what's left

Reply to Peace Activist Stellan Vinthagen

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By Stephen Gowans

The International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, founded by the junk-bond king Michael Milken’s former right-hand man Peter Ackerman, is accumulating a stable of academic advisors who in the last week have written a series of articles on nonviolent civil disobedience for the website openDemocracy. openDemocracy is a flashy website ostensibly committed to progressive causes but whose backers are anything but progressive, unless you think corporate philanthropists and strenuously anti-communist billionaire financier George Soros are cutting checks to individuals and groups working toward traditional leftist goals.

One article, People power and the new global ferment, written by ICNC academic advisor Stellan Vinthagen, accuses me and Eva Golinger of spinning conspiracy theories. According to Vinthagen, a Swedish sociology professor,

…a final sign of the growing impact of civil resistance are radical activists, be they left-wing, right-wing, or anarchist, who rage against “the new imperialist” tool of nonviolence (writers such as Stephen Gowans and Eva Golinger). They reduce people power to a conspiracy organized by the almighty USA and (naive or reactionary) parts of local civil society that lend themselves to the overthrow of (progressive) foreign governments. Conspiracies against such governments may exist, but indigenous people power could not grow if it were, ‘made in USA’.

Vinthagen misrepresents my position. While nonviolence, to be sure, is a tool, I do not regard it as inherently “the new imperialist” tool. Indeed, my criticism is not specific to nonviolence itself, but to its high profile promoters, particularly individuals associated with the ICNC, whose affinity with nonviolent civil disobedience appears to begin and end in the assistance it can provide grass roots movements whose goals momentarily align with those of the US state in opposing a foreign government. Gene Sharp, Robert Helvey and Peter Ackerman—who have taken an old CIA practice of covertly destabilizing target governments and made it overt and seemingly progressive—appear to be less interested in the technique’s usefulness in bringing about progressive social change and more in its usefulness as a surrogate for military means of achieving US foreign policy goals, and occasionally as a complement to state violence. (For example, while nonviolent civil disobedience is often hailed by the ICNC as a sterling example of what people power can achieve, the account conspicuously overlooks the role played by NATO’s three-month-long bombing campaign, economic warfare and assistance to a KLA insurgency in creating miserable conditions for Serbs, and hence a motivation to oust then Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic. These measures, all of them violent and undertaken by Western states against a foreign population, established the conditions that allowed civil disobedience to eventually topple the Milosevic government.)

It is a matter of no small moment that Ackerman—the driving force behind the ICNC–is part of the US foreign policy establishment. He is a board member of the premier US foreign policy establishment think-tank, The Council on Foreign Relations, and as independent scholar activist Michael Barker points out, has “less widely advertised service [to the US ruling class] on the advisory board of America Abroad Media, where he is joined by the likes of James Woolsey, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and the former CEO of Lockheed Martin Corporation (the world’s largest defense contractor).”

In their Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman described Freedom House, which Ackerman not too long ago headed up, as having interlocks with “the CIA, and has long served as a virtual propaganda arm of the government and international right wing.” (1988, p. 28.) As for Ackerman’s ICNC, its role in facilitating US regime change efforts is obvious in the following, from a 2005 New Republic article by Franklin Foer: “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.” (“Regime Change Inc. Peter Ackerman’s quest to topple tyranny,” The New Republic, April 16, 2005.)

Nonviolent civil disobedience is a technique, preferable, to be sure, to violence. But it is no more inherently progressive than it is inherently the new imperialist tool. Whether a specific application of the tool is good or bad depends on what it is being used for, and whose interests it serves. Unfortunately, Ackerman’s background and connections—explored in detail in Overthrow Inc.: Peter Ackerman’s quest to do what the CIA used to do and make it seem progressive—suggests strongly that the ICNC promotes use of the tool, not to advance democracy in the original sense of the word, but to advance the foreign policy goals of the US state.

Vinthagen and other peace activists are doubtlessly sincere in their passionate embrace of nonviolent direct action, but their passionate commitment—and the alluring resources the ICNC offers to promote it—may have blinded them to the nature of the ICNC principals and their true aims.

Written by what's left

November 23, 2010 at 12:00 am

6 Responses

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  1. well said and defended.

    sourav

    November 23, 2010 at 12:55 am

  2. The assertion that the NATO bombing of Serbia prepared the ground for the overthrow of Milosevic is just startlingly incorrect. All of the movements involved in trying to undermine Milosevic at the time of the bombing had to basically cease activities as the country rallied around the government. The bombing actually set the revolution back months

    Robert Bobbin

    November 23, 2010 at 9:28 am

    • Let’s sketch this out roughly sequentially.

      • NATO countries are waging economic warfare, backing KLA guerillas and training dissidents in civil disobedience with the aim of toppling Milosevic’s government.

      • Bombing begins.

