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The Revolution Will Not Be Assisted By The ICNC (The Counter-Revolution Is Another Matter)

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By Stephen Gowans

I confess that when Michael Barker sent me a link to nonviolence advocate Brian Martin’s Gandhi Marg article “Dilemmas in promoting nonviolence” I wasn’t too keen on reading it. [1] With a pile of unread books threatening to bury me under an avalanche, I thought my time could be better spent on avalanche control. Plus, I was hoping to get around to mowing the tufts of hair that advancing age have brought to my ears.

It was, therefore, with scant enthusiasm that I flipped desultorily through Martin’s article. Undecided as to whether to plunge in, I skipped to the conclusion. If anything there grabbed my attention I would read the article in full. Otherwise, I would toss “Dilemmas in promoting nonviolence” on my not-worth-the-time pile, along with the stack of Stephen Zunes articles I had accumulated.

The first sentence of Martin’s conclusion read: “Proponents of nonviolence have come under attack for supporting bad causes, in particular US imperialism.”

My attention shifted more firmly to the article, away from a precariously balanced book teetering atop my book pile.

The next sentence brought me fully awake. “[F]ew of the claims of the critics stand up to scrutiny and many lack evidence.”

I was immediately interested. Which claims lack evidence? Which don’t? Which stand up to scrutiny? Which wither under Martin’s analysis?

Laying a brace against the tottering mountain of books beside me, I dove into Martin’s article, anxious to discover how the claims of nonviolence critics fell apart under careful examination.

Hmmm. Nothing on page 1. Oh well, he’s just getting started. Page 5 – Still nothing, but there are 15 pages of text to go. It’s early. Page 10 – A bus rumbles by and shakes the Himalaya of books beside me. A book hurtles to the floor. I move quickly to avoid it. Nothing yet. Page 15 – Still nothing. Did I read the conclusion correctly? I skip ahead to check. Proponents of nonviolence…under attack…supporting US imperialism…lack evidence. No mistake. Page 16. Nothing. Pages 17 and 18. Still nothing. Page 19. Ah, there it is. In the final paragraph before the conclusion. A single sentence: “the stance of the anti-imperialist critics is seriously flawed, including by the absence of any proof that nonviolent movements are pawns of the US government.”

What? I just cancelled a much needed date with my ear-hair scissors to learn that “[F]ew of the claims of the critics stand up to scrutiny and many lack evidence” because “the stance of the anti-imperialist critics is seriously flawed”?

Nonviolence advocate Brian Martin: His Gandhi Marg article should have been tossed on the not-worth-the-time pile.

This is like being told that the secret to getting rich is to accumulate a lot of money. Or that when people lose their jobs, unemployment happens. I should have trusted my instincts and tossed Brian Martin on the not-worth-the-time pile.

Problems with Martin’s Case

Here are the problems, if they’re not already evident.

First, the ICNC (International Center on Nonviolent Conflict), one of the proponents of nonviolence that has come under attack for supporting bad causes, has been criticized for its connections to ruling class organizations and for aiding groups whose aim is to bring down foreign governments whose policies are not conducive to the interests of Western economic elites. Of this there is considerable evidence and documentation. Michael Barker has catalogued a lot of it. Click here.

Rather than dealing with the criticism above and the evidence that supports it, Martin deflects attention. Those who criticize the ICNC for its ruling class connections are deemed champions of the idea that “nonviolent movements are pawns of the US government.” This has demagogic potential. No one wants to be called a dupe, and accusing the ICNC’s critics of branding grassroots activists as victims of a swindle serves two purposes: it turns grassroots activists against the critics and takes attention away from the central issue: the ICNC’s ties to the US foreign policy establishment.

The second problem is that Martin fails to show that the critic’s case falters under close examination and lacks evidence. In fact, he doesn’t examine it at all. Instead, he simply asserts that the case lacks substance, footnoting the conclusion with a reference to a personal communication from “Hardy Merriman – of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.” Merriman told Martin that “the burden of proof should be on those making the assertion that recent nonviolent movements are fronts for Western powers. They never provide such proof.”

Just to make this clear: Martin’s careful examination of the critics’ case boils down to an assurance from good old Hardy Merriman, of the ICNC, that the ICNC’s critics haven’t got a case. This is like a George W. Bush supporter declaring that few of the claims of Bush’s critics stand up to scrutiny, because Dick Cheney told him so in a personal communication. No wonder Martin buried this in a footnote.

The ICNC's Hardy Merriman. Told Martin that the critics' case against the ICNC is baseless. Like Dick Cheney assuring a Bush supporter that criticisms of Bush fail to stand up to scrutiny and lack evidence.

But that’s just the start of the problems with this dishonest piece of scholarship. ICNC critics have never said that nonviolent movements are fronts for Western powers (at least, the ones I know haven’t.) What they’ve said is that the ICNC (and Western powers) are fronts for the US ruling class, of which ICNC supremo Peter Ackerman, is a charter member. You can find out more about the ex-leveraged buyout specialist, former head of the CIA-interlocked Freedom House, and now Council on Foreign Relations board member, here. When Ackerman isn’t teaching foreign activists how to use nonviolent civil disobedience to overthrow Third World governments, he’s running Rockport Capital Inc., a private investment firm. Just the kind of guy you would expect to be assisting progressive causes.

