Analysis of Syrian Protest Movement

Here’s Mazda Majidi, always worth reading, on Syria. A refreshing alternative to Gilbert Achcar.

The revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia have thrown into question all established authorities in the Arab world and unleashed political forces everywhere that see this as a golden opportunity to make their bid for power. This does not mean each one of these forces is progressive.

It is not possible at this point to weigh the relative strength, or politically characterize, all the various trends within the Syrian opposition movement. The current protest movement appears to have begun with a spontaneous protest against an incident of police brutality in a working-class Damascus neighborhood. It undoubtedly includes many thousands who simply a desire a society free of poverty and state repression. But it has also included sectarian religious forces who want to overthrow the country’s secular orientation, and have chanted “Alawis to the coffins, Christians to Beirut.” The Alawis are a religious minority group—about 12 percent of the population—to which many of the leading Ba’ath officials belong.

Read Majidi’s analysis in full here.

Edward Herman and David Peterson on Peter Ackerman and Stephen Zunes.

On Ackerman

“ICNC founder and chairman Peter Ackerman was a board member and eventual chairman of Freedom House (September 2005 – January 2009), an institution that has been as clear an instrument of U.S. foreign policy as has the CIA itself. While U.S. anti-war activists were still organizing to oppose the then-just-initiated U.S. aggression against Iraq, Ackerman joined with 21 other Freedom House trustees to issue a statement in support of the war…”

On Zunes

“It is disturbing to watch Zunes repeatedly downplay the role of foreign money, knowledge, and power at work behind regime-change campaigns, and hype the “democratic” credentials of the opposition to targeted regimes. Indeed, the latter is an especially powerful cocktail for sowing confusion among leftists and progressives, whose minds tell them to oppose imperial causes, but whose hearts warm to emotionally manipulative rhetoric about the ‘homegrown’ nature of ‘pro-democracy’ movements. “


“We find it highly revealing…that one month before the March 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, while opponents of the imminent war were organizing protests on the streets of America’s cities, Zunes was extremely harsh towards Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER), which had successfully mounted some of the major protests. “It’s one of the Leninist, Trotskyist organizations that has emerged in the past few decades,” he told the Washington Times, and exercises a “disproportionate influence in some sectors of the peace movement.” But Zunes identified an even more serious problem with ANSWER and related anti-war organizations: Their leaders “are not willing to say a bad thing about Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic. And if you ask questions, they accuse you of red-baiting.” Hence, no glowing rhetoric about “people power” and the genius of “civilian-based movements” where opposition to the U.S. war machine was the issue. Only comments that discredited the anti-war movement in a manner that Zunes never extended to protesters against one of the regimes targeted by the United States.

Full article can be found here.

NATO’s Kosovo Air War Redux

By Stephen Gowans

NATO’s military intervention in Libya began, in theory, as an enforcement of a no-fly zone to protect civilians but has in reality morphed into an attack on civilian targets to undermine the morale of Gaddafi loyalists in order to turn them against the country’s leader.

NATO has struck Gaddafi’s residence repeatedly, and in recent days attacked a TV broadcast center.

If it sounds like a rerun of NATO’s 1999 air war on Yugoslavia, when NATO showered bombs on civilian targets in order to “protect” civilians, that’s because NATO has dusted off an old script.

The campaign over Libya, according to senior US officers, draws on lessons from 1999. (1)

Here was US General Michael Short 12 years ago on the logic of the NATO bombing campaign.

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?” (2)

Short told The New York Times that the bombing campaign was based on “hopes that the distress of the Yugoslav public will undermine support for the authorities in Belgrade.” (3)

Here’s US General John P. Jumper today, who was commander in 1999 of US Air Force units in Europe.

It was when we went in and began to disturb important and symbolic sites in Belgrade, and began to bring to a halt the middle-class life in Belgrade, that Milosevic’s own people began to turn on him. (4)

Jumper says NATO is following the same logic in Libya today.

How NATO got away with bombing civilian targets in Belgrade in 1999 offers insight into how it’s getting away with bombing civilian targets in Tripoli in 2011.

First, then as now, no one was big enough and strong enough to stop them.

Second, NATO bamboozled enough people into believing Serb forces were slaughtering ethnic Albanians in Kosovo to win support for an intervention as the only way to avert a bloodbath. Sound familiar? The tens of thousands of corpses NATO ministers warned would be found scattered across Kosovo and buried in the Trepca mines, were never found.