      “The commander of NATO’s air war against Serbia, Lt. Gen. Michael Short, declare(s) at one point during the bombing: If you wake up in the morning and you have no power to your house and no gas to your stove and the bridge you take to work is down and will be lying in the Danube for the next 20 years, I think you begin to ask, “Hey, Slobo, what’s this all about? How much more of this do we have to withstand?”[Washington Post, May 24, 1999, p.1]

      General Short, said the New York Times, “hopes that the distress of the Yugoslav public will undermine support for the authorities in Belgrade.”[New York Times, May 13, 1999, p.1] (From William Blum’s Rogue State: A guide to the World’s Only Superpower]

      • The bombing stops.

      • Economic warfare continues. NATO refuses to deliver fuel oil to towns that back Milosevic’s Socialist Party.

      • The message is clear: Dump Milosevic and we relieve the pressure.

      • The civil disobedience campaign resumes.

      • Milosevic is ousted.

      • The ICNC falsely attributes the fall of the government to nonviolent “people power”, ignoring the role violence plays in creating conditions of misery and furnishing Serbs with a motivation to oust the government.

      Governments don’t fall without a crisis. NATO created one, through its economic warfare, assistance to an armed insurgency, and the massive violence of bombing. The violence-induced crisis created the conditions that allowed a civil disobedience campaign—massively funded by the same governments that imposed sanctions, backed the KLA and bombed for 90 days—to successfully topple Milosevic.

      Nonviolent conflict isn’t the new imperialist tool, as Vinthagen accuses me of arguing, but the ICNC and the grass roots movements it is involved in training unquestionably are.

      gowans

      November 23, 2010 at 3:45 pm

  3. Apparently, some “peace activists” like Stellan Vinthagen are willfully blind to the fact that so-called civil resistance has in fact been repeatedly used by America and other Western imperialist nations for regime change operations around the world, as evidenced by the various Colored Revolutions ranging from the Ukraine to Central Asia and beyond.

    With respect to Ukraine, even this article from the mainstream Guardian newspaper below called it a USA-sponsored “postmodern coup d’etat”:

    “Ukraine’s postmodern coup d’etat”
    Yushchenko got the US nod, and money flooded in to his supporters
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2004/nov/26/ukraine.comment

    More on this issue of postmodern coup d’etats in general, including its sponsors like George Soros. Vinthagen’s crying about “conspiracy” above cannot hide the disturbing political agendas driving this phenomenon:

    A Force More Powerful:
    Promoting ‘Democracy’ through Civil Disobedience
    http://www.stateofnature.org/forceMorePowerful.html

    Coup d’État in Disguise:
    Washington’s New World Order “Democratization” Template
    http://www.globalresearch.ca/articles/MOW502A.html

    GENE SHARP, MASTER OF NONVIOLENT WARFARE
    http://guerillas-without-guns.blogspot.com/2007/02/gene-sharp-master-of-nonviolent-warfare.html

    The Albert Einstein Institution: non-violence according to the CIA
    http://www.voltairenet.org/article30032.html

    The Soros Syndrome
    http://www.counterpunch.org/cockburn10082010.html

    AR

    November 23, 2010 at 12:10 pm

  4. I submitted comments to Vinthagen’s article at OpenDemocracy. Some were published, but my reply to J.S. Zunes has vanished, so I am publishing it here.

    First, here are Zunes’ comments.

    “Readers should be aware that Stephen Gowans’ sectarian attacks against ICNC and other groups supportive of strategic nonviolent action has long been dismissed by progressive activists from Noam Chomsky to the late Howard Zinn. For example, the idea that ICNC’s “affinity for nonviolent civil disobedience appears to begin and end in the assistance it can provide grass roots movements whose goals momentarily align with those of the US state in opposing a foreign state” is contradicted by ICNC’s longstanding work with prorgressive activists struggling against such U.S. backed regimes as Morocco, Indonesia, Guatemala, Israel, Egypt, Guinea, Pakistan, Honduras, and others. Gowans also conveniently ignores the fact that the nonviolent activists who overthrew Milosevic were very much opposed to the NATO bombing and support for the KLA and argue that such policies set back their struggle against the regime whether than supported it.

    “Vinthagen, as least as much an activist as an academic, is well respected in leftist circles throughout Europe for his leadership in opposition to imperialism, neo-liberalism, and other vices of Western capitalism. That he is now being depicted as “serving the interests of the U.S. ultra-right” is ludicrous beyond words.”

    I would guess from the name and style of attack, that J.S. Zunes is none other than Stephen Zunes, an advisor to the ICNC. Stephen Zunes tends to write in a manner that might, at times, be called “slippery”. It’s best to be on guard when reading whatever he has written. It is clear that J.S. Zunes, if he is not the same person, shares this bad habit.

