Leftist overthrow advisor Lester Kurtz: “I talked with the CIA”
By Stephen Gowans
Lester Kurtz is a professor of sociology who sits on the academic advisory board of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, an organization that trains activists in the use of mass civil disobedience to take power from foreign governments.
The ICNC was founded by former Freedom House head, Peter Ackerman, Michael Milken’s right-hand man at the Wall Street investment banking firm Drexel Burnham Lambert. Ackerman became ridiculously wealthy organizing the KKR leveraged buy-out of RJR Nabisco. 
These days Ackerman is a board member of the Council on Foreign Relations, along with former US secretaries of state, defense, and treasury, and CEOs, investment bankers and highly placed media people. When he’s not helping formulate foreign policy recommendations at the CFR, he’s lending a hand on the Advisory Council of the United States Institute for Peace, a phoney U.S. government peace outfit headed absurdly by the U.S. secretaries of defense and state.
As you might expect of a wealthy investor who hobnobs with the US foreign policy establishment, Ackerman defines protection of private property rights as an integral part of democracy and believes the United States has a lot of teach the world. 
After learning investment banking at the knee of Milken, Ackerman turned his energies to training foreign activists in the use of the nonviolent resistance techniques of Gene Sharp, probably the first person to situate mass civil disobedience in the context of military strategy.  This earned Sharp the sobriquet the Clausewitz of nonviolence, after the Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz. 
An interviewer working for a Canadian nonviolent resistance magazine once pointed out to Sharp — with some incredulity — that people say a government cannot fund or sponsor the overthrow of another government.
Sharp replied, “Why not?” adding, “What do they prefer that the U.S. spend money on?” 
Nonviolent resistance – also more aptly called nonviolent warfare – is about taking power, not making a point. It’s not pacifism or a principled religious or ethical position based on abhorrence of violence. It’s power politics. Ackerman and other nonviolent warriors believe that mass civil disobedience – the shrewd use of strikes, boycotts, demonstrations, and nonviolent sabotage backed by sanctions and demonization of target governments – can be more effective in taking political power than military intervention.  That makes them instrumental nonviolence advocates. They advocate nonviolence, not because they hate violence, but because they think nonviolence works better than armed revolt or military intervention.
With the help of people like Lester Kurtz, the ICNC trains a modern cadre of mercenaries, who travel the world in the pay of NGOs, Western governments, wealthy individuals and corporate foundations, in order to train local groups in regime change through nonviolent warfare.  Ackerman, Kurtz and company, sit at the head of a kind of imperialist International, whose aim is to spread the US system, US influence and ultimately US capital around the world, under the guise of “promoting democracy.” It calls to mind a line from Phil Ochs’ condemnation of US imperialism, “We’re the Cops of The World”. Ochs sang, “The name for our profits is democracy.” Of course, the ICNC isn’t admitting to any of this. ICNC members say they’re just handing out information on nonviolence to anyone who will listen.
Last April, Kurtz posted a comment to my blog, calling my linking of Ackerman and his ICNC to US imperialism a “non sequitur.”
I replied. In my reply I pointed out that Kurtz discloses on his CV that he gave workshops to the CIA and the U.S. government- and corporate- funded think-tank, the RAND Corporation. Nine months later, Kurtz replied, with a bombshell. Sure, he talked with the CIA and RAND, he said, because they asked him to.
Albert Szymanski, also a professor of sociology, would never have received an invitation from the CIA to conduct a workshop on anything, and if he had, we can be pretty sure he would have turned them down. So why Kurtz (an academic advisor to an outfit founded by a wealthy CFR member who celebrates the overthrow of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, an act which cleared the way for a US-backed pro-capitalist government to come to power to sell off state and socially-owned assets to investors like Ackerman) and not Szymanski (a Marxist-Leninist who deplored imperialism)? If ever there was a sign you’re part of the problem, it’s being asked by the CIA for advice. Giving it erases all doubts.
Here’s the exchange. It begins with Kurtz’s comments on my article, “Washington Post: North Korean, Iranian nuclear capability threatens US imperialism”, on April 5, 2010.
It’s no surprise that US foreign policy is somehow linked to the economics of things is not a shock – what is surprising is Stephen Gowans’ effort to link “pro-democracy nonviolence activists,” and Peter Ackerman, with US imperialism! What a non-sequitur! Those activists (with the aid of only educational resources from the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict that Ackerman funds) have taken on oppressors of all political stripes, many of them (like Marcos, Pinochet, etc., etc.) part of the US orb. While Washington no doubt has a hit list, it has nothing to do with providing information and resources to people who would organize for their rights regardless of who is thwarting them. The kind of imprecise thinking that links these activities through some leap of logic simply distracts from other aspects of the argument and leaves me puzzled as to the point of the article.
I replied the same day.
I’m assuming the above was written by Lester Kurtz, Professor of Sociology at George Mason University, and a member of the academic advisory board of Peter Ackerman’s organization, the ICNC. In March, 2005, Kurtz ran a workshop on religion and violence for the CIA and RAND.
I wonder whether Kurtz sees the connection between RAND and the CIA on the one hand and US imperialism on the other. Probably not.
While it may come as no surprise to Kurtz that US foreign policy is somehow linked to the economics of things, showing that this is so is much more difficult than showing that Peter Ackerman is linked to US imperialism. The latter is easily demonstrated.