Third, NATO simply made the definition of a military target so malleable that it could fit just about any site NATO planners wished to destroy. Roads and railways were said to be legitimate quarry, because they were used by military vehicles. Bridges allowed military units to move easily from one point to another, and therefore could be taken down as legitimate military targets. Radio-television buildings were fair game because they were deemed to be part of the enemy’s “propaganda apparatus” (which means, if we’re to apply a consistent standard, that The New York Times’ building is a legitimate target for any country the United States attacks.) Government buildings were part of the enemy’s command and control infrastructure, and as a consequence could be obliterated as lawful targets. And the schools, hospitals and people destroyed by NATO bombs that couldn’t be passed off as legitimate military targets were dumped into the convenient category of “collateral damage.”

Peter Ackerman, the moneybags who hobnobs with Zbigniew Brzezinski and Robert Gates on the US foreign policy elite’s Council on Foreign Relations, and who founded an organization to promote color revolutions, created a documentary about the downfall of Milosevic, called Bringing Down a Dictator. It credits so-called nonviolent pro-democracy activists—not NATO’s bombing of civilian targets to turn Milosevic’s supporters against him–with bringing about Milosevic’s ouster.

Maybe Ackerman’s definition of non-violence (and of dictator: Milosevic was elected in multiparty elections which continued to be carried out after he became president) is as malleable as NATO’s definition of a military target.

What’s clear is that NATO and the color revolution outfit Ackerman founded have the same goal: to sweep leaders of non-satellite countries from power in order to integrate their countries unconditionally into the global economy as Western vassal states.

If the goal can be achieved by bombing civilians to weaken their morale, NATO is up for it, as much today as it was in 1999.

1. Thom Shanker and David E. Sanger, “Nato says it is stepping up attacks on Libya targets”, The New York Times, April 26, 2011.
2. Washington Post, May 24, 1999.
3. New York Times, May 13, 1999. Cited in William Blum’s Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower.
4. Shanker and Sanger.

Gilbert Achcar’s Fantasy World

By Stephen Gowans

Gilbert Achcar hates Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. That much is clear from Achcar’s three Z-Net articles, the latest published on April 23, in which the Lebanese socialist and sometimes “anti-war activist” urges the left to support the rebel uprising in Libya and not to oppose the NATO-enforced no-fly zone. In his latest article, which amounts to a defense of his position against the firestorm of criticism he has drawn for urging the left not to oppose Western military intervention in Libya, Achcar denounces Gaddafi as a psychopath. By demonizing Gaddafi, Achcar acts to legitimize the Benghazi rebellion and therefore Western support of it. There are likely to be more than a few psychopaths among the rebels. And applying Achcar’s amateur political psychography, we could probably denounce the Saudi monarchy, which has brutally suppressed the rebellion in Bahrain, as being as rife with psychopaths as Libya’s leadership. But Achcar appears to be more agitated by the Libyan psychopaths than the Saudi, Bahraini, Israeli, or indeed, even US, British and French ones. Politics based on the presumed psychological failings or mental states of leaders is illegitimate, and no genuine socialist, at least no Marxist one, practices it.

On top of demonizing Gaddafi, Achcar tries to make the rebels more palatable than they are. The rebellion, Achcar assures us, is made up of “the same mix of political forces that are active in most other uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, i.e., liberal democrats, various types of Islamic currents from moderate to extreme, former members of the regime…and left-oriented groups and persons.” Doubtlessly, some “left-oriented groups and persons” count themselves among the Libyan rebels, but there is no evidence that their numbers are large and that they have any influence within the insurrection. Even Achcar questions whether the left has a significant presence. In a footnote, he writes: “The last time there was any indication about an organized left in Libya, to my knowledge, was in the early 1970s when news came out about the repression of a Trotskyist group there.”

One of the less palatable elements of the rebellion, whose presence Achcar does acknowledge, are radical Islamists, about whom evidence is growing that they are playing key roles in the revolt. Rod Nordland and Scott Shane, writing in the New York Times of April 24, 2011 (1) profile Abu Safian Ibrahim Ahmed Hamuda bin Qurnu, a “tank driver in the Libyan Army in the 1980s” who joined Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in the early 1990s, was incarcerated by the United States at Guantanamo after September 11, 2011, released to Libya in 2007, and has since become “a notable figure in the Libyan rebels’ fight to oust” Gaddafi. He leads the Darnah Brigade, named after a port town in northeast Libya which “has a long history of Islamic militancy, including a revolt against Colonel Gaddafi’s rule led by Islamists in the mid-1990s.” “Activists from here,” note Nordland and Shane, “are credited with starting the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.”