ICNC supremo Peter Ackerman. Runs Rockport Capital Inc., is an ex-leveraged buyout specialist, has headed the CIA-interlocked Freedom House, and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Just the kind of guy you would expect to be assisting progressive causes.

Nor do the critics of the ICNC criticize the organization for promoting nonviolence, though Martin would have you believe that nonviolence is the burr under their saddles. The truth is that what bothers the ICNC’s critics is the organization’s integration into the US foreign policy estblishment. It’s not the tactics the ICNC promotes, but the reasons it promotes them, and on whose behalf, that galvanizes the center’s critics. Martin misses this, whether deliberately or not, is unclear.

The Case Against the ICNC

Martin doesn’t name me in his article, and he may never have had me in mind. But all the same, let me summarize my own objections to the ICNC, and its siblings, the AEI (Albert Einstein Institution) and CANVAS (Center for Applied Nonviolent Actions and Strategies), and more broadly, “democracy” promoting organizations like the NED (National Endowment for Democracy, established to take up the former CIA function of meddling in foreign countries’ elections.)

The ICNC and NED are fronts for Western ruling class interests.

These organizations engage with movements abroad to influence them and use them to achieve Western foreign policy goals.

Nonviolent civil disobedience movements can be effective in bringing down governments that have been demoralized or weakened by war, threats of war, sanctions, economic crisis or outside propaganda (delivered via Radio Liberty, Voice of America, NED-funded ‘independent’ media, the Western mass media, and so on) or some combination of the above. Nonviolent civil disobedience movements, by themselves, without outside intervention to disorganize and weaken the governments they seek to change, are usually ineffective. (I provide an example later on in this article.)

By promoting nonviolent civil disobedience the ICNC and CANVAS:

(A) provide tools for activists abroad to overthrow their governments. These tools become effective when Western powers first disorganize and weaken the foreign governments they have targeted for overthrow;

(B) encourage activists at home to adopt nonviolent civil disobedience, pointing to its successes abroad, but ignoring the role played by war, sanctions, economic crisis and propaganda as softening up interventions that help nonviolent civil disobedience to work. This channels domestic activists into a set of activities that, while they may often be successful when used in conjunction with intervention to weaken target governments, are likely to be far less successful otherwise, and may well be completely ineffective and inappropriate to the circumstances.

The problem with pragmatic nonviolence (the nonviolence based on strategic, not ethical considerations that Gene Sharp, the ICNC’s intellectual godfather champions) is not that it is always ineffective, but that it is not unconditionally more effective than violence, as its promoters claim. It is easy to conceive of circumstances in which nonviolence is the method of choice, but equally easy to conceive of other circumstances in which nonviolence will fail miserably. The position of the ICNC, AEI and Brian Martin is that nonviolence is always more effective than violence, a claim which, to throw Martin’s words back at him, withers under scrutiny and lacks evidence. The complaint against Martin and his fellow pragmatic nonviolence promoters, then, is that what they are promoting is a position that locks domestic activists into a nonviolence that is not always the best tactic for the circumstances at hand.

To strengthen their case, Martin et al point to recent successes abroad, intimating that domestic activists can be equally effective if they use the same techniques. This, however, completely ignores the role Western intervention has played in these countries of weakening governments and providing funding to activists to organize civil disobedience and build media support. No Western government is going to sanction itself, threaten to bomb its own population, distribute anti-government propaganda calling for its overthrow, or pay local activists to agitate for its downfall. Absent these conditions, the chances of civil disobedience working in the United States, Britain, Canada and elsewhere in the Western world to achieve anything close to what has been achieved elsewhere, are slim at best. It’s kind of like saying building a roof will keep you safe from the elements, because, look, those people over there built a roof and now they’re warm and dry, ignoring all the preceding work in building a foundation, frame and walls.

Georgia

Indeed, the efficacy of these techniques absent help from rich outside donors can be measured by what happened in Georgia, after the Rose Revolutionaries, using techniques of nonviolent civil disobedience, ousted Eduard Shevardnadze, clearing the way for Washington’s new man, Mikheil Saakashvili, to come to power.

A second nonviolence-based revolution should have happened when Saakashvili turned out to be little better than the man he replaced. Instead, nothing.

“Georgia is a semi-democracy,” explains Lincoln Mitchell, who worked for the National Democratic Institute in Georgia from 2002 to 2004. “We have traded one kind of semi-democratic system for another. There is a real need to understand that what happened is another one-party government emerged.” [2]

According to Mitchell, “under Shevardnadze, there was freedom of assembly and the press, and the government was too weak to crack down on dissent. But the state was rife with corruption, and elections were poorly run. Under Saakashvili, the central government is stronger and official corruption has been reduced, but the media have far fewer freedoms and there are fewer civil organizations. Elections still don’t function well.” What’s more, “parliament has been weakened through constitutional changes mandated by Saakashvili, making it difficult for the legislative branch to restrain executive power.” [3]

So why don’t the Rose Revolutionaries dust off their nonviolence skills, and oust Saakashvili, the way they did Shevardnadze?

One reason is that many Rose Revolutionaries have moved on to do Uncle Sam’s work in other countries whose governments Washington has slated for regime change.

