Doing overtly what the CIA used to do covertly
By Stephen Gowans
Stephen Zunes continues to complain about what he calls unfair attacks from critics who, he says, lie about him and the work of the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict, headed up by Wall Street investment banker, Council on Foreign Relations member, and Freedom House supremo, Peter Ackerman.
Zunes doesn’t respond to all attacks – only those that offer him room to exercise his talents for diversion, demolition of straw men, forensic sleight of hand, appeal to authority, invoking of honorific titles (it’s Dr. Ackerman by the way), red herrings and the trotting out of his progressive credentials. In marketing it’s called blowing smoke.
Zunes writes a lot in reply to critics but steers clear of the main criticisms. When challenged to talk about what he’s doing today, he talks about what he did yesterday. When criticized for his current links to ruling class regime change organizations, he tells us he opposed apartheid and Nato’s bombing of Yugoslavia. In all of this, what he doesn’t say directly is that he has no trouble with US regime change efforts – he just doesn’t always agree with the methods.
Zunes isn’t only a target of criticism; he doles out his fair share, too. Those who say nonviolent democracy activists are agents of imperialism, simply because they’re funded by imperialist governments, corporate foundations and wealthy individuals, are wrong. They’re promoting a conspiracy theory, he says. Foreign-funded “grassroots” activist groups have arisen spontaneously, and would have arisen in the absence of foreign funding. Besides, the funding they receive is too insignificant to make much of a difference. Those who try to discredit these groups by pointing to the groups’ sources of foreign funding are either misguided or lying.
If this is true, Zunes ought to lead a delegation to Washington to ask the NED, USAID, and USIA to stop giving money to regime change groups and media abroad. If the money makes little difference anyway and only brings these groups into disrepute and hands the local government an excuse to crackdown, surely the wisest course is to use the money for something truly progressive – like helping the victims of New Orleans, building decent inner city schools and funding a public health-care program, rather than squandering it abroad where it’s not needed. After that, he might set up meetings with Peter Ackerman, George Soros, Britain’s Westminster Foundation for Democracy, Canada’s Rights and Democracy, and Germany’s Heinrich Boll and Friedrich Ebert Foundations, to explain that the money they’re spending on regime change operations has little effect.
Zunes rails against the democracy promotion hypocrisy of Washington and says he works of behalf of democracy, whether it’s in Washington’s interests or not. But he fails to come to grips with the reality that nonviolent democracy promotion’s successes have come in countries where the local government is resisting being pulled into the US imperial orbit, never where it is already doing Washington’s budding. Were he to do so he would have to acknowledge that no matter what his intentions or positions on apartheid, Nato’s bombing of Yugoslavia and the US invasion of Iraq are, the effects of his actions are decidedly pro-imperialist.
Another thing. Someone ought to explain to Zunes that overthrowing a government nonviolently to impose foreign domination is as imperialist as doing the same with tanks, guns and cruise missiles. What’s at issue isn’t how the struggle is carried out, but why it’s carried out, who’s directing it, and who benefits.
Zunes travels aboard to train non-violent democracy activists. Does he use his own money to finance these trips? Do the groups he brings his missionary zeal to pass around a tattered hat to raise the funds to avail themselves of his expertise? Or is the tab picked up by the same wealthy individuals, corporate foundations and imperialist governments Zunes says are an unavoidable reality of capitalist society, that realists, like himself, have learned to compromise with?
As to his expertise, does he have a track record at home that qualifies him to train people abroad? Where are the homegrown nonviolent democracy activists he’s trained who have accomplished anything of significance? Have they made even the slightest dent in the vast US war machine, slowed, even for the briefest moment, the juggernaut of US imperialism, or advanced, even one iota, the project of ending the exploitation of man by man? Given that the challenges loom so large at home, and that, in his view, pro-democracy regime change groups are popping up spontaneously all over the world, and don’t need US funding and expertise to be successful, you would think Zunes would be busily working at home, rather than jetting off to someone else’s country to do missionary work for his corporate patrons.
Why does Zunes travel abroad anyway? Are foreigners incapable of organizing their own nonviolent opposition, in the same way, according to Washington, Iraqis, Palestinians, Afghans, Haitians and on and on are incapable of organizing their own police, military, elections and political system? How is it that in so many countries the talent to undertake basic political functions is absent, residing, it seems, exclusively in the US, Britain and other countries of the Anglo-American orbit? The dispatching of experts (the new missionaries) to organize political life in other countries is as much a part of imperialism as dispatching troops to topple governments. Zunes might reply that the ignorant of foreign lands, thirsty for democracy, asked for his expertise, but so too does Washington say Iraqis and Afghans, thirsty for democracy, asked to be occupied.
Zunes is no anti-imperialist. If the NED does overtly what the CIA used to do covertly, Zunes does overtly what CIA agents used to do covertly. But it’s not too late. If Zunes wants to become a true anti-imperialist, he should:
(i) resign his position as chair of the board of academic advisors to the ICNC and abjure all current and future connections to corporate and imperialist government-funded regime change organizations;
(ii) stay at home. Contrary to the paternalistic ideology that pervades the larger part of the progressive community, foreigners are indeed capable of organizing their own political affairs;
(iii) devote his energies, not to working with wealthy individuals, corporate foundations and imperialistic governments, but to working to change the system of which wealthy individuals, corporations and imperialistic governments are the masters and beneficiaries. This would truly do something to promote substantive democracy, not the hollow corporate brand Zunes does missionary work on behalf of today, as his CIA predecessors once did covertly not so long ago.