Last week, Ottawa Citizen reporter David Pugliese obtained Canadian military documents which reveal that Canada’s Department of National Defence considers the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group to be a terrorist group associated with al-Qaeda. (2) The US State Department has also designated the group as a terrorist organization, a point Nordland and Shane might have made, considering the group plays an important role in the rebellion against Gaddafi. The organization was set up in Afghanistan in the early 1990s, and “had tried to assassinate Gaddafi on several occasions.” Gaddafi perceives the group to be “a mortal enemy.” Abdel-Moneim Mokhtar, “a leading member of the NATO backed rebels,” according to Pugliese, “had also been a top commander in the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.” And according to the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point, 52 of 440 suicide bombers in Iraq were from the group’s hometown of Darnah. (3) These are not leftists or even liberal democrats trying to bring about a more progressive alternative to Gaddafi.

Quoting Pugliese at length:

A Canadian intelligence report written in late 2009 also described the anti-Gadhafi stronghold of eastern Libya as an “epicentre of Islamist extremism” and said “extremist cells” operated in the region. That is the region now being defended by a Canadian-led NATO coalition.

The report by the government’s Integrated Threat Assessment Centre said “several Islamist insurgent groups” were based in eastern Libya and mosques in Benghazi were urging followers to fight in Iraq.

But extremists operating in eastern Libya were not the only forces Gadhafi had to deal with.

DND’s report notes that in 2004 Libyan troops found a training camp in the country’s southern desert that had been used by an Algerian terrorist group that would later change its name to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or AQIM.

That group was behind the 2008 kidnapping of Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay.

Still other reports have come to light about Islamic extremists in rebel ranks. The Wall Street Journal reported that Sufyan Ben Qumu, a Libyan army veteran who worked for Osama bin Laden’s holding company in Sudan and later for an al-Qaeda-linked charity in Afghanistan, is training rebel recruits.

He spent six years at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay.

Abdel Hakim al-Hasady, an influential Islamic preacher who spent five years at a training camp in eastern Afghanistan, also oversees recruitment and training for some rebels. (4)

I daresay it would be easy enough to decry radical Islamists as psychopaths, though it’s interesting that Achcar reserves this obloquy for Gaddafi, and prefers to attach a non-emotional descriptive label to the al-Qaeda-associated rebels. In Achcar’s hands, whereas Gaddafi is a psychopath, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group is nothing more than an Islamic current. It’s unlikely that the aims of the Islamists in seeking the overthrow of Gaddafi have much to do with establishing a liberal democracy, let alone socialism. Nevertheless, Achcar urges the left to back their rebellion.

Taking care to keep other less savory elements of the Benghazi rebel force from complicating his call for left support for the rebels, Achcar omits to mention that royalists make up a significant part of the mix of political forces seeking Gaddafi’s ouster, as do people with key connections to the US state, who have managed to secure important roles in the insurrection. These include:

• Khalifa Heftir, a former Libyan Army colonel, who spent the last 25 years living seven miles from CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia with no obvious means of support. (5) Heftir says “he had often talked to the Central Intelligence Agency while he lived in exile in suburban Virginia.” (6) He is one of, if not the rebels’, top military leader.
• Mahmoud Jibril “earned his PhD in 1985 from the University of Pittsburgh under the late Richard Cottam, a former US intelligence official in Iran who became a renowned political scientist specializing in the Middle East.” Jibril “spent years working with Gaddafi’s son Saif on political and economic reforms … (b)ut after hardliners in the regime stifled the reforms, Jibril quit in frustration and left Libya about a year ago.” (7) Jibril has been out of Libya since the uprising began, meeting with foreign leaders. (8)
• Ali Tarhouni, the rebel government’s finance minister, had been in exile for the last 35 years. His latest job was teaching economics at the University of Washington.

Achcar’s description of the rebels as a mix of political forces from liberal democrats to left-oriented groups hardly seems to accord with the reality that (a) there is no evidence that the left plays a significant role in the rebellion, and that (b) the largest part of the rebel mix is comprised of al-Qaeda-connected radical Islamists, royalists, and political and military leaders linked to the US intelligence community. There may be some ambiguity about how left Gaddafi is, and far less about his anti-imperialism, but whatever ambiguity there is about Gaddafi’s political position, there is certainly none about how left the rebels are. They aren’t.

