motivation either country could have to lob missiles at the West. Instead, he accepted as true a rather transparent pretext for justifying the construction of missile shields that would provide the United States with a nuclear first strike capability against Russia, while fattening the bottom lines of US military contractors.

Even more astonishingly, in 2003, the magazine’s editor took peace activists to task for failing to acknowledge that “George W. Bush was right about…the need for regime change in Iraq.” [13] She echoed Peter Ackerman, who, a year earlier, had teamed up with sidekick Jack DuVall to write a Sojourner’s Magazine article urging “anyone who opposes U.S. military action to dethrone (Saddam Hussein)…to suggest how he (Hussein) might otherwise be ushered out the backdoor of Baghdad.” [14] Spencer also scolded “the organizers of protests (against the war on Iraq, for failing to) on the whole propose any alternative nonviolent way of bringing democracy to Iraq.” [15] In this, the magazine accepted US positions on Iraq as legitimate, and demanded that opponents pressure the US government to use non-military means. In the Peace Magazine view, the left should partner with the US government, and try to influence it to adopt less sanguinary methods of achieving its foreign policy goals. This apes Gene Sharp. Asked what he thought of mass demonstrations in the United States against the war on Iraq, Sharp replied,

“I don’t think you can get rid of violence by protesting against it. I think you get rid of violence only if people see that you have a different way of acting, a different way of struggle. […] Part of my analysis is that if you don’t like violence, you have to develop a substitute. Then people have a choice. If they don’t see a choice, then violence is all that they really have. […] The thing that is most shocking is that the Bush Administration acted on the basis of the belief – dogma, ‘religion’ – in the omnipotence of violence. […] The assumption is an invading country can come in, remove its official leader, arrest some of the other people, and well, then, the dictatorship is gone.” [16]

The reason Spencer believes peace activists should endorse Washington’s regime change agenda is evident in her approval of the “responsibility to protect” doctrine, an up-to-date intellectual apology for imperialism. She writes,

“States have a responsibility to protect their own citizens. If instead they abuse them, as in Iraq, they cannot take refuge in the usual rules of sovereignty. The international community may legitimately intervene against such a state.” [17]

The critical flaw in this doctrine lies in the question of who decides when a state has abnegated its responsibility. The answer is “the international community,” a high-sounding synonym for the United States and any other country Washington can bully, cajole or entice to join a coalition under its leadership.

Spencer tops off her endorsement of the US right to determine when intervention is justified with jaw-dropping sophistry.

“And having been complicit in imposing sanctions that caused the deaths of a million or so Iraqis, we have a moral duty now to intervene and help them…” [18]

By this logic, creating a grave injustice through an initial intervention provides a perpetual moral obligation to continue to intervene to try to set the original injustice straight. Of course, the United States and Britain’s subsequent military intervention, following the mass murder of over one million Iraqis in the preceding decade through economic warfare, didn’t redress the initial injustice. Instead, it sparked a humanitarian calamity of colossal magnitude, far greater than the one in Darfur. And yet the magazine advocates non-military warfare to overthrow the government of Sudan [19], but is completely silent on the use of the same NVR techniques to disrupt the US government and make US society ungovernable, to put a stop to the much larger, US-engineered, catastrophe in Iraq.

National Sovereignty

In an astonishing exchange with Gene Sharp, Spencer expresses her contempt for national sovereignty (at least that of countries the United States seeks to dominate) and wonders why anyone would object to Washington overthrowing foreign governments.

Spencer: Recently we showed the film about Otpor (an underground destabilization group trained by Robert Helvey and bankrolled by the US government) and the overthrow of Milosevic, Bringing Down a Dictator. Lots of pro-Milosevic people were present. The real issue for them is, here is the evil US…funding this nonviolent resistance. To them that’s a cardinal sin. A government cannot sponsor the overthrow of another government!

Sharp: Why not?

Spencer: Because the US has interests and it’s supposedly immoral to have interests. Nobody is surprised that the US gives guns to people, but the idea that they assisted the Serbs to get rid of Milosevic seems somehow especially evil. To my mind, it is particularly the US, of all countries, that I want to see supporting nonviolence. It would be the greatest thing in the world for the US to adopt nonviolence.

Sharp: … What do they prefer that the US spend money on? [20]

Intervention

While the defense of national sovereignty has become associated with the left, it has not always been true that the left has supported an absolute right of countries to be free from foreign intervention. Indeed, there have been frequent interventions supported by the left and carried out by leftist forces: the Soviet Union and the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War;  China in the US imperialist war on the Korean peninsula; Cuba in Africa. In these interventions the question wasn’t whether countries had an absolute right to sovereignty, but whether the reasons for and outcomes of intervention were progressive. Was the point to free a class from exploitation and a people from oppression, or to provide a foreign ruling class with new opportunities for expropriating the economic surplus of another country?

Peace Magazine and the destabilizers present US interventions as progressive, guided by opposition to tyranny and the goal of spreading democracy. But the question is whether the democracy the destabilizers promote is a cover for another kind of tyranny, that of domination by US corporate and financial interests. One way to tell is to look at the outcome of successful interventions. Who benefited? Who was injured? In Yugoslavia, the intervention the destabilizers point to with particular pride, the overthrow of the socialist Milosevic, was soon followed by a spate of privatizations, in which formerly publically- and socially-owned assets were bought by Western investors. In Eastern Europe, where a similar destabilization paradigm helped bring about the collapse of socialism and its replacement by a liberal-democratic-capitalist model, joblessness, economic insecurity, deep inequality and the recrudescence of previously virtually eliminated diseases, replaced equality of income, education, healthcare and opportunity. That the outcomes of US interventions have not been progressive may explain why the destabilizers never consider them. But to Spencer, outcomes don’t matter.