    Let me illustrate. Zunes’ assertion that my criticism of the ICNC has long been dismissed by progressive activists from Noam Chomsky to the late Howard Zinn might lead one to believe that I am known to Chomksy and was known to Zinn, that they read my ICNC critiques, and after considering them, dismissed them. While I would be flattered to think that either man knew me, I can assure you the chances that they had ever heard of me, read my ICNC critiques, let alone dismissed them, are slim to none. Zunes is likely referring to a petition he organized to dissuade critics from taking Gene Sharp to task for training ant-Chavez activists to peacefully overthrow the Venezuelan president. The petition was signed by Chomsky and Zinn among others. This hardly constitutes a dismissal of my ICNC critiques, let alone anyone else’s (it was an appeal to stop criticizing Sharp) but it seems close enough to one for Zunes to use it to create a misleading impression.

    But, what if Chomsky and Zinn had read my ICNC critiques and dismissed them? Would this make them wrong? Of course not. But Zunes frequently employs the propagandist’s (and advertiser’s) trick of arguing from authority. Indeed, his organizing a petition to stop the criticism of Sharp was straight out of any PR executive’s playbook. If you want to get people to believe a certain idea, find luminaries they admire to endorse it. It’s like saying: You might think broccoli and turnip for breakfast is no way to start the day but Noam Chomsky think it’s okay. Shouldn’t you?

    Zunes refers to the ICNC’s longstanding work with progressive activists struggling against U.S. backed regimes. Okay, fine. But does this excuse the ICNC’s longstanding work with activists seeking to topple governments the US is using sanctions or violence or sabotage or all three to undermine…and does it excuse the activists for taking money from Uncle Sam to help him achieve his foreign policy objectives? If you think the United States is a progressive force in international affairs, maybe so. But if you recognize that US regime change efforts have nothing to do with promoting peace, democracy and human rights—and everything to do with promoting the interests of the US elite–assisting in the toppling of foreign governments is inexcusable, whether achieved through peaceful means or not. Zunes and Vinthagen seem to think that if US foreign policy could be carried out peacefully it would somehow become progressive.

    ICNC founder Peter Ackerman regularly holds conferences hosting new recruits 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.’”

    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.” Ackerman has sent a trainer to Palestine “to spend twelve days creating a nonviolent vanguard to challenge Hamas.” The list goes on.

    Zunes contends that I conveniently ignore the fact that the nonviolent activists who overthrew Milosevic were very much opposed to the NATO bombing and support for the KLA. Indeed, I did ignore it. That’s because whether the activists supported the bombing and the KLA or not is immaterial to my argument. My argument is that the nonviolent activists were one element of a multi-pronged strategy that also included sanctions, bombing and insurgency. The activists may have been opposed to the other elements of the strategy, but that in no way denies that the other elements created the conditions that allowed nonviolent activism to eventually topple Milosevic. It doesn’t matter that the nonviolent activist opposed the other elements. They weren’t calling the shots.

    “The commander of NATO’s air war against Serbia, Lt. Gen. Michael Short, declare(s) at one point during the bombing: If you wake up in the morning and you have no power to your house and no gas to your stove and the bridge you take to work is down and will be lying in the Danube for the next 20 years, I think you begin to ask, “Hey, Slobo, what’s this all about? How much more of this do we have to withstand?”[Washington Post, May 24, 1999, p.1]

    General Short, said the New York Times, “hopes that the distress of the Yugoslav public will undermine support for the authorities in Belgrade.”[New York Times, May 13, 1999, p.1] (From William Blum’s Rogue State: A guide to the World’s Only Superpower]

    Economic warfare continued, even after the bombing ended. NATO refused to deliver fuel oil to towns that backed Milosevic’s Socialist Party.

    The bombing, the sanctions, the bribery conveyed a clear message: Dump Milosevic and we relieve the pressure. Once NATO created immense misery, people had a motivation to oust Milosevic. Nonviolent activism could now deliver the final cut.

    Finally, since Zunes begins his comments with a reference to me, readers might think, as Zunes seems to imply, that I have depicted Stellan Vinthagen as “serving the interests of the U.S. ultra-right.” These are someone else’s words, not mine. I do not think that Vinthagen serves the interests of the US ultra-right. This is indeed ludicrous. However, I do think that Vinthagen, Zunes and Ackerman—the latter being the former head of Freedom House (an organization Chomsky and Herman describe in their Manufacturing Consent as being interlocked with the CIA), a member of the premier US foreign policy think-tank The Council on Foreign Relations, and the guy the US State Department turns to when it doesn’t “want to create international incidents by advising activists on how to overthrow governments”—serve the interests of the US foreign policy establishment. To think otherwise would, to use Zunes’ phrase, be ludicrous beyond words.

    gowans

    December 7, 2010 at 12:05 am


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