Achcar’s Position

Achcar’s position amounts to this: Gaddafi is a demon; his ouster, therefore, is welcome; whatever comes after Gaddafi must be better than Gaddafi; the left shouldn’t support the NATO no-fly zone, but nor should it oppose it; this position would have raised the Western left’s credibility among left forces in North Africa and Western Asia; the left should now pressure Western governments to arm the rebels.

Let’s consider each point in turn.

Gaddafi is a demon.

Demonization is a hoary practice that governments have long used to mobilize support for war, and which anyone on the left should be on guard against. In addition to being used by imperialist governments to drum up support for war and other interventions, demonization is also often used by left writers associated with Z-Net and the Campaign for Peace and Democracy, and was used, too, by many members of the Second International to support their own countries’ participation in WWI. [Plekhanov, the father of Russian Marxism, became a fervent supporter of freedom and democracy against despotism and militarism when war clouds rolled in, despite agreeing before the war to mount a principled opposition to it should it come.] As shown by Achcar’s readiness to denounce Gaddafi as a “psychopath,” these writers have become as zealous as the State Department and major media, if not more so, in branding targets of Washington’s imperial designs as demons. This, unfortunately, happens during every major mobilization of Western diplomatic, intelligence and military forces against non-satellite countries. Left politics should not be based on legitimizing the pretexts for war of imperialist governments, nor on the alleged failings or virtues of leaders. They should be based on an analysis of class forces.

“If I were not old and sick I would join the army,” declared Plekhanov. “To bayonet our German comrades would give me great pleasure.” (9) Achcar expressed horror at the prospect of loyalist forces perpetrating a bloodbath in Benghazi, and in his first article in the series called for the left not to oppose a NATO no-fly zone on the grounds that it was the only way to avert a bloodbath. But his horror at bloodletting doesn’t seem to extend to that which promises to be brought about by the rebels, who he urges Western governments to arm. Hence, despite raising fears about a bloodbath, avoidance of bloodshed really doesn’t seem to weigh heavily in Achcar’s considerations. He doesn’t mention the efforts of the African Union to bring about a cease-fire or urge that the left support it. He’s silent on Gaddafi’s acceptance of the AU proposal and on the rebels’ rejection of it. It would appear, then, that it is not avoiding bloodbaths that galvanizes Achcar so much as avoiding the defeat of the rebels. One suspects that, as was true of Plekhanov, to bayonet our comrades on the other side would give Achcar great pleasure.

Whatever comes after Gaddafi must be better than Gaddafi.

In the lead up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, some left writers insisted the world—and Iraq– would be a better place without Saddam Hussein. It’s one thing to say Hussein was hardly a heroic figure and that he had blood on his hands, but quite another to brand him as so vile that nothing could be worse, as many left writers did. It should have, however, been clear that Iraq would be no better off under a US occupation—and would probably be substantially worse off, and indeed, this prediction has been borne out. Likewise, Gaddafi’s ouster will not be followed by a liberal democracy, much less socialism, but likely a new neo-colonial arrangement, in which Libya becomes an impoverished satellite of the West, as Serbia and Iraq have become. The idea that the Libyan rebels either want to, or are in a position to bring about, a progressive alternative to Gaddafi is pure fantasy. In order for this to happen, an organized political left would need to exist in Libya that was capable of mobilizing popular support, not against the current regime alone, but also for a qualitatively different regime that is either fiercely hostile to being placed in chains by outside forces, represents the interests of the mass of people, or both. But there is, by Achcar’s own admission, no such left political force in the country. The best the rebels can do is force Gaddafi’s ouster, but it is very likely that his successor, will, as was true in Serbia and Iraq, lead a neo-colonial puppet regime. For all its failings and recent willingness to cooperate with the West, the Gaddafi government has not gone so far as to integrate Libya’s land, labor and resources unconditionally into the global economy and has a history of acting for the benefit of its own people—which enjoys the highest standard of living in Africa. That it hasn’t unconditionally catered to the profit-making interests of foreign corporations and investors is the reason why Washington has long been hostile to the Gaddafi government, and explains its willingness to assist an armed rebellion to overthrow Gaddafi, while taking no such steps to aid a peaceful rebellion to throw off the weight of the Khalifa despotism in Bahrain, which runs its country as an annex to the United States, letting the US Fifth Fleet operate from there, while maintaining a low-tax, worker-unfriendly, foreign-investment friendly regime.