“Getting rid of Milosevic did not immediately bring good governance to Serbia…and neither Afghanistan nor Iraq will likely become democratic soon…We can’t help much with that. But their democratization must start with liberation, and we can help them achieve that – non-violently.” [21]

Having no qualms about aligning itself with Washington’s imperialist projects, Peace Magazine endorses without scruple the Western government foundations which support the work of the destabilizers. Asking “How can we help?”, the magazine explains that,

“Many countries maintain organizations that help democratic opposition movements inside tyrannical regimes. In Britain, it’s the Westminster Foundation. In the US it’s the National Endowment for Democracy. In Sweden it’s the Olaf Palme Center. In Canada it’s Montreal-based Rights and Democracy. Moreover, there are experts who have studied nonviolent struggle and who can help dissident movements develop effective strategies” [22] such as Robert Helvey.

It would doubtlessly cause little embarrassment to the magazine to point out that the National Endowment for Democracy was established by the Reagan administration to overtly bankroll the overthrow movements the CIA used to fund covertly. So long as imperialist goals are pursued through non-military means, Peace Magazine is content.

Conclusion

Despite its apparent left credentials, Peace Magazine serves the conservative function of legitimizing the goals of US foreign policy and burnishing the reputation of a capitalist democracy subordinated to US corporate and financial domination. The magazine apes the views of Peter Ackerman, Robert Helvey and Gene Sharp, the major proponents within the US establishment of the use of destabilization methods to overthrow foreign governments that resist domination by US corporate and financial interests. The magazine’s only disagreement with US foreign policy is its reliance on military intervention. This disagreement is motivated in part by a public relations concern. If the US government “would restrict its interventions to aiding nonviolent opponents of tyrants,” the magazine contends, “the world would admire it.” [23] That a peace magazine wants the world to admire the leading champion of capitalist imperialism leaves little doubt as to its orientation, whose side it’s on, and what role it seeks to play in the struggle for economic, social and political justice.

1. Ackerman, Peter, “Paths to peace: How Serbian students brought dictator down without a shot fired,” National Catholic Reporter, April 26, 2002.
2. Ackerman, Peter and Jack DuVall, “The nonviolent script for Iran,” Christian Science Monitor, July 22, 2003.
3. Ackerman, Peter and Jack DuVall, “With weapons of the will: How to topple Saddam Hussein – nonviolently,” Sojourners Magazine, September-October 2002 (Vol 31, No. 5, pp.20-23.)
4. Ackerman and DuVall, 2003.
5. Spencer, Metta, “Gene Sharp 101.” Peace Magazine, July-September 2003. “Personally, I think Chavez is steering the wrong course on economic matters,” writes Spenser. “They won’t get out of the hole until they have different policies.”
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid.
8. Spencer, Metta, “Democracy matters: A conversation with Seymour Martin Lipset,” Peace Magazine, July-September, 2000.
9. Spencer, Metta, “Introduction: Nonviolence versus a dictatorship,” Peace Magazine, October-December, 2001.
10. Ibid.
11. Ibid.
12. Bacher, John, “On Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: Thinking About the Fundamentals,” Peace Magazine, October-December 2004.
13. From the Editor, Peace Magazine, April-June, 2003.
14. Ackerman, Peter and Jack DuVall, “With weapons of the will: How to topple Saddam Hussein – nonviolently,” Sojourners Magazine, September-October 2002 (Vol 31, No. 5, pp.20-23.
15. Metta Spencer, “Ushering Democracy into Iraq – Nonviolently,” Peace Magazine, January-March 2003.
16. Pal, Amitabh, “Gene Sharp Interview,” The Progressive, March 2007.
17. From the editor, 2003.
18. Ibid.
19. Lee McKenna, “The nonviolent way in Sudan,” Peace Magazine, January-March, 2009.
20. Spencer, July-September 2003.
21. From the editor, 2003.
22. Spencer, Metta, January-March, 2003.
23. From the editor, 2003.

Overthrow Inc.: Peter Ackerman’s quest to do what the CIA used to do, and make it seem progressive

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“When some of State’s desk officers don’t want to create international incidents by advising activists on how to overthrow governments, they gently suggest visiting Ackerman, who has fewer qualms about lending a helping hand.”  [1a]

“Gene Sharp [is] the author of a series of books on nonviolent conflict who is generally credited with being the first person to study rigorously the techniques of mass civil disobedience and place them in the context of traditional military strategy.” [1b]

Interviewer: (Some people say) a government cannot fund or sponsor the overthrow of another government!

Gene Sharp: Why not?…What do they prefer that the U.S. spend money on? [1c]

By Stephen Gowans

Peter Ackerman, an immensely wealthy investor and board member of the premier U.S. foreign policy think-tank, the Council on Foreign Relations, [2] and Robert Helvey, a 30 year veteran of the U.S. Army [3] who served two tours of duty in Vietnam [4], are the principal proponents of a nonviolent alternative to military intervention in the pursuit of U.S. foreign policy goals. Students of Gene Sharp, who developed a theory of how to destabilize governments through nonviolent means, Ackerman and Helvey have been at the head of a kind of Imperialist International, training “a modern type of mercenary,” who travel “the world, often in the pay of the U.S. government or NGOs, in order to train local groups” [5] in regime change. Ackerman and Helvey’s new type of mercenary are practioners of what the CIA used to call destabilization. To escape the taint of its CIA past, destabilization has been rebranded as nonviolent resistance (NVR), shrewdly drawing upon the reputation of Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent struggles for black civil rights in the 1960s. But where King sought to bring about change within the system, and in the United States, NVR is strictly a foreign affair, seeking to overturn governments abroad that operate outside the system of U.S. imperial domination. NVR is not about pursuing social, economic and political justice at home. It’s about taking power overseas, in order to bring resistant countries into the U.S. imperial fold. To make itself appear to be squeaky clean, NVR explicitly rejects overt CIA and U.S. military sponsorship. As Helvey explains, “The easiest way to destroy a movement is for the CIA to taint it.” [6] That, however, doesn’t make NVR any different in its aims and content from the destabilization campaigns the CIA used to plan, sponsor and implement. Indeed, Ackerman and Helvey have simply taken over a CIA function, made it semi-overt, and created the illusion that it’s progressive.

