Defending the Indefensible: Sham Democracy Promoter Defends Imperialist Ties

By Stephen Gowans

Stephen Zunes, an advisor to the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict, an organization founded by former Michael Milken right-hand man Peter Ackerman, continues to defend “non-violent pro-democracy” activists involved in promoting overthrow movements abroad.

In a June 27, 2008 article in Foreign Policy in Focus, Zunes springs to the defense of Gene Sharp, the founder of the Albert Einstein Institution, who has been exposed in Eva Golinger’s “Bush vs. Chavez: Washington’s War on Venezuela” as “a self-titled expert of what he calls ‘non-violent defense’, though better termed regime change” who has provided “aid to Venezuela’s opposition in finding new and inventive ways to overthrow Chavez.” Sharp has been variously connected to Western-backed overthrow movements in Myanmar, Tibet, Belarus, Serbia and Zimbabwe – countries the US ruling class is acting to bring under its heel.

Zunes’ defense of Sharp, which amounts mostly to declaring Golinger’s and others’ exposure of the AEI founder to be “fabricated allegations,” rests on his demolishing a straw man. Sharp is not, he argues, part of a Bush administration conspiracy to overthrow foreign governments. This is probably true. But I’m not aware of anyone who has ever directly linked Sharp to either the Bush administration or a conspiracy. Someone may have done so somewhere, but for the most part, Sharp has been criticized for accepting funding from and acting (whether intentionally or not) on behalf of US ruling class forces. These forces, of course, are much broader than the Bush administration.

Peter Ackerman, the head of the ICNC, which Zunes belongs to in an advisory capacity, is not, as far as I’m aware, connected to the Bush administration, but has taken on a leadership role on behalf of the US ruling class. He has celebrated the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic by forces Gene Sharp had a key role in training, and Western governments had a key role in bankrolling and establishing the conditions for the success of. Ackerman’s ruling class credentials are impeccable – a Wall Street investment banker, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and head of Freedom House, which is interlocked with the CIA and a “virtual propaganda arm of the (US) government and international right wing,” according to Noam Chomsky’s and Edward Herman’s Manufacturing Consent. This is the company Sharp, Zunes and their left-wing regime change promoters keep. Ackerman’s wife, Joanne Leedom-Ackerman, is a former director of the AEI. She is also currently a director of the US foreign policy establishment-dominated Human Rights Watch, which promotes the view that the US should use its “moral authority” to promote human rights around the world, and the US Congress-funded International Center for journalists.

After two pages of telling us there is no truth to the charges against Sharp, Zunes reinforces the case Sharp’s critics have been making, when he reveals that the AEI:

• Is funded by corporate foundations.
• Is open to accepting funding from organizations that have received funding from government sources (i.e., accepts government funding passed through intermediary organizations.)
• Has received grants from the US Congress’s National Endowment for Democracy (an organization that does overtly what the CIA used to do covertly.)
• Has advised members of the Venezuelan opposition.

Not disclosed in Zunes’ article, but revealing nonetheless, is that the NED paid for the AEI to provide advice to Zimbabwe’s Western-backed neo-liberal opposition party, the MDC.

I’m never sure whether Zunes is unsophisticated, sophistical, or both. He declares Sharp to be innocent of all charges, and then adduces evidence that backs up the allegations of Sharp’s critics. In doing so, he sets out a defense that amounts to the following:

1. It’s all right for left activists to take money from corporate foundations.
2. It’s all right to take money from governments, just so long as they’re not Republican ones and was done years ago.
3. It’s all right to take money from Republican governments today, just so long as it comes through pass through organizations. (The CIA, it should be noted, has a long history of using intermediaries to fund organizations like the ICNC, Freedom House and the AEI.)
4. Even if foreign overthrow movements have been bankrolled by the US, Britain and other Western governments, the effect of the funding on the success of these movements is immaterial; governments can’t be brought down unless they lose popular support.

Zunes’ last point is true, but the pressure Western governments exert on foreign policy targets through threats of war, bombing campaigns, sanctions, and propaganda, go a long way toward alienating target governments of popular support, and thereby preparing the ground for Sharp- and Zunes-trained overthrow movements to go to work.

Serbia, whose once social- and publicly-owned enterprises have been sold off to Western investors, is a model of what overthrow movements Zunes celebrates and assists produce.

As ever, Zunes would like us to believe that nonviolent pro-democracy groups are not influenced by the corporations and wealthy individuals who fund them. This may be true, but useful idiots don’t need to be bribed. This is succinctly illustrated in a David Horowitz quotation, cited by Michael Barker in a forthcoming Swans article. “In the control of scholarship by wealth, it is neither necessary nor desirable that professors hold a certain orientation because they receive a grant. The important thing is that they receive a grant because they hold the orientation.”

Frances Stonor Saunders in her “Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters”, points out that the NCL, the non-communist left, has long been the favored funding recipients of foundations and the CIA. The idea, from their point of view, is to channel leftist sentiment and thinking in pro-imperialist directions by amplifying the voice of the pro-imperialist NCL, thereby drowning out and marginalizing the voice of the communist left. While the NCL is often opposed to Western military intervention, and on this basis professes to be anti-imperialist, it promotes and legitimizes imperialist interventions in other ways. It encourages overthrow movements, celebrating them as pro-democracy people’s forces, offers them assistance, training and legitimacy, and mimics the rhetorical assaults by imperialist governments on target governments, thereby promoting the view that Western governments must act, even if not militarily.