(1) US foreign policy is imperialist,
(2) The Council on Foreign Relations plays a major role in shaping US foreign policy, and
(3) Peter Ackerman is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
We could add other observations (e.g., Ackerman’s previous role as head of the CIA-interlocked Freedom House, hardly what you would call a non-imperialist organization, and his privileged position atop the economic order of things) but the points above should suffice.
What comes as a surprise to me is that while Kurtz can grasp the nexus between the economics of things and the imperialist nature of US foreign policy, he can’t see the much more obvious connection between Ackerman and US imperialism, but perhaps that is so because to see it, would mean acknowledging his own connection to it.
Nine months later Kurtz responded.
Of course there’s a connection between RAND, the CIA, and US imperialism – that’s why I talked with them when asked to do so. What good does it do to sit in a corner and talk to ourselves? I used to complain to my students that nobody ever asked me about important policy questions – do they ask you? I’d ask. So, when they asked me to speak, I did. I’d not work for them, but will talk with them, with you, with the devil, with anyone who will listen. The whole system is rotten, but won’t be replaced or transformed until people stand up and speak out.
Interestingly, Kurtz used the same defense that the head of the ICNC academic advisory board Stephen Zunes used on behalf of the Clausewitz of nonviolence, Gene Sharp, when it was revealed that Sharp had advised right-wing Venezuelans on how to bring down Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. Sharp, explained Zunes, had “taken a ‘transpartisan’ position that cuts across political boundaries and conceptions and (talks) to essentially anyone” , apparently just as Kurtz does. If that’s a defense, the world dodged a bullet when Zunes turned down a career in law.
Here’s more of Zunes defending Sharp:
Unfortunately, Sharp – who is now well into his 80s and whose health is failing – appears to show little discernment as to who he meets with and his audience has sometimes included some right-wing Cubans or Venezuelans who have sought him out to see if any of his research would be of relevance in their efforts to organize some kind of popular mobilization against the Castro or Chavez governments. Some of those may have indeed been later found to have engaged in assassination plots. 
Since Kurtz isn’t well into his 80s, how do we explain his lack of discernment in who he meets with? Or does age have anything to do with it? Meeting with right-wing Venezuelans, right-wing Cubans , followers of Reza Pahlavi, the son of the deposed Shah of Iran , and the CIA seems to be standard operating procedure for nonviolent warriors. The New Republic’s Franklin Foer pointed out that “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.” It seems that if there’s a nationalist or socialist government to be overthrown, the nonviolent warriors are always willing to step up to the plate. They’ll talk to anyone: right-wing assassins, followers of a former US-backed Iranian dictator, the CIA. Adopting a position that “cuts across political boundaries and conceptions” means that where leftist peaceniks once were against the US government and other rightist forces, not they advise them.
On January 5, I responded to Kurtz’s latest comment.
Good work Les. Maybe after you deliver a few more seminars, the CIA will see the light, and decide that taking down foreign governments that refuse to subordinate themselves to Washington’s dictates isn’t such a good thing after all… Oh, but I forgot, that’s no longer a CIA function, is it? It’s now your job, and that of your ICNC colleagues.
Exactly what is it you’re standing up and speaking out about to the CIA anyway: that organizing nonviolent warfare campaigns against foreign governments is more effective in achieving US foreign policy goals than taking out wedding parties with predator drones?
You are, indeed, making the world a better place, Les. Keep accepting those CIA invitations.
Kurtz and some other ICNC academic advisors seem bewildered that they should be so vigorously criticized for trying to show the powerful that nonviolent overthrow movements are a better alternative to armed intervention. After all, what could be wrong with trying to persuade Washington that there’s a nonviolent way to achieve its foreign policy objectives? What they fail to grasp is that the tools the US government uses to prosecute its foreign policy aren’t the problem. The problem is US foreign policy.
1. Franklin Foer, “Regime Change Inc. Peter Ackerman’s quest to topple tyranny,” The New Republic, April 16, 2005.
2. 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 .
3. Eli Lake, “Iran launches a crackdown on democracy activists,” The New York Sun, March 14, 2006.
4. Peace.Ca, “Gene Sharp: A Biographical Profile.” http://www.peace.ca/genesharp.htm
5. Spencer, Metta, “Gene Sharp 101,” Peace Magazine, July-Septmeber, 2003.
6. Peter Ackerman, “Paths to peace: How Serbian students brought dictator down without a shot fired,” National Catholic Reporter, April 26, 2002; Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall, “The nonviolent script for Iran,” Christian Science Monitor, July 22, 2003; Peter Ackerman 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.)
7. Mark R. Beissinger, “Promoting democracy: Is exporting revolution a constructive strategy?” Dissent, Winter 2006. http://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/?article=155
8. Stephen Zunes, George Cicariello-Maher and Eva Golinger, “Debate on the Albert Einstein Institution and its Involvement in Venezuela”, venezuelanalysis.com, August 5, 2008. http://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/3690
9. Ibid. It’s bad enough that Zunes tries to excuse Sharp’s meeting with right-wing Venezuelans as a lack of discernment attributable to age and illness when nonviolent warriors regularly aid right-wing forces, but his descent into bafflegab in the construction of the truly prolix phrase “‘transpartisan’ position that cuts across political boundaries and conceptions” — meaning I’d give advice to Hitler if he asked — would be comic were it not intended to prettify a reactionary position. Zunes, I think, would give British MP Sir Norman Fry a run for his money as a concocter of tortured explanations to cover up what he doesn’t care to admit.