What is it?

Ackerman defines NVR as “the shrewd use of strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience” [7] in addition to mass protests [8] and even nonviolent sabotage, to disrupt the functioning of government [9] and make “a country ungovernable.”[10] Since strikes, boycotts and civil disobedience are traditional leftist techniques, NVR campaigns often garner the support of a large number of left-leaning people. But NVR isn’t holding a demonstration, listening to speakers, and then heading home for supper. Neither is it pressuring elites — what most Western leftists set as the limit of their political activism. It isn’t pacifism based on moral or religious principle, either. Former Harvard researcher Sharp, explains that NVR and principled nonviolence are not the same. Principled nonviolence is “abstention from violence based on ethical or religious beliefs.” NVR is a political technique for overthrowing foreign governments. [11] “It’s not about making a point, it’s about taking power.” [12]

Since the aim of NVR is to take political power abroad, NVR can be characterized as a form of Western warfare, employing nonviolent armies behind enemy lines. In fact, it was Sharp’s analysis of how regime change could be accomplished effectively that drew Helvey, the U.S. Army veteran, to the Clausewitz of nonviolence, as Sharp is known, after the Prussian military strategist, Carl von Clausewitz. [13]

Helvey had been the military attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon, where he witnessed armed opposition groups repeatedly fail in their attempts to overthrow the Myanmar government. [14] The trouble was that rebel groups were going up against a regular army that could exercise overwhelming force. Sharp’s analysis suggested an alternative. Drawing on social science literature on power, Sharp pointed out that governments have two sources of power: their ability to exact obedience coercively through their control of armies, police, courts and prisons; and their moral authority. Since a government can use overwhelming force to defeat most internal armed challenges, the key to taking power is to undermine the reason most people obey: because they believe their government is legitimate and has a right to rule. In Sharp’s view, most people obey, not because they’re compelled to, but because they want to. If a government’s legitimacy is undermined, people will no longer want to obey. That’s when they can be mobilized to participate in strikes, boycotts, acts of civil disobedience, even sabotage – anything that makes the country ungovernable. “Removing the authority of the ruler,” according to NVR advocates, “is the most important element in nonviolent struggle.” [15]

NVR holds that destabilization works best when the target government is not “supported by an entrenched party system that can claim a higher ideological purpose.” [16] This may explain why destabilizers have attacked the ideological basis of Zimbabwe’s Zanu-PF leadership, suggesting that the party’s leader and Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, maintains a “hold on power (that) is…reliant on personal loyalties and their reinforcement by material rewards and mortal penalties,” not commitment to national independence. [17] In regime change discourse, Mugabe is said to have cronies, who he rewards with confiscated farms, to hold on to power. That Mugabe and his principals could be genuinely committed to investing Zimbabwe’s nominal post-colonial independence with real content, is dismissed by NVR promoters as out of the question. The same cynical arguments are used to challenge the moral authority of Cuba’s government. The Castros are accused of being motivated by an unquenchable thirst for power, not an ideological commitment to socialism and national independence. For destabilizers, breeding a cynical view of the leaders of countries in their cross-hairs is a necessary part of undermining their targets’ legitimacy.

To buttress their efforts to undermine the moral authority of target governments, the destabilizers depend critically on the frequent use of the words “dictatorial” (to denote the governments they seek to bring down) and “democratic” (to denote the target government’s opponents.) It doesn’t matter whether the target governments are truly dictatorial or whether their opponents are truly democratic. What matters is that these things are believed to be true. Getting people to believe target governments are dictatorial is done by repeating the charge incessantly, until the idea takes on the status of common knowledge, so widely accepted that proof is unnecessary.

But what if the “dictator” has been elected, as is often the case in destabilization efforts? The destabilizers’ solution is to claim the elected leader came to power illegitimately, by means of electoral fraud. For example, while widely denounced in the West as fraudulent, the recent re-election of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appears not to have been fraudulent at all. No compelling evidence of vote rigging was ever presented, and the only rigorous public opinion poll done in the weeks leading up to the election — sponsored by the Ahmadinejad-hating International Republican Institute — predicted the Iranian president would be re-elected by a handsome margin. Indeed, the poll foresaw Ahmadinejad winning by a greater margin that he actually did win. [18] Still, Western media and their governments’ propaganda apparatuses — Voice of America, Radio Free Liberty and the misnamed “independent” media that serve as fronts for the Western governments that finance them – repeated the opposition charge of electoral fraud over and over. Soon, the mass media and state propaganda apparatuses were singing out as one: the election was rigged.