A commitment to peace and low-level democracy is not equivalent to anti-imperialism, and as Sharp demonstrates, is a leftist version of a pro-imperialist program. What Zunes leaves out or does not understand is than non-violent pro-democracy movements are often powerless without imperialist governments first threatening or deploying military interventions, imposing sanctions and blockades and broadcasting anti-government propaganda, thereby turning the population of targeted countries against their governments. In other words, the bad guys Zunes can rail against to establish his leftist credentials do the dirty work while his people’s forces come in at the end to effect the coup de grace. The result is never democracy, in the original sense of the word, but improved trade and investment conditions for Western economic elites – the same elites Sharp and Zunes are taking foundation lucre from.

Zunes would also like to bamboozle us into believing that the assistance and funding overthrow movements receive from Western imperialist governments makes little difference in the grand scheme of things (which means, by implication, that the foundations which dole out funding are managed by morons who are squandering money on ineffectual programs.)

As always, Zunes does his part in promoting US foreign policy goals, aping US government descriptions of regime change targets, vilifying them as “autocratic regimes,” which presumably deserve to brought down by handsomely funded overthrow movements trained by Zunes, Sharp and the left “non-violent democracy promotion” apparatus. It comes as no surprise that while Zunes refers to the target governments of Belarus and Zimbabwe as regimes (as the US State Department does), he refers to the current US executive as the Bush “administration.”

Zunes has put together a public statement in defense of Sharp, which has been signed by NCL luminaries Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn. Zunes hopes their endorsement will lay to rest legitimate questions about the role played by Sharp and other nonviolent pro-democracy activists, including Zunes himself, in promoting US imperialism under the guise of advancing democracy. But endorsements by Chomsky or Zinn don’t change the facts; they only raise questions about the endorsers and Zunes’ stooping to reliance of appeal to authority. Apparently, he has judged his argument too weak to stand on its own. Calling in NCL luminaries is the political equivalent of calling out the sheep herders to bring the flock back into line. But is the authority of Chomsky and Zinn deserved?

Joan Roelofs reveals in her “Foundations and Public Policy: The Mask of Pluralism” that The Progressive, the magazine for which Zinn writes a regular column, had advisory board members on the Council of Foreign Relations and receives grants from the Ford Foundation. Zunes will reply that I’m making accusations of guilt by association, but the point is that the ruling class funds the NCL and the NCL gladly accepts ruling class lucre. Zunes can dismiss the connection as irrelevant and of no consequence, but this is sheer sophistry.

Sharp and Zunes may be genuinely interested in the pursuit of democracy, but it’s a low-intensity democracy subordinate to US imperial interests they’re promoting. Foreign governments on the US ruling class regime change hit list – and anti-imperialists in the West — have a legitimate reason to be wary of Sharp, Zunes and other leftist members of the US regime change apparatus. They are ruling class operatives who align with ruling class figures to facilitate the pursuit of overseas profits through the elimination of nationalist and socialist governments which stand in the way. Their promotion of democracy, revealed in the neo-liberal, privatized tyrannies which are the invariable outcomes of their work, is as much a sham as the democracy promotion of the imperialist governments they’re tied to through pass through funding and interlocks with ruling class foundations and activists.

Look for Michael Barker’s forthcoming article on Zunes’ defense of Sharp in Swans.

4 thoughts on “Defending the Indefensible: Sham Democracy Promoter Defends Imperialist Ties

  1. I’d like to read more analysis of Stephen Zunes himself. Who is this guy really? What are his political background, history, and connections?

    I think Zunes doth protest too much in his defense of Gene Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institute.

    To me, Zunes represents the Left Hand of the American Empire, which differs from the “Neocons” only in terms of TACTICS.

    This Imperialist American Left favors the manipulation of a targetted nation’s civil society to achieve regime change–which they attempt to cloak behind the veneer of Pro-Democracy or “Colored Revolutions,” as the American media hacks like to call them.

    These so-called Colored Revolutions, however, have been aptly described even by some in the non-USA media as a form of Postmodern Coup D’Etat.

    Zunes’ beloved Orange Revolution in Ukraine was the inspiration for this very term being coined by the Guardian newspaper.

    Ukraine’s postmodern coup d’etat

    And there is no question this Postmodern Coup is being replicated around the world by America.

  2. “More farsighted (i.e., dangerous) capitalists, like the Rockefellers, realized long ago that US imperialism would sell better if wrapped in vaguely “progressive,” vanguardist, leftish images. In other words, they put their money on left anticommunism.”

    Yes, that’s true. In many ways, the Progressives or Neoliberal wing of Western Imperialism is more dangerous than the Neoconservatives, as the former are able to cloak their agenda behind a “progressive” veneer.

    One faction is like a wolf, while the other faction is like a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

    This is what Barack Obama represents: a new multicultural “face” for the American Empire–backed by people like Zig. Brzezinski and George Soros.

    More on how many self-styled progressive organizations in the USA are actually funded by the same US political establishment, they claim to oppose:

  3. “the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict, an organization founded by former Michael Milken right-hand man Peter Ackerman”

    There is one aspect of all these NGOs that deserves more attention from the proletarian Western Left. In NGOs big bourgeoisie–in particular, big Anglo-Saxon bourgeoisie–have developed new political instruments of class rule. The distinct feature of this instrument is that it allows to excercize this rule directly rather than through the mediation of the state and, at the same time, in a concealed way. This explains why the optimal wrapping for a NGO is to have somewhat leftish color. More farsighted (i.e., dangerous) capitalists, like the Rockefellers, realized long ago that US imperialism would sell better if wrapped in vaguely “progressive,” vanguardist, leftish images. In other words, they put their money on left anticommunism

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