“Every few months” explains the Los Angeles Times’ Borzou Daragahi, Nini Gogiberidze, a Rose Revolutionary employed by the nonviolence promoter CANVAS, “is deployed abroad to teach democracy activists how to agitate for change against their autocratic governments, going everywhere from Eastern Europe to train Belarusians to Turkey to coach Iranians.” [4] Apparently, with their fires of indignation burning against the autocracies of Victor Lukashenko and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Gogiberidze and her CANVAS colleagues have failed to notice that Saakashvili is also an autocrat.

George Bush with Georgian autocrat Mikheil Saakashvili: Rose Revolution activists are too busy working to overthrow autocrats on Uncle Sam's regime change hit list to notice the autocrat at home.

Another reason is that the Rose Revolutionaries’ rich donors have withdrawn their funding, and diverted it to the whole point of the Rose Revolution – Saakashvili. As the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler reported in 2008, “the Bush administration scaled back funding for voluntary civil and social organizations” (i.e., the Rose Revolutionaries) “in order to devote resources to building up the central government.” [5] Saakashvili got more help from Washington to consolidate his position, while the nonviolence movement sputtered to a halt, starved of the funding that once fueled it. Money helps in organizing, and organization is critically important in both strengthening governments and overthrowing them.

Conclusion

As I finished Martin’s article I reflected on its title: Dilemmas in promoting nonviolence. One of the dilemmas Martin failed to address is that of defending the ICNC, an organization that is bound up with US ruling class interests and at the same time promotes nonviolent civil disobedience (mainly in Third World countries), and which is condemned not for its promotion of nonviolent activism but for its integration into the US foreign policy establishment and its assistance to the pursuit of US foreign policy goals. As Franklin Foer reported in The New Republic, “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 [ICNC chief] Ackerman, who has fewer qualms about lending a helping hand.” [5] Nonviolence promoters have found themselves springing to the defense of this dodgy organization (which does what the CIA used to do but tries to make it appear progressive) because they’ve misinterpreted attacks on the ICNC as attacks on nonviolence.

Stephen Zunes. Fronts for the ICNC in leftwing circles.

The real dilemma for independent nonviolence promoters is to figure out how to build a firewall between the Western ruling class interests that lurk behind seemingly neutral organizations like the ICNC, fronted by the soi-disant progressive and anti-imperialist Stephen Zunes, and genuine grassroots movements. The solution is summed up clearly in the epigram: the revolution will not be funded (or selflessly assisted by ultrawealthy members of the Council on Foreign Relations.) Genuine grassroots revolutions and movements will only achieve genuine grassroots goals if they reject engagement with fronts for Western ruling class interests. Otherwise, activists abroad may find themselves helping to bring another Saakashvili to power. Another US client, eager to transform his country into a profit center for US investors, may be congenial to the interests of investment firms, like Rockport Capital Inc., but will hardly be congenial to the interests of the bulk of grassroots activist who clear the way for his ascension to power. As for activists at home, they may find themselves straitjacketed into a mode of achieving social change that is not always well suited to the circumstances at hand, and which succeeds only when backed by the massive intervention of Western states, an intervention that clearly won’t be happening at home. The warning, beware of ultra-rich establishment figures bearing gifts, and even more so their progressive lieutenants, scarcely needs justification.

ADDENDUM

In March 2010 the ICNC revealed on its website who its board of academic advisors is. Among the names was Brian Martin.

1. Brian Martin,” Dilemmas in Promoting Nonviolence,” Gandhi Marg, October-December, 2009.
2. Glenn Kessler, “Georgian Democracy A Complex Evolution,” The Washington Post, August 24, 2008. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/08/23/AR2008082301817_pf.html
3. Ibid.
4. Borzou Daragahi, “A Georgian soldier of the Velvet Revolution”, The Los Angeles Times, September 2, 2008.
5. Kessler
6. Foer, Franklin, “Regime Change Inc. Peter Ackerman’s quest to topple tyranny,” The New Republic, April 16, 2005.

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March 12, 2010 at 10:04 pm

The Problem with Nonviolent Regime Change

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Written by what's left

September 17, 2009 at 10:33 pm

A wrecking ball of imperialism

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By Stephen Gowans

Brian Martin, a professor of social sciences at Australia’s University of Wollongong, 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 , and then a reply to my reply. 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.)

In the latest exchange, I try to show that the disagreement between Martin and me is rooted, I believe, in a conflict between Marxist and anarchist perspectives on the state, and the question of whether the state is inherently good or bad.

I argue that because anarchists are opposed to domination, and because the state is an instrument of domination, anarchists often line up alongside imperialist forces seeking the overthrow of foreign states. Because the regime change efforts of imperialist forces are aimed exclusively at states operating outside the North Atlantic imperialist orbit, the effect is for anarchists who participate in campaigns to challenge these states to act as one of Western imperialism’s wrecking balls. While the anarchist aim is to challenge state authority, the aim of the imperialist forces that fund and provide training for the nonviolent resistance campaigns anarchists are often involved in, is to transfer control of the state from often popular and anti-colonial forces to comprador forces that are willing to facilitate the despoliation of their countries by North Atlantic banks, corporations and investors. Anarchist challenges to North Atlantic states, without the generous funding Western governments, corporate foundations and wealthy individuals are prepared to allocate to challenges to states operating outside the United States’ informal empire, are modest and ineffectual by comparison.