In Zimbabwe, which for a number of years has been a target of the destabilizers, elections are routinely denounced as fraudulent, even before they’re held. This was true too of Zimbabwe’s last elections, which saw the opposition parties win more seats than the governing party, and the main opposition leader beat the sitting president in the first round of the presidential vote. While this is powerful evidence the elections weren’t rigged, the destabilizers continue to insist the presidential vote was illegitimate. This is so because the main opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, dropped out at the 11th hour. Tsvangirai’s decision appears to have come straight from the destabilizers’ playbook. Had he stayed in the race, he might have lost, and relinquished any possibility of challenging Mugabe’s rule as illegitimate. (He couldn’t credibly say the vote was rigged because he had won the first round.) By dropping out, and blaming his decision on violence perpetrated by Mugabe’s supporters, Tsvangirai could challenge Mugabe’s moral authority to rule. After all, he could say that in the only contested election, he had won.

Likewise, an important part of the destabilizers’ efforts to overthrow Slobodan Milosevic was to declare well before the first vote was cast in the 2000 presidential election that the outcome was a foregone conclusion. Milosevic would win, illegitimately. In fact, Milosevic came second to the main opposition leader, who failed to win more than 50 percent of the vote. With no candidate commanding a clear majority, a run-off election was scheduled. The runoff never happened. Instead, Milosevic was overthrown with the help of forces trained by Helvey [19]…in the name of democracy.

To complement the branding of target governments as dictatorial, opposition forces are branded as democratic. It is no accident that the main opposition party in Serbia, formed under the guidance of U.S. advisers [20], was called the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, or that the main opposition party in Zimbabwe is called the Movement for Democratic Change, or that the main opposition party in Myanmar, Helvey’s pet project, is called the National League of Democracy. Western media reinforce this branding by frequently referring to opposition parties in countries undergoing destabilization as “the democratic opposition,” implying the governments they oppose are dictatorial. This invests the opposition, and its struggle to replace the government, with apparent legitimacy, while undermining the legitimacy of the government under attack. Likewise, the modern nonviolent mercenaries who travel the globe in the pay of the U.S. government and NGOs, are celebrated as “pro-democracy” activists, as are the armies of (typically) youth activists they train. Even some left scholars, out of ignorance or collaboration, refer to these groups as an “independent” democratic left, presumably because they use techniques traditionally associated with the left, though hardly with the same aims.

After absorbing Sharp’s teachings, Helvey became deeply involved in helping the National Council Union of Burma try to destabilize the Myanmar government, not by challenging it militarily, but by undermining its moral authority to govern. He took a detour along the way, to train Serb youth groups on how to destabilize the government of Slobodan Milosevic [21], an event Ackerman would celebrate in a documentary titled (with predictable NVR language distortion) “Bringing Down a Dictator.” With the socialist-leaning Milosevic safely out of the way, and Serbia opening its door to takeover by U.S. investors, Helvey jumped back into organizing the destabilization of Myanmar.

Over a number of years, Helvey’s mercenaries,

“trained an estimated 3,000 fellow Burmese from all walks of life – including several hundred Buddhist monks – in philosophies and strategies of non-violent resistance and community organizing. These workshops, held in border areas and drawing people from all over Burma, were seen as ‘training the trainers’ who would go home and share these ideas with others yearning for change.” [22]

“That preparation – along with material support such as mobile phones – helped lay the groundwork for dissident Buddhist monks in September (2007) to call for a religious boycott of the junta, precipitating the biggest anti-government protests in two decades. For 10 dramatic days, monks and lay citizens…poured into the streets in numbers that peaked at around 100,000 before the regime crushed the demonstrations…” [23]

The U.S. Navy would dearly love to lay its hands on Myanmar. The country lies strategically along the Strait of Malacca, a major shipping-lane linking China to the oil of Western Asia and Africa. Control of Myanmar would allow the U.S. Navy to choke off one of China’s major oil supply routes, bringing the behemoth to its knees, if ever Washington felt the need. The Myanmar government, however, has aligned itself with China, and is not ready to allow the Pentagon to use its ports as naval bases. What’s more, the country has a largely state-owned economy, closed to U.S. corporations, banks and investors. Washington would like to bring Myanmar under its control, and Helvey and Ackerman’s destabilization techniques offer the best chance of doing so.

“Burmese opposition activists acknowledge receiving technical and financial help for their cause.” The help came “from the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy, George Soros’s Open Society Institute and several European countries. […] International donors and activists figure Burmese opposition groups received $8m-$10m in 2006 and again in 2007 from American and European funders… […] In 2006 and 2007, the (U.S.) congressionally funded NED…spent around $3.7M a year on its Burmese program…These funds were used to support opposition media, including the Democratic Voice of Burma, a radio station and satellite television channel to bolster dissidents’ information technology skills and to help exiles’ training of Buddhist monks and other dissident techniques of peaceful political resistance.” [24]

From 1992 to 1998, Helvey taught eight, six-week courses to more than 500 members of the National Council Union of Burma, on how to apply Sharp’s techniques to overthrow the Myanmar government [25]. More recently “some 600 Burmese have gone through both introductory and advanced courses” in destabilization taught by the Albert Einstein Institution [26]. Sharp is the organization’s scholar in residence.