The left shouldn’t support the NATO no-fly zone, but nor should it oppose it.

What Achcar is really saying is that the left should line up with the rebellion in Libya, but not with Washington and not with Tripoli. Thus, supporting the rebels means not opposing their call for a no-fly zone. But at the same time, the left shouldn’t support the no-fly zone, because that would mean it supports NATO. This is the Campaign for Peace and Democracy’s fence-straddling approach. In the 1980s, it was manifest in the position of: We’re not for Washington and we’re not for the Polish government, but we are for the Solidarity trade union. The validity of this approach, however, depends on the question of whether the rebels ought to be supported, just as in the 1980s it depended on the question of whether the left should have thrown in its lot with the Wall Street Journal, the CIA, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in supporting Solidarity. Solidarity, it turned out, wasn’t the harbinger of the kind of socialism it was safe to discuss at the dinner table that the CPD and other leftist groups naively thought it would be. On the contrary, it was the nucleus for a neo-liberal make-over of Poland as a dependent US satellite – what’s likely to be in store for Libya if the rebels prevail.

The key questions are: Who are the rebels? What are their goals? Who is the government? What are its goals? Achcar’s answers seem to be: The government is led by a psychopath who has an insatiable hunger for power which drives him to extremes of violence. (In the 1980s: the Polish government is communist and hungry for power.) The rebels are against this, and therefore, must be worthy of support. (Solidarity is against the government and therefore must be worthy of support.) But this line of reasoning is no different from the logical blunder of assuming the enemy of my enemy is my friend, a blunder that anti-imperialists are routinely accused of making. It doesn’t follow that rebels are worthy of support simply because they’re rebels or simply because they’re rebelling against a government led by someone you don’t like.

This position would have raised the Western left’s credibility among left forces in North Africa and Western Asia.

Many members of the Second International argued that they had to vote for war credits otherwise they would have lost credibility with their base which had become infected by pro-war chauvinism. Failing to support their own governments in war would mean losing influence with a jingoism-besotted working class for decades to come. Lenin, who Achcar has portrayed as a compromiser who would have gladly accepted a NATO no-fly zone, and who did indeed make compromises where necessary, was doctrinaire, just as much as he was willing to make necessary compromises; which is to say, he was unwilling to yield on principle for short-term gain, but would yield, if he had to, to safeguard fundamental positions. In the debates about whether to tear up their agreements to withhold support for their governments in war, Lenin stood out among socialist leaders, arguing that the leaders’ role was to lead, not to follow. Refusing to oppose the no-fly zone as a means of gaining influence with left organizations in Western Asia and North Africa that called for one, reverses the roles of influence and principle. The point isn’t to abandon principle to gain influence, but to use influence to advance principle.

The left should now pressure Western governments to arm the rebels.

The idea that pressure from the left will persuade Western governments to arm the rebels, who will then pursue their rebellion free from Western control, is pure fantasy. The left exerts approximately zero influence on Western foreign policy, and even if it exerted more, on a matter as fundamental as this to the geostrategic interests of Western governments, it would be ignored. Western governments won’t arm rebel groups they can’t control and which are working toward objectives they don’t share. Achcar may as well say the left’s position ought to be to pressure Washington, London and Paris, to introduce ground forces into Libya to sweep Gaddafi from power and to install a new Marxist government.


Achcar has added nothing new in his third attempt to drum up left support for the Libyan rebels, apart from ratcheting up the demonization of Gaddafi by calling him a psychopath, a dubious practice favored by Western governments and major media, and which shouldn’t be the basis of the political positions of the left. Gaddafi may indeed be a psychopath, but so too may be many other leaders, including those who have key roles in the Libyan insurrection. It’s doubtful that Achcar would surrender his support for the rebels, if it were revealed that its leaders were psychopaths, or if they were to drench Gaddafi’s supporters in blood. Whether Gaddafi is or isn’t a psychopath is unclear, but more importantly, is irrelevant. What is relevant to a discussion of what position the left ought to take is class analysis, none of which Achcar provides. Instead, the Z-Net favorite leans toward the rogues’ gallery view of left politics, a kind of up-to-date left version of the great man theory of history, where monsters, psychopaths and thugs—and the US governments that fight them– have replaced great men as the fundamental agents of history. The practice that depends on this theory is to visibly demonize the leaders the US State Department brands as thugs, despots, and dictators, while saying little about the thugs, despots, and dictators the State Department doesn’t want to talk about (like the Saudis, Israelis, and Egypt’s military rulers.) Achcar may denounce all of these from time to time, but he hasn’t written a series of articles urging the left to pressure Western governments to arm the Palestinians against the Israelis and nor Egyptian or Bahraini rebels against their governments.