The State

I think Martin would agree that the state is an instrument of domination, which claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence within a defined geographical territory, exercised by the police and military. In the Marxist view, the state enforces the interests of one class over another, which is to say, it is an instrument whereby one class dominates and oppresses another. Slave owner states oppress slaves, landowner states oppress serfs, capitalist states oppress workers, and working class states oppress capitalists to limit or prevent capitalist exploitation. To Marxists, the question of whether the state is good or bad depends on who controls it, and who’s asking the question. To people conscious of their membership in the working class, the capitalist state is bad, not because it’s repressive, but because it’s repressive against their interests. Similarly, to a capitalist, the working class state is bad, not because it relies on the use or threat of violence to enforce a system of laws that privilege the working class, but because the system of laws backed by violence is against the interests of capital.

Anarchists, on the other hand, regard the state as inherently bad because it is based on domination enforceable through violence. To Martin, nonviolence is “especially useful for those who want to challenge domination” and it “involves empowerment of the population to challenge groups backed by force.” In other words, nonviolent resistance (NVR) is useful for doing what anarchists do: challenge the state.

But what if the state is under the control of a previously oppressed class or nation and its repressive function is used to prevent its former oppressor’s return to power? The leaders of Zimbabwe’s national liberation, for example, have used the state, and its repressive powers, to advance the interests of indigenous people at the expense of a former colonial oppressor, European settlers, and would-be neo-colonialists. The Bolsheviks used state power to enforce a wide array of measures favourable to the working class at the expense of capitalists and landowners. Is the use of state power to crack down on forces which seek to reduce Zimbabwe to neo-colonial servitude inherently bad? And were the Bolsheviks wrong to use state power to repress class enemies, as a condition of advancing the interests of the working class?

To anarchists the answer is yes. The Zimbabwe state is repressive. It uses violence to enforce the interests of indigenous Africans over those of European settlers and their descendants. The Bolshevik state was also repressive. It used violence to repress capitalists, estate-owners, rich peasants, saboteurs, and political enemies. Whether working class or capitalist, anti-colonial or colonial, the state is repressive; it is an instrument of domination. For these reasons anarchists oppose it.

A movement which challenges the state in Zimbabwe, or the state in countries in which working class interests are dominant, earns the support of anarchists. Indeed, because anarchists are against any state, whether feudal, capitalist, working class or anti-colonial, they often find themselves lining up with capitalist and neo-colonial forces against working class-oriented and anti-colonial states. And because North Atlantic governments, corporate foundations and wealthy individuals are eager to bankroll challenges to working class-oriented and anti-colonial states, but not to North Atlantic states and their satellites, anarchists who participate in these campaigns act as a wrecking ball of imperialism; their function is to tear down independent states so that control can be transferred to forces acceptable to Western banks, corporations and investors. At the same time, anarchist nonviolent resistance aimed at Western capitalist states – which tends to be low-level and largely non-disruptive, owing to the absent or meagre funding received from governments and philanthropic foundations – poses no serious threat.

Interestingly, Martin took exception to what he believed was my description of NVR as being guided by the goal of seizing power. This wasn’t my description, but that of Peter Ackerman, one of the principal proponents of NVR. Anarchists don’t seek power (the ability to dominate); they only seek to undermine it. What Martin failed to recognize was that Peter Ackerman, while a proponent of nonviolence, is not an anarchist but a capitalist, and a very wealthy one, whose avocation is to assist in the transfer of state power abroad from forces not yoked to U.S. financial and export interests, to pro-capitalist forces beholden to the US ruling class. Ackerman defines NVR as the use of strikes, boycotts, mass demonstrations and other forms of civil disobedience, including nonviolent sabotage, to make a country ungovernable in order to seize power. And yet while Ackerman’s NVR aims are clearly at odds with those of Martin, Martin talks favourably of Ackerman, and Ackerman’s docent, Gene Sharp.

Nonviolence

Whether nonviolence is a defining feature of anarchism is a matter of dispute among anarchists. Martin, I suspect, would say it is. Peter Gelderloos, an anarchist whose book, How Nonviolence Protects the State, rejects exclusive nonviolence as an effective strategy for anarchists, would say it isn’t.

I agree with Gelderloos that proponents of nonviolence have claimed success in excess of what the data support. The modus operandi of NVR advocates is to exaggerate the achievements of campaigns which have featured the use of nonviolent tactics (India’s liberation from British colonial rule; the US civil rights movement; the anti-Vietnam War movement; the anti-nuclear weapons movement) and then to attribute the success of these campaigns to nonviolent tactics alone.

For example, in his reply to me, Martin credits the movements against nuclear weapons — “which used NVR as well as conventional political methods” — with saving the world from nuclear catastrophe. But how do we know that demonstrations and civil disobedience made any difference? The fact that some people used nonviolent tactics in an effort to deter superpower nuclear proliferation hardly means that nonviolence worked. If it did, I could say the crowing of the rooster causes the sun to rise, because the rooster crowed and the sun soon rose.

A more compelling case can be made that the end of the arms race came about because the United States no longer needed to expand its nuclear arsenal. It had embarked on an arms build-up to force the Soviets into bankruptcy. With the goal of toppling its ideological competitor achieved, there was no longer a need to pile weapon upon weapon. And after acquiring the capability to obliterate the world many times over, there was little point in acquiring more nuclear weapons. There comes a point where one more nuke makes no difference.