Antiviolence, not antiwar

Antiwar activists will find no ideological soul mates in Ackerman, Helvey and Sharp, who are conditionally against the use of violence, not out of moral principle, but because they believe violence is often an ineffective method of achieving what political violence is normally intended to achieve: the seizure of power. As New Republic writer Franklin Foer points out, “Ackerman’s affection for nonviolence has nothing to do with the tactic’s moral superiority. Movements that make a strategic decision to eschew violence, he argues, have a far better record of” success. [27]

The destabilizers represent a faction within the U.S. ruling class that pushes for a nonmilitary means of achieving a goal all ruling class factions agree on: regime change in countries that resist integration into the U.S. imperial orbit. Ackerman, for example, argues that “It is not true that the only way to ‘take out’ (axis of evil regimes) is through U.S. military action.” [28] He opposes the faction led by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, which favors a robustly militaristic imperialism, based on the overwhelming use of force. In the lead-up to the 2003 U.S. and British invasion of Iraq, Ackerman and DuVall wrote an article in Sojourner’s Magazine arguing that “anyone who opposes U.S. military action to dethrone (Saddam Hussein) has a responsibility to suggest how he might otherwise be ushered out the backdoor of Baghdad.” (Notice Ackerman and DuVall implicitly removed the option of leaving Saddam Hussein’s fate to Iraqis, to decide for themselves, without outside interference.) The answer, they contended, was to “use a panoply of forceful sanctions – strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience, disrupting the functions of government, even nonviolent sabotage…” [29]

Ackerman’s mentor, Sharp, expresses similar views. Asked what he thought of mass demonstrations in the United States against the war on Iraq, Sharp replied,

“I don’t think you can get rid of violence by protesting against it. I think you get rid of violence only if people see that you have a different way of acting, a different way of struggle. […] Part of my analysis is that if you don’t like violence, you have to develop a substitute. Then people have a choice. If they don’t see a choice, then violence is all that they really have. […] The thing that is most shocking is that the Bush Administration acted on the basis of the belief – dogma, ‘religion’ – in the omnipotence of violence. […] The assumption is an invading country can come in, remove its official leader, arrest some of the other people, and well, then, the dictatorship is gone.” [30]

In other words, Sharp’s contribution to the peace movement is showing the U.S. ruling class it can achieve its imperialist goals by nonmilitary means. Sharp and his disciples Ackerman and Helvey aren’t progressives at all. Nor are they advocates of the moral superiority of nonviolence. They’re imperialists who believe violence isn’t always the best policy in achieving imperial goals. The antiwar activists who have been misled by this trio, and by their publicist within the progressive community, Stephen Zunes, should be clear that NVR is a military technique yoked to political goals that serve the ruling class interests of the United States. It is not a moral position. It is a form of warfare with imperial political content. Helvey calls it “nonviolent war.” [31]

“It’s a form of warfare. And you’ve got to think of it in terms of a war. […] What is it that I want to accomplish? And how do I want to accomplish it? […] One option, of course, is an armed struggle. Another option is…a nonviolent struggle. And in some cases the ballot box is the way to bring about change. […] You’ve got to make a decision which is a strategic decision. And if you decide to accept nonviolent struggle, the same principles of war (apply.)” [32]

War can be waged in many ways: economically, through sanctions, blockade and financial isolation; militarily, through the use or threat of violence; electronically, through cyber attacks to freeze an enemy’s bank accounts and cripple its government and communication systems; and through other methods of destabilization, to make an enemy society ungovernable. It’s wrong to believe that war is limited to violence and that violence is always the most injurious form of warfare. Other forms can be just as devastating. For example, sanctions on Iraq during the 1990s were estimated to have led to the deaths through malnutrition and disease of well over one million people, an outcome Madeleine Albright, who sits on the board of the Council on Foreign Relations with Ackerman, said was worth it. [33] Political scientists John and Karl Mueller pointed out that more people have died from sanctions (an element of NVR, as we’ll see in a moment) than from weapons of mass destruction. [34] For these reasons, antiwar activists should ask: What am I against: Violence — or warfare (both violent and nonviolent) to achieve imperialist goals?

Outside assistance

In his earlier writings Ackerman was open about Western support for destabilization campaigns. But in more recent articles he has become circumspect, calling destabilization movements home-grown and arguing that “external aid can help, but it’s neither necessary nor sufficient.” [35] He was not so modest about the role played by the West when he boasted in a 2002 National Catholic Reporter article about Serb students bringing Milosevic down without a shot being fired. In that article he wrote about how “massive civilian opposition can be roused with the shrewd use of strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience and other forms of nonviolent resistance – all of which can be quietly assisted, even funded from abroad, as happened in Serbia.” [36] The reference to outside assistance being delivered quietly shows he’s aware that were it widely known that so-called “people power” movements are aided from abroad, their moral authority (and alleged home-grown character) would be called into question. That explains why “An iron rule for (the Milosevic opposition) was never to talk about Western financial or logistical support,” [37] and why, with the massive involvement of Western governments in “people power” movements having since become a matter of public record, Ackerman denies that outside aid is necessary. But only the incorrigibly gullible would believe Western governments and corporate foundations spend countless millions funding destabilization movements unnecessarily.

U.S. involvement in the hardly spontaneously erupting drive to dump Milosevic was massive. As the Washington Post’s Michael Dobbs reported,

“U.S.-funded consultants played a crucial role behind the scenes in virtually every facet of the anti-Milosevic drive, running tracking polls, training thousands of opposition activists and helping to organize a vitally important parallel vote count. U.S. taxpayers paid for 5,000 cans of spray paint used by student activists to scrawl anti-Milosevic graffiti on walls across Serbia, and 2.5 million stickers with the slogan “He’s Finished,” which became the revolution’s catchphrase.” [38]

Helvey was at the center. [39] “Behind the seeming spontaneity of the street uprising that forced Milosevic” from power “was a carefully researched strategy put together by (anti-Milosevic forces on the ground) with the active assistance of Western advisers and pollsters.” [40] The U.S. government “employed every element of Sharp’s nonviolent strategy for destroying” a foreign government. To assist, “sanctions were applied in a … targeted fashion. For example, they were not applied to municipalities that voted to support opposition politicians.” [41]

Washington spent $41 million to oust Milosevic, $10 million in 1999 and $31 million in 2000. “The lead role was taken by the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development…which channeled the funds through commercial contractors” [42] and the National Endowment for Democracy, established by the Reagan administration to overtly fund destabilization campaigns the CIA once funded covertly.