Achcar also seeks to demonize those who have criticized his position in what he considers to be less than a comradely way by suggesting that, were they in power, they would have had him sent to the gulag. Were Achcar in power, would he send Gaddafi and his supporters to that modern Western gulag, the ICC? Whether any of his critics would banish Achcar to the gulag is unclear, but that he brings it up seems in keeping with his preference for building political positions around demonization, fantasy and conjecture. It is a fantasy that left pressure will compel Western governments to arm the rebels; a fantasy that even were this true that Western governments would arm the rebels unconditionally; a fantasy that with Western fingers in the Libyan pie that Gaddafi’s ouster will be succeeded by a more progressive alternative; and a fantasy that liberal democrats and left-oriented groups and persons preponderate the royalists, al-Qaeda connected terrorists and suicide bombers, and US intelligence community-linked political and military leaders in the rebel ranks.

Finally, it is a fantasy to think that no one sees through Achcar’s I-don’t-support-Western-military-intervention-but-neither-do-I-oppose-it position as the dissembling of a coward who has convinced himself that he has brilliantly finessed the problem of how to support the rebels without looking like he’s also supporting their imperialist backers. This is the kind of dishonest double-talk that one normally expects from unctuous politicians, not socialist anti-war activists. As he has doubtlessly discovered, judging by the firestorm of criticism he’s called upon himself, his no-fly zone position just doesn’t fly. All that Achcar has succeeded in doing in championing the case on three occasions for the left to back the Libyan rebels is to demonstrate that he is neither anti-war nor anti-imperialist nor particularly adverse to bloodbaths. Maybe he shouldn’t be sent to the gulag, but he should certainly be sent to the corner, along with every other socialist who seeks to enlist the left in the support of its own governments in pursuit of their own bourgeoisies’ interests.

1. Rod Nordland and Scott Shane, “Libyan shifts from detainee to rebel, and U.S. ally of sorts”, The New York Times, April 24, 2011.
2. David Pugliese, “DND report reveals Canada’s ties with Gadhafi”, The Ottawa Citizen, April 23, 2011.
3. Nordland and Shane.
4. Pugliese.
5. “Professor: In Libya, a civil war, not uprising”, NPR, April 2, 2011.
6. Rod Nordland, “As British help Libyan rebels, aid goes to a divided force”, The New York Times, April 19, 2011.
7. Farah Stockman, “Libyan reformer new face of rebellion”, The Boston Globe, March 28, 2011.
8. Kareem Fahim, “Rebel leadership in Libya shows strain”, The New York Times, April 3, 2011.
9. Neil Harding. Lenin’s Political Thought: Theory and Practice in the Democratic and Socialist Revolutions. Volume II, Haymarket Books. 1978. P. 12.

Moralism and Instrumentalism in Peace Scholarship

By Stephen Gowans

Peace scholars are concerned with the question of how to achieve victory, which is to say peace on the terms of whatever side they support, without using violence. They come in two sizes: moralists and instrumentalists. The moralists abhor violence on moral grounds, while the instrumentalists see both violence and non-violence as tools but believe there are circumstances where non-violence has greater instrumental value, that is, is more likely to bring about victory at lower cost.

For example, it’s not always possible to take political power by invading another country. And where it is possible, the expense in blood and treasure may be undesirably large. It may be cheaper and more effective to train, organize and support foreign activists to use “a panoply of forceful sanctions—strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience, disrupting the functions of government, even nonviolent sabotage—in accordance with a strategy for undermining” the target government’s “pillars of support.” That’s the way the instrumentalist peace scholars at the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict put it.