Moreover, were the decision to end the arms race attributable to nonviolent tactics, we could still say very little was achieved. The United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Israel still have nuclear arms, and evince not the slightest interest in giving them up. India, Pakistan and north Korea have acquired their own nuclear arsenals (or at least, capabilities.) The United States continues to threaten non-nuclear countries with nuclear weapons, thereby encouraging non-nuclear states to develop their own nuclear arms to deter U.S. aggression. What success was achieved was minor indeed.

Ackerman uses the same approach, attributing the success of campaigns that involved nonviolent tactics in some way to nonviolence alone, as if massive surrounding violence played no role. Believe his version of history, and the violence of a Western-sponsored armed insurgency in Kosovo, sanctions, a 78-day NATO terror bombing campaign, unceasing Western hostility, and a political fifth column, had nothing whatever to do with the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic in the former Yugoslavia in 2000. It was all due to anarchist activists practicing nonviolent resistance.

In the same manner, proponents of NVR attribute India’s political independence from Britain to Gandhian nonviolence. In doing so, they ignore the armed struggle led by Chandrasekhar Azad, Bhagat Singh’s campaign of bombings and assassinations, and the effects of the massive violence of two world wars and the armed resistance to British rule in Palestine in weakening Britain and sapping it of the manpower and resources it needed to hold onto its colonies. What’s more, the success was limited. Britain exchanged direct rule for indirect rule. It authored India’s constitution, handpicked its successors, and continued to dominate India’s economy. India’s independence was largely symbolic.

Relatedly, Martin disagrees with my point that NVR is a means to an end, and is therefore neither inherently good nor bad, but is good or bad depending on what it’s used for. Nuclear weapons, he rejoins, are inherently bad, because they are indiscriminate, and because they are a means of domination. The corollary, it seems, is that NVR is inherently good, because it challenges the state, an instrument of domination, and does so without recourse to violence, violence also being a means of domination. This follows consistently from the anarchist abhorrence of domination.

On the other hand, one could argue that Martin has to claim that NVR is good independent of its consequence, because the consequences of the Ackerman-Sharp-Helvey deployments that have been associated with regime change successes have been so negative from the point of view of the working class, that to do otherwise would leave his pro-NVR case in a shambles. NVR looks good only if its recent outcomes are ignored and the role of violence in the progressive outcomes it claims as its own are passed over. In other words, NVR’s positive reputation depends on ignoring the reality that NVR color revolutions have cleared the way for the ascension to power of Washington-aligned neo-liberal regimes that have privileged North Atlantic investors at the expense of domestic workers. At the same time the role of violence in the progressive developments (India’s liberation from British colonial rule, the end of the Vietnam War, and so on) that NVR advocates claim as their own must be ignored. Or you can simply say – as Martin and some peace advocates do – that the outcomes are immaterial; what matters is the process itself. This is sheer sophistry. A process cannot be evaluated independent of its outcomes. If so, a process that invariably produced bad outcomes, would be considered good.

A Marxist would say that domination isn’t always bad. It depends on who’s dominating who, and why. The domination of the formerly exploiting few by the formerly exploited many is not bad, but good, progressive and necessary. Marxists don’t want to dominate for the sake of domination, but if dominating a minority of exploiters and the use of violence are necessary to prevent the minority’s return to power, and to prevent the resumption of mass exploitation, then domination and violence are acceptable. Likewise, if a nuclear weapons capability allows north Korea to deter the United States from using military (including nuclear) aggression to dominate the Korean peninsula and integrate north Korea into Washington’s informal empire, can nuclear weapons be said to be inherently bad and necessarily bound up with the enforcement of domination? On the contrary, it would seem that north Korea’s nuclear capability challenges the domination of the most violent of all states, that of the United States.

Conclusion

At root, the disagreement between Martin and me seems to boil down to this: is domination and the use of violence always bad, or are domination and violence bad depending on who uses them, why they’re used, and what the outcomes are? These are normative questions.

An empirical question concerns whether the commitment of anarchists to challenge the state is useful to imperialist forces. Through their control of philanthropic foundations and such organizations as the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict, involved in the training of (often anarchist) activists in techniques of destabilization, and through their control of the media, which shape public understanding of states that operate outside the North Atlantic imperial orbit as being based on unjustified authority, imperialist forces galvanize anarchists into action as one of their wrecking balls — challenging working class-oriented, anti-colonial, and North Atlantic-independent states. These challenges never develop to the point where the state collapses, as anarchists hope, but to the point where state control is transferred to comprador forces, as the imperialist sponsors of NVR campaigns intend. Despite their aim of challenging the state, NVR activists act in ways that help enhance the power of North Atlantic states to dominate and exploit the global south and Eastern Europe. Anarchist nonviolent strategy hasn’t threatened capitalism or challenged the domination of North Atlantic states. On the contrary, its record is one of service to North Atlantic imperialist forces in integrating hold-out countries into Washington’s informal empire, through the participation of NVR activists in campaigns to smash independent states.

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September 7, 2009 at 6:21 pm

Nonviolent warfare: Questioning ends, not means

with 3 comments

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.

Written by what's left

August 20, 2009 at 10:52 pm

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

with 16 comments

“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.