Helvey, the military strategist, might disagree with Ackerman about outside assistance being unnecessary. According to Helvey, in order to carry out a successful destabilization campaign,

“You need radios and the ability to produce and distribute information. You need to be able to train. You need to provide the activists with some income to take care of their families. When people get arrested, you need to take food to them in prison or the hospital.” [43]

Real grassroots activists — that is, those who aren’t dependent on lucre from philanthropic foundations — are unlikely to have the cash to pay for the inputs a campaign of nonviolent warfare requires. That’s where Western governments and corporate foundations come in. They’re often happy to furnish the needed material support, because the power-seizing aim of NVR has happy consequences for the bottom lines of their transnational business and investor patrons. If real grassroots activists think they’re going to secure foundation or government funding for genuinely democratic and socialist projects, they’re mistaken. Western governments and corporate foundations limit funding to activists who, whether they know it or not, act to advance corporate and imperialist goals.

Even Ackerman disagrees that outside help is unnecessary. In a Christian Science Monitor article written with Jack DuVall in 2002, Ackerman complained that Iranians didn’t have the “know-how” to take power from the government in Tehran and that the know-how should be delivered by Western “pro-democracy programs.” (He cautioned that aid should “not come from the CIA or Defense Department,” to keep the movement seemingly free from taint.)[44] He echoed this view in a New York Time’s article written with Ramin Ahmadi, pointing to the lack of “a clear strategic vision and steady leadership” among the anti-Ahmadinejad opposition. [45] At the same time, he advised readers to watch the streets of Tehran, seemingly confident the know-how and clear strategic vision and steady leadership would be delivered. And he called on,

“Nongovernmental organizations around the world (to) expand their efforts to assist Iranian civil society, women’s groups, unions and journalists. And the global news media should finally begin to cover the steady stream of strikes, protests and other acts of opposition…” [46]

This was a curious appeal from someone who believes outside aid is unnecessary.

The New Republic’s Franklin Foer wrote that “Ultimately, (Ackerman) envisions events (in Iran) unfolding as they did in Serbia, with a small, well-trained, nonviolent vanguard introducing the idea of resistance to the masses.” [47] Ackerman, of course, could be sure the vanguard would be helped by a substantial injection of money from outside, as happened in Serbia — aid Ackerman claims is unnecessary.

Whether necessary or not, Washington has delivered. Last June, The Washington Post reported that,

“The Bush administration told Congress last year of a secret plan to dramatically expand covert operations inside Iran as part of a long-running effort to destabilize the country’s ruling regime…The plan allowed up to $400 million in covert spending for activities ranging from spying on Iran’s nuclear program to supporting rebel groups opposed to the country’s ruling clerics…” [48]

Ackerman, Helvey and Sharp are part of the $400 million campaign. According to Sharp,

“Our work is available in Iran and has been since 2004. People from different political positions are saying that’s the way we need to go. […] If somebody doesn’t decide to use military means, then it is very likely there will be a peaceful national struggle there.” [49]

For his part, Ackerman has several ideas for ousting Ahmadinejad. His films on destabilizing governments have been translated into Farsi, and are broadcast repeatedly over the Los Angeles-based Iranian satellite networks. He has worked with Helvey to train Iranian Americans, many of them followers of Reza Pahlavi, the son of the deposed shah. And the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC), which Ackerman founded, and which progressive Stephen Zunes is a part of, has made contacts with the referendum movement within Iran, which campaigns for a binding vote on the clerical state. [50]

“Events in Iran are reminiscent of Serbia just before a student-sparked movement removed Slobodan Milosevic,” write Ackerman and DuVall. “His regime had alienated not only students but most of the middle class, which the dismal economy had shattered.” [51]

Ah, the economy. What Ackerman and DuVall ignore is that Western sanctions were instrumental in crippling the Yugoslav economy, and therefore in alienating students and the middle class. Disorganizing an economy through sanctions is an important part of nonviolent strategic regime change, a point John Bacher made in a Peace Magazine article on Robert Helvey. Bacher describes the targeted sanctions employed by the U.S. government against municipalities that voted to support Milosevic as being one of the elements of Sharp’s nonviolent strategy. [52] Significantly, Washington applies multiple sanctions against and financially isolates countries that are the targets of NVR destabilization efforts: Zimbabwe, Belarus, Iran, Myanmar and Cuba. Economic warfare, though nonviolent, wreaks terrible devastation, while providing immeasurable help to the destabilizers.

An Imperialist International

In a Dissent Magazine article, Mark R. Beissinger remarks on how overthrowing governments

“has now become an international business. In addition to the millions of dollars of aid involved, numerous consulting operations have arisen, many of them led by former revolutionaries themselves. Since the Serbian revolution, for instance, Otpor (youth) activists (trained by Helvey) have become, as one Serbian analyst put it, ‘a modern type of mercenary,’ traveling the world, often in the pay of the U.S. government or NGOs, in order to train local groups in how to organize a democratic revolution. A number of leaders of the Ukrainian youth movement Pora were trained in Serbia at the Center for Nonviolent Resistance, a consulting organization set up by Otpor activists to instruct youth leaders from around the world in how to organize a movement, motivate voters, and develop mass actions. […] After the Rose and Orange Revolutions, Georgian and Ukrainian youth movements began to challenge Otpor’s consulting monopoly. Pora activists even joked about creating a new Comintern for democratic revolution.” [53]

Foer borrows Leninist terminology to describe destabilization activists as a vanguard. [54] Lenin, however, was never interested in promoting imperialism; this vanguard is. Consider Nini Gogiberidze. Every few months she is deployed abroad to teach activists how to destabilize their governments. She has traveled to Eastern Europe to train Belarusians and Turkey to instruct Iranians. She is employed by the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies, or Canvas, one of the many organizations in the destabilizers’ network. “The group is funded in part by the International Republican Institute,” the international arm of the GOP “and Washington-based Freedom House, which receives most of its funding from the U.S. government.” [55] Freedom House is a CIA-interlocked [56] organization of which Ackerman was not too long ago chairman of the board.