The ICNC is the phony left-wing outfit founded by Wall Street-Washington insider Peter Ackerman. The organization is largely concerned with the destabilization scenarios the CIA has a history of engineering in countries it is too costly and militarily unfeasible to invade. These days the ICNC dresses up destabilization with the high-sounding phrase “non-violent pro-democracy activism” to sell it to the gullible. Sounds good, but what it really means is fomenting conflicts in countries, which while accused of being undemocratic and hostile to human rights, have earned Washington’s enmity for rejecting free trade and unconditional foreign investment and failing to enshrine private property rights. The conflicts are resolved on Washington’s terms, when a new “democratic” free-market government takes power and opens the country to US military bases and unconditional integration into the US economy on terms that favor US investors and corporations, that is, the people Peter Ackerman hangs out with. It is, you see, a class thing.

Many, if not all, of the peace scholars on the ICNC’s academic advisory board lead modest lives far removed from Ackerman’s rarefied circles, though at least one of them has met with the CIA and RAND Corporation (more the company Ackerman keeps.) Apparently, Washington’s spooks, despite their fondness for predator drones, assassinations, and paramilitary activities, are keenly interested in peace scholarship. But then, they’re instrumentalists.

Still, some of the ICNC’s peace scholars are, one suspects, moralists lured by who knows what (appeals to their vanity? research grants?) into the service of the instrumentalists. We’re not bad guys, really, they must say. After all, we’re against war (of the violent kind, anyway), and systems of domination, and we’re for democracy and opportunities for people to control their lives collectively.

Trouble is, their track record is lousy. What people power nonviolent revolution has undermined systems of domination and created space for people to control their lives collectively? In Serbia, Georgia and the Philippines – paragons of people power, according to the ICNC PR shop — the very opposite happened. A system of domination controlled by the United States was imposed and people were locked into a low-level form of 60-seconds-in-the-ballot-box-every-four-years democracy, casting ballots for whoever raises enough money to have a fighting chance in the marketing campaigns that pass for modern elections. (Those with connections to wealth have an advantage here.)

But, then, is it any wonder that the peace scholars’ track record in bringing about what they claim to believe in, is so horribly wrong? Ackerman, the ICNC’s founding chair, is an admitted instrumentalist whose background and connections leave no doubt as to his orientation to peace scholarship: great, if it can be used to sweep away governments whose tariffs, subsidies and other protections diminish the profit-making goals of people, like himself, with bags of money to invest. This is what people power revolutions are really all about if you look at the economic policies of the governments targeted by these kinds of exercises. Otherwise, one suspects Ackerman views peace scholarship as a Sunday school for dreamers with their heads in the clouds.

Peace, On Our Own Terms

Everyone wants peace. It’s just that they want it on their own terms. Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi wants peace in Libya, so long as it means he remains in power. At a later date, his terms may change: peace in return for exile in a country that will keep him out of the clutches of the International Criminal Court. The rebels and NATO countries want peace too, but only so long as Gaddafi leaves and the rebels form a new government. Peace on your own terms really means victory. Indeed, that’s how victory could be defined.

In Libya, Protecting Profits from an Outbreak of Peace

Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy sent a message to the African Union in their jointly written April 14 op-ed: They’ll block any attempt to negotiate peace in Libya that doesn’t include Gaddafi’s ouster and the opening of Libya’s economy.
By Stephen Gowans

On April 14 US president Barak Obama, British prime minister David Cameron and French president Nicolas Sarkozy wrote an op-ed titled “Libya’s pathway to peace.” Appearing in the International Herald Tribune and two other newspapers, the op-ed set out US, British and French goals for Libya. One would be peace, but the pathway was to be Gaddafi’s exit, and his replacement by the Benghazi rebels.

While not presented as such, the op-ed was in fact a rejection of an African Union proposal for a negotiated settlement.

Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy: On guard against an outbreak of peace in Libya.

The AU had dispatched a delegation to Tripoli to meet with Gaddafi four days earlier, on April 10. The delegation proposed an immediate cease-fire, delivery of humanitarian aid, and negotiations between the Libyan government and the Benghazi rebels. Gaddafi accepted. But when the delegation arrived in Benghazi the next day, the rebels let it be known that the only peace they were interested in was one that saw Gaddafi, “his sons and his inner circle leave immediately.” (1)

US secretary of state Hilary Clinton quickly echoed the rebels’ position. Nothing could be resolved, she said, without “the departure of Gaddafi from power, and from Libya.” (2)

Peace was impossible in Libya without Gaddafi’s exit, the leaders insisted in their op-ed, because Gaddafi was the main threat to peace. It was “impossible to imagine a future for Libya with Gaddafi in power” they wrote, and added that “so long as Gaddafi is in power, NATO must maintain its operations.” Their case was based on the fiction that the conflict in Libya isn’t a civil war between rebels in the east and loyalists in the west but between the state and the people, as was true in Tunisia and Egypt and is true in Bahrain and Yemen.