The Role and Aims of US Democracy Promotion in the Attempted Color Revolution in Iran

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By Stephen Gowans

As the head of Freedom House, a CIA-interlocked think-tank [1] that promotes free markets, free enterprise and free trade, Peter Ackerman has been at the forefront of efforts to topple foreign governments that place more emphasis on promoting the welfare of their citizens (and often their own bourgeoisie) than providing export and investment opportunities to US corporations, banks, and investors.

An ex-Wall Street investment banker who was once junk bond trader Michael Milken’s right-hand man, Ackerman’s speciality these days is regime change civil disobedience – training activists in the use of civil disobedience destabilization techniques to bring down foreign governments.

A member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Washington-Wall Street insiders’ group that brings together corporate CEOs and lawyers, scholars, and government and military officials to recommend foreign policy positions to the US State Department, Ackerman also heads the International Center for Non-Violent Conflict (ICNC). Working in parallel with billionaire financier George Soros’ Open Society Institute and The Albert Einstein Institution, the ICNC deploys civil disobedience specialists to teach “activists how to agitate for change against” governments on Washington’s regime change hit list, “going everywhere from Eastern Europe to train Belarusians to Turkey to coach Iranians.” [2]

Ackerman and other civil disobedience imperialists, like Stephen Zunes, a self-styled progressive who acts as chief apologist for Ackerman among leftists who have romantic illusions about “popular” uprisings [3] give their efforts to topple foreign governments the deceptively reassuring name “democracy promotion.” Democracy promotion, a Bush administration official once said, is a rubric to get people to support regime change that cannot be accomplished through military means. [4] Zunes has also sprung to the defense of Gene Sharp, the head of the Albert Einstein Institution, who advised right-wing Venezuelans on how to use civil disobedience to overthrow Hugo Chavez. More than two years ago, in a March, 2007 interview in The Progressive, Sharp, who says he has been working since 2004 with Iranian dissidents on how to bring down the government in Tehran, predicted that “if somebody doesn’t decide to use military means, it is very likely that there will be a peaceful national struggle there.” [5] In the same interview, Sharp set out his view on how the US should topple governments on its regime change hit list: by using overthrow movements trained in nonviolent direct action, rather than military intervention. This is a view supported by his chief defender, Zunes, who thinks imperialism through non-violence is somehow not imperialism.

Three years ago, and not long after the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Ackerman, along with Ramin Ahmadi, co-founder of the US State Department-funded Iran Human Rights Document Center [6], sketched out a scenario of Iranians using civil disobedience to topple the Iranian government.

In a January 6, 2006 International Herald Tribune article, prophetically titled “Iran’s future? Watch the streets,” the pair complained that Ahmadinejad promised “to redistribute wealth to the poor and curb capitalists,” and described the new president’s electoral victory as plunging Iranian “society into a mood of despair.”

Iranian society hadn’t plunged into despair, at least the large majority that elected Ahmadinejad hadn’t. Instead, it was the losers, “Iran’s parliamentary reformists” and the wealthy, Western-educated Iranians they represented, who were in despair. In Ackerman’s and Ahmadi’s view, this stratum, a budding comprador class, was equal to Iranian society as a whole, rather than a minority whose interests were about to be curbed by the newly elected president.

Looking ahead, Ahmadi and his Freedom House co-author, pointed to “a grass-roots movement…waiting to be roused in Iran,” that would “demand real economic reform,” so long as “its cadres” were provided “a clear strategic vision and leadership.” “Grass-roots” by Ackerman’s and Ahamdi’s restrictive definition, was anyone targeted by Ahmadinejad’s redistribution and capitalist-curbing program. “Economic reform” was giving capital free rein.

The model for overthrowing the income-redistributing, capitalist-curbing Ahmadinejad, they wrote, would be the Polish trade union Solidarity, which worked to destabilize another set of capitalist-unfriendly income-redistributors, the communist government of Poland. Solidarity – the only trade union Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, the CIA and the Wall Street Journal ever liked — was instrumental in the collapse of Polish communism, and more widely, in the demise of socialism in Eastern Europe. Western corporations and investors seeking export and investment opportunities in Eastern Europe – people represented by Ackerman and Soros — profited handsomely, but for ordinary people, communism’s demise has been a disaster. Poverty, unemployment, economic insecurity and inequality have soared. [7]

To help Iran’s disgruntled budding comprador class, the pair urged “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,” they wrote, should “cover the steady stream of strikes, protests, and other acts of opposition.” In other words, the media should play a role by depicting the Iranian government as deeply unpopular to justify its overthrow.

Significantly, organizations like Freedom House, ICNC, and the Soros Open Society Institute, operating on grants from Western governments, parliaments and corporate foundations – all of which were opposed to Ahmadinejad for his asserting Iran’s right to a self-reliant civilian nuclear power industry and refusal to accelerate the sale of Iran’s state-owned economy to private investors — would provide the strategic vision, leadership, as well as the money and training, for Ackerman’s and Ahmadi’s slumbering grass-roots movement.