But building an imperialist international is not solely the project of Freedom House. The ICNC, the organization Ackerman founded, is also heavily involved. Ackerman regularly holds conferences hosting new recruits into the destabilization vanguard from around the world. One recent summer “he brought activists from more than a dozen countries to a retreat in the Montreal suburbs for a week of solidarity and study.” ‘We can’t say where they are from,” Ackerman said. “’But think of the 20 biggest assholes in the world, and you can guess.’” [57]

I’m thinking of George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Benjamin Netanyahu, but Ackerman isn’t training a vanguard to destabilize the United States, Britain and Israel. He benefits too much from their dominant positions. And yet these are the world’s principal purveyors of massive violence. You would think that proponents of nonviolence would surely set their sights on undermining violence’s biggest champions. Instead, Ackerman’s 20 biggest assholes seem to be the leaders of Iran, Cuba, Belarus, Zimbabwe, Myanmar, Gaza, and Venezuela, judging by where Ackerman, Helvey and Sharp have been active: countries that are charting their own course, outside the U.S. imperial orbit. The State Department has distributed Ackerman-produced destabilization videos to anti-Castro dissidents in Cuba. “When some of State’s desk officers don’t want to create international incidents by advising activists on how to overthrow governments, they gently suggest visiting Ackerman, who has fewer qualms about lending a helping hand.” [58] Ackerman has sent a trainer to Palestine “to spend twelve days creating a nonviolent vanguard to challenge Hamas.” [59] The list goes on.

Who is Peter Ackerman?

Ackerman is the managing director of Rockport Capital Incorporated, a private investment firm. He was chairman of the board of Freedom House and sits on the board of the Council on Foreign Relations, along with former U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, and various other war criminals, CEOs, investment bankers, and highly placed media people.

As part of his Council on Foreign Relations role, Ackerman not too long ago participated in a task force headed by former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and former CIA Director and current U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The goal: to craft a new approach to Iran. [60] He is also a member of the U.S. Advisory Council of the United States Institute for Peace, a phoney U.S. government peace outfit headed by the U.S. secretaries of defense and state. And when he’s not hobnobbing with the U.S. foreign policy establishment and managing his investment firm, he’s building an Imperialist International through the offices of the ICNC, of which he is the founding chair.

Ackerman made his fortune working alongside junk-bond king Michael Milken. His “Prada parka and winter tan remind you that you’re not in tattered NGO-land anymore. You’re in the presence of wealth.” [61] After graduating from Colgate, he joined the graduate program at Tufts University Fletcher School, where he met Gene Sharp. “Ackerman spent eight on-and-off years at Tuft’s refining Sharp’s thesis.” [62] After obtaining a PhD in 1976, he joined investment bank Drexel Burnham Lambert, where, according to James B. Stewart’s Den of Thieves, he had his head so far up his boss’s ass, he was known as “the Sniff”. [63] Recruited by Milken to work as one of Drexel’s traders, Ackerman soon became the junk bond king’s highest-paid subordinate. In 1988, he made $165 million, after putting together the $26 billion KKR leveraged buyout of RJR Nabisco. One year later, his net worth having soared to about $500 million, he quit finance and turned to whittling down his 1,100 page PhD dissertation into a book, Strategic Nonviolent Conflict. [64]

It should come as no surprise that a man who reeks of wealth, heads a private investment firm, and sits on the board of the premier U.S. establishment think-tank, defines a central element of democracy as protecting “property rights.” [65] Indeed, the promotion of this central tenet of capitalist ideology is the reason Freedom House, the organization he formerly headed, exists. “You can’t,” Ackerman insists, “have government constantly expropriating the fruits of the labor of its citizens.” [66] Which citizens? Since property rights, in the words of Ackerman and other owners of productive property, are the rights of ownership to what other people have produced, Ackerman equates democracy with capitalism. What he really wants to protect is the right of investors (himself included) to expropriate the fruits of other peoples’ labor. That might explain why he thinks the United States, the world’s premier champion of capitalist exploitation, “has an awful lot to teach people around the world.” [67]

Conclusion

The destabilizers are clever marketers. They choose their words carefully. They draw on the reputation of nonviolent resistance, popularized in the United States by the civil rights struggle led by Martin Luther King Jr. And they repeat the words “democracy” and “dictator” endlessly. It’s all part of a clever marketing campaign, one that has deceived more than a few leftists in the Western countries whose financial and corporate elite profit from NVR. But then, you have to be clever to take on the former CIA function of destabilizing foreign governments, make it seem progressive, and get away with it.

Let’s be clear on what NVR is, what its goals are, and who’s behind it. It’s not nonviolence as a moral or ethical position; it’s a form of warfare, aimed at taking political power in other people’s countries. And while it’s based on nonviolence, it has, in its reliance on sanctions and financial isolation as an integral part of alienating people from target governments, devastating consequences, as real as those violence produces. It’s not used by grassroots organizations in the West to force their own governments to change reactionary policies, or to take political power at home. Instead, it is invariably aimed at foreign governments that have resisted integration into the U.S. imperial orbit. The major proponents of NVR are not independent grassroots organizers, socialists or anarchists. They are, instead, members of the U.S. financial and foreign policy establishment, or are linked to them in subordinate roles through organizational and funding ties. NVR is hardly progressive; it is an imperialist project whose only redeeming feature is the possibility that it may stimulate Western leftists to think about how they too might use the destabilizers’ techniques to take power in their own country to win the authentic battle for democracy.

1a. Foer, Franklin, “Regime Change Inc. Peter Ackerman’s quest to topple tyranny,” The New Republic, April 16, 2005.
1b. Lake, Eli, “Iran launches a crackdown on democracy activists,” The New York Sun, March 14, 2006.
1c.  Spencer, Metta, “Gene Sharp 101,” Peace Magazine, July-Spetmeber, 2003.
2. Ibid.
3. Spencer, Metta, “Training pro-democracy movements: A conversation with Colonel Robert Helvey,” Peace Magazine, January-March, 2008. http://archive.peacemagazine.org/v24n1p12.htm
4. Dobbs, Michael, “US advice guided Milosevic opposition,” The Washington Post, December 11, 2000.
5. Beissinger, Mark R., “Promoting democracy: Is exporting revolution a constructive strategy?” Dissent, Winter 2006. http://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/?article=155
6. Bacher, John, “Robert Helvey’s expert political defiance,” Peace Magazine, April-June, 2003. http://archive.peacemagazine.org/v19n2p10.htm
7. Ackerman, Peter, “Paths to peace: How Serbian students brought dictator down without a shot fired,” National Catholic Reporter, April 26, 2002.
8. Ackerman, Peter and Jack DuVall, “The nonviolent script for Iran,” Christian Science Monitor, July 22, 2003.
9. Ackerman, Peter and Jack DuVall, “With weapons of the will: How to topple Saddam Hussein – nonviolently,” Sojourners Magazine, September-October 2002 (Vol 31, No. 5, pp.20-23.)
10. Ackerman and DuVall, 2003.
11. Schaeffer-Duffy, Claire, “Regime change without bloodshed,” National Catholic Reporter, November 15, 2002.
12. Ackerman and DuVall, 2002.
13. Peace.Ca, “Gene Sharp: A Biographical Profile.” http://www.peace.ca/genesharp.htm .
14. Bacher, 2003.
15. Dobbs, 2000.
16. Ackerman and DuVall, 2002.
17. Ibid.
18. Ballen, Ken and Patrick Doherty, “Ahmadinejad is who Iranians want,” The Guardian (UK), June 15, 2009.
19. Bacher, 2003.
20. Dobbs, 2000.
21. Bacher, 2003.
22. Kazmin, Amy, “Defiance undeterred: Burmese activists seek ways to oust the junta,” Financial Times, December 6, 2007.
23. Ibid.
24. Ibid.
25. Bacher, 2003.
26. Shanahan, Noreen, “The NI Interview: Gene Sharp,” New Internationalist, Issue 296. November, 1997.
27. Foer, 2005.
28. Ackerman, 2002.
29. Ackerman and DuVall, 2002.
30. Pal, Amitabh, “Gene Sharp Interview,” The Progressive, March 2007.
31. Spencer, 2008.
32. CANVAS, “Is nonviolent action a form of warfare?” Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies, 2004. http://www.canvasopedia.org/content/servbian_case/otpor_strategy.htm
33. 60 Minutes, May 12, 1996.
Lesley Stahl on U.S. sanctions against Iraq: We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: I think this is a very hard choice, but the price–we think the price is worth it.

34. Mueller, John, and Karl Mueller. 1999. Sanctions of mass destruction. Foreign Affairs vol.78, no.3:43-53.
35. Ackerman, Peter and Jack DuVall, “Homegrown revolution,” International Herald Tribune, December 29, 2004.
36. Ackerman, 2002.
37. Dobbs, 2000.
38. Ibid.
39. Dobbs, 2000; Bacher, 2003; Spencer, 2008;
40. Dobbs, 2000.
41. Bacher, 2003.
42. Dobbs, 2000.
43. Spencer, 2008.
44. Ackerman and DuVall, 2003.
45. Ackerman, Peter and Ramin Ahmadi, “Iran’s future? Watch the streets,” The New York Times, January 4, 2006.
46. Ibid.
47. Foer, 2005.
48. The Washington Post, June 30, 2008.
49. Pal, 2007.
50. Foer, 2005.
51. Ackerman and DuVall, 2003.
52. Bacher, 2003.  Bacher is an example of how parts of the peace movement promote US imperialism. In an October-December 2004  Peace Magazine review of Robert Helvey’s  On Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: Thinking About the Fundamentals, Bacher writes, “Rather than attempting to build costly and likely leaky shields for missiles from Iran and North Korea, why not seek nonviolently to change these regimes into democracies?”
53. Beissinger, 2006.
54. Foer, 2005.
55. Daragahi, Borzou, “A Georgian soldier of the Velvet Revolution,” The Los Angeles Times, September 2, 2008.
56. Herman, Edward S. and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, Pantheon Books, New York, 1988. p. 28.
57. Foer, 2005.
58. Ibid.
59. Ibid.
60. Brzezinski, Zbigniew and Robert M. Gates, “Iran: Time for a New Approach: Report of an Independent Task Force Sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations, July 19, 2004. http://www.cfr.org/publication/7194/iran.html .
61. Foer, 2005.
62. Ibid.
63. Ibid.
64. Ibid.
65. Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, “Interview with Peter Ackerman, founding chair of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict,” October 19, 2006. http://www.international.gc.ca/cip-pic/discussions/democracy-democratie/video/ackerman.aspx?lang=eng .
66. Ibid.
67. Ibid.

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