As for Gaddafi being an obstacle to peace, that was belied by his acceptance of the AU peace proposal. But the armed uprising has, from the beginning, had nothing to do with peace. It has always been about regime-change.

Gaddafi is wrongly fit by the three leaders, as well as by supporters of the Western military intervention, into the mold of Bahrain’s Khalifa regime, which has used armed force to violently suppress a popular peaceful revolt. The uprising in Libya was armed, not peaceful, and while it may be popular in the east among tribalists, royalists, and radical Islamists led by neo-liberals connected to the United States, it has little popular support elsewhere in the country.

Despite casting the Gaddafi government in the role of the Khalifa regime, the leaders make no reference to the latter, which remains largely invisible in discussions of the “Arab spring” and which provides the Pentagon with a headquarters for its Fifth Fleet and runs a low-tax, no minimum-wage, foreign investment-friendly economy. If the US, British and French leaders were truly interested in protecting civilians they would have long ago imposed a no-fly zone over Bahrain and ordered the Saudi monarchy, surely the most regressive force on the planet, to withdraw its troops from Bahrain. But what they’re really interested in achieving in Libya is what was long ago achieved in Bahrain: a neo-colonial puppet regime that opens its country to Western military bases and unconditional exploitation by foreign corporations and investors.

And so Obama, Cameron, and Sarkozy used their op-ed to declare that there must be “a genuine transition” in Libya “led by a new generation of leaders” and that “in order for that transition to succeed, Gaddafi must go and go for good.” Significantly, the transition would usher in the new Western puppet. There are two indications of this.

The first is the nature of the rebel leadership. Its key members have important connections to the United States. Khalifa Heftir, a former Libyan Army colonel, has spent the last 25 years living seven miles from CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia with no obvious means of support. (3) Mahmoud Jibril “earned his PhD in 1985 from the University of Pittsburgh under the late Richard Cottam, a former US intelligence official in Iran who became a renowned political scientist specializing on the Middle East.” Jibril “spent years working with Gaddafi’s son Saif on political and economic reforms … (b)ut after hardliners in the regime stifled the reforms, Jibril quit in frustration and left Libya about a year ago.” (4) Jibril has been out of Libya since the uprising began, meeting with foreign leaders. (5) Then there is the rebel government’s finance minister, Ali Tarhouni, who has been in exile for the last 35 years. His latest job was teaching economics at the University of Washington.

The second indication is provided in the three leaders’ op-ed. Libya, they write, must “develop the institutions to underpin a prosperous and open society.” Revealingly, the three leaders tell Libyans what institutions they should develop. But what if Libyans don’t want an open society at this point in their development? What if they want what the United States, Britain and France have had through long parts of their history (and still do have): a society closed to outsiders in strategic areas?

While the institutions of an open society aren’t exclusively economic, an open society is understood to be one whose doors are open to unconditional integration into the global economy. This differs from the Gaddafi government’s strategic integration, based on linkages aimed at increasing real wages in Libya rather than maximizing returns to foreign investors. This isn’t to say that Libya hasn’t welcomed foreign investment where it makes sense for the development of the country, but it is likely that the open society Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy foresee for Libya, has little to do with what makes sense for Libya, and everything to do with what makes sense for US, British and French investors and corporations.

1. Kareem Fahim, “Truce plan for Libya is rejected by rebels”, The New York Times, April 11, 2011.
2. David E. Sanger, “Possible Libya stalemate puts stress on U.S. policy”, The New York Times, April 11, 2011.
3. “Professor: In Libya, a civil war, not uprising”, NPR, April 2, 2011.
4. Farah Stockman, “Libyan reformer new face of rebellion”, The Boston Globe, March 28, 2011.
5. Kareem Fahim, “Rebel leadership in Libya shows strain”, The New York Times, April 3, 2011.

Scholars or Bamboozlers?

By Stephen Gowans

“When you’re criticized”, what should you do? asks Brian Martin, a scholar of non-violence. His answer: “Assess the way audiences are likely to perceive things.” That is, create the right impression.

Martin has written an article soon to be published in the Journal of Scholarly Publishing about how to respond to criticism, but it seems he also offers a guide to scholars on how to talk to non-scholars in popular