In May of 2005, R. Nicholas Burns, then U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, said the U.S. was ready to hike funding to groups within Iran seeking regime change. The United States had already spent $1.5 million in 2004 and $3 million in 2005 on exile groups with contacts inside Iran. [8]

Burns equated the ramped up spending to “taking a page from the playbook” on Ukraine and Georgia, where, as the New York Times explained,” in those countries the United States gave money to the opposition and pro-democracy groups, some of which later supported the peaceful overthrow of the governments in power.” [9]

But it would take longer to spark a color revolution in Iran, Burns warned. “We don’t have a platform to do it. The country isn’t free enough to do it. It’s a much more oppressive environment than Ukraine was…during the Orange Revolution” where the U.S. was able to take advantage of the country’s openness to overturn the election of a pro-Russian government to install a pro-Washington one. [10]

On February 15, 2005, then U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice added $75 million to the $10 million already earmarked for U.S. government programs to “support networks for Iranian reformers, political dissidents and human rights activists.” Two-thirds of the additional funding was to be used to “increase television broadcasting to 24 hours a day all week in Farsi into Iran.” [11] The purpose of the broadcasting was to sour the population on the Ahmadinejad government.

The country was soon awash in regime change funding, a cornucopia that led some opponents of the government to beseech the United States to tighten its pursue strings. The funding, they said, made all opponents, especially those with Western contacts, appear to be potential conspirators. The group added that “no credible civil society member would want to be associated with such a fund.” [12] But there were many non-credible ones that did.

Meanwhile, Ackerman’s ICNC was inviting Iranians to workshops to teach them how peaceful revolts in Georgia, the Philippines and elsewhere were set off. Training sessions were held “every month or so, hoping to foment a non-violent conflict in Iran.” [13]

Ackerman’s and Ahmadi’s comparison of Iran’s aspiring color revolutionaries to Solidarity is only partly correct. Unlike the former, who tend to be well-heeled, well-educated, and to have spent time abroad, Solidarity was born of a genuinely working class grass-roots movement, which had legitimate grievances against Poland’s Communist government. [14] The grievances of the aspiring color revolutionaries, however, are rooted in a contested election which the balance of evidence suggests was fair. A Rockefeller Foundation-sponsored poll, carried out three weeks before the election, found that Ahmadinejad led his nearest rival, Mir Hossein Mousavi, by a margin of more than two to one, similar to the outcome of the vote. [15] The head of Israel’s intelligence agency, Mossad, hardly an Ahmadinejad supporter, found no greater irregularities in Iran’s presidential election than in those of Western countries. [16] On the other hand, claiming that an election is stolen, and using the alleged fraud as a pretext to launch a campaign of civil disobedience, is a hallmark of the regime change programs Ackerman has been at the center of. [17]

Where the color revolutionaries and Solidarity are similar is in serving as the vehicles of the same class. Solidarity was quickly hijacked by anti-communist intellectuals who provided the strategic vision and leadership, with the help of financing from Eastern European émigrés assisted by the CIA. They had no interest in helping the Polish working class, which remained solidly committed to socialism. [18] They sought, instead, to destabilize the Polish government.

Likewise, Ackerman’s and Ahmadi’s slumbering “grassroots” movement has been roused by civil disobedience regime change promoters from outside and wealthy locals who have soaked up pro-imperialist values while studying abroad. They’ve taken a leaf from Western-backed color revolutions carried out in other countries, ones Ackerman and company have been instrumental in promoting. Their interest lies not in the social welfare of the majority of Iranians, who appear to have voted for Ahmadinejad, but in destabilizing the Iranian government to serve their own narrow class interests.

Many leftists have turned a blind eye to the class character of Ackerman’s and Ahmadi’s “grassroots movement,” as well as to the source of its strategic vision and leadership. They have done so out of infatuation with the romance of a seemingly popular uprising, dislike of Ahmadinejad’s social conservatism, and the mistaken belief that the uprising is about democracy and human rights. The “grassroots” movement is hardly grassroots, and its goals are hardly the lofty ones leftists have attributed to it. They are, instead, the goals a wealthy former Wall Street investment banker turned regime change promoter and Washington-insider and wealthy Iranians who have studied at expensive universities in the imperial center, are able to share in common – toppling a government that stands in the way of their mutual enrichment.

Postscript

According to a March 14, 2006 New York Sun article by staff reporter Eli Lake (“Iran launches a crackdown on democracy activists”), Ackerman and Ahmadi set up workshops in April 2005 to train Iranian dissidents in human rights documentation and nonviolent resistance, activities Ackerman has termed elsewhere as destabilization aimed at “taking power.”

Ahmadi was involved in setting up a workshop in Dubai, sponsored by the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center. The center was granted $1 million in 2004 by a U.S. “government aid program intended for Iran’s opposition inside the country.”

 “Dubai,” notes Lake, “is emerging as a nexus for the West’s efforts to aid Iran’s opposition” where the U.S. State Department sent “10 special diplomats to monitor activities of (the Iranian government) and assist the opposition.”  

Ackerman’s ICNC also held at least one session with opponents of the Ahmadinejad government, using members of Otpor, the Serb destabilization group trained, funded and equipped by the US government in techniques developed by Gene Sharp, as trainers.

 Sharp, notes Lake, “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.”

1. Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, Pantheon Books, New York, 1988, p. 28.
2. The Los Angeles Times, September 2, 2008.
3. Stephen Gowans, “Stephen Zunes and the Struggle for Overseas Profit,” gowans.wordpress.com, February 18, 2008. http://gowans.wordpress.com/2008/02/18/stephen-zunes-and-the-struggle-for-overseas-profits/
4. Guy Dinmore, “US and UK develop democracy strategy for Iran,” Financial Times (UK), April 21, 2006.
5. Stephen Zunes, George Cicariello-Maher & Eva Golinger, “Debate on the Albert Einstein Institution and its involvement in Venezuela,” August 5, 2008. http://www.venezuelanlysis.com, http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/3690; Amitabh Pal, “Gene Sharp Interview,” The Progressive, March, 2007. http://www.progressive.org/mag/intv0307
6. Steve Weissman, “Iran: Nonviolence 101,” http://www.truthout.org, June 21, 2009. http://www.truthout.org/062109Y
7. Stephen Gowans, “Hail the Reds,” MLToday.com, October 23, 2004. http://mltoday.com/index2.php?option=com_content&do_pdf=1&id=186
8. The New York Times, May 29, 2005.
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid.
11. The New York Times, February 16, 2006.
12. Carah Ong, “Iranians Speak Out on Regime Change Slush Fund,” MRZine, July 15, 2008. http://www.monthlyreview.org/mrzine/ong150708.html
13. Reuters, April 30, 2003.
14. Albert Szymanski, Class Struggle in Socialist Poland, Praeger, New York, 1984.
15. Ken Ballen and Patrick Doherty, “Ahmadinejad is who Iranians want,” The Guardian (UK), June 15, 2009; Stephen Gowans, “Iranian electoral fraud: A skeptic’s view,” gowans.wordpress.com, June 16, 2009. http://gowans.wordpress.com/2009/06/16/iranian-electoral-fraud-a-sceptic%e2%80%99s-view/
16. George Galloway, “I’m not a traitor…or a hypocrite,” DailyRecord.co.uk, June 29, 2009.
17. Stephen Gowans, “Learning for color revolutions,” gowans.wordpress.com, March 16, 2009. http://gowans.wordpress.com/2009/03/16/learning-from-color-revolutions/
18. Szymanski

Written by what's left

July 4, 2009 at 10:39 pm

Posted in Color Revolutions, Iran

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Iranian Electoral Fraud: A Skeptic’s View

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By Stephen Gowans

So, the presidential election in Iran was rigged. How do we know this? Because the Western media almost invariably say it was. How do they know? Because the main opposition challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi – who officially got far fewer votes than the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — said it was. And how does Mousavi know the election was rigged? Because he didn’t win it.

It’s clear Mousavi thinks he won, but is their any evidence independent of the candidate’s own opinion to back the claim he actually scored an electoral upset?

The answer is, not much. And the evidence on the other side, that Ahmadinejad won, is just as strong, if not stronger.

Washington Post staff writers Glenn Kessler and Jon Cohen, in an article titled “Signs of fraud abound, but not hard evidence,” point out “there were few independent polls taken before the election and no exit polls afterward, making it extremely difficult to assess the accuracy of the vote counts announced by the government.” And making it extremely difficult to assess the merits of Mousavi’s claim that he is the real winner.

But didn’t Mousavi hold large rallies in Tehran? Yes, but so too did Ahmadinejad. And Western media outlets, the journalists say, are concentrated in Tehran, where Mousavi’s support was strongest. That created “a misleading picture of the Iranian electorate.”

Kessler and Cohen spoke to Walter Mebane, a University of Michigan professor who specializes in uncovering crooked elections. He told the reporters “there are suspicious elements, but there’s no solid evidence of fraud.”

That’s why “the United States and other Western powers” have failed to “denounce the results as unacceptable.” There’s just no compelling evidence.

Plus, there’s evidence that Ahmadinejad “simply won a commanding victory.” Flynt Leverett of the New American Foundation, a US ruling class think-tank, says Ahmadinejad is “a really good campaigner” who seemed to have slowed Mousavi’s momentum in their final debate.

More tellingly, a May 11-20 telephone poll co-sponsored by the New American Foundation, and by another ruling class think-thank, Terror Free Tomorrow, “showed Ahmadinejad with a 2 to 1 lead over Mousavi,” consistent with the official outcome of the election.

What hasn’t been acknowledged is that Mousavi may be perpetrating a fraud of his own: that of deliberately creating an expectation he won in order to declare the election illegitimate.

With the Western media long ago having relegated Ahmadinejad to its rogues’ gallery, it was certain that whatever damning allegations Mousavi would hurl at him would be treated by the Western media as gospel. Once CNN, the BBC and other Western media outlets began to broadcast Mousavi’s charges of electoral fraud, the allegations quickly assumed the status of incontestable fact.

Mousavi declared himself the winner of the election before the polls were even closed, standard operating procedure for those seeking to instigate a color revolution. Color revolutions are insurrections sparked by claims of electoral fraud. Failing at the polls, a challenger calls for his supporters to take to the streets to pressure the government to step down. The Western media have played a role by making the charges of electoral fraud seem legitimate, by the simple ploy of treating them as such.

While the election may very well have been rigged, there is little solid evidence it was. At the same time, there is reason to be suspicious of Mousavi’s motivations. And as always, there’s reason to be skeptical of Western media coverage of foreign affairs and to be equally wary of their power to create incontestable truths – freighted with political baggage — out of thin evidence.

Written by what's left

June 16, 2009 at 10:23 pm

Posted in Color Revolutions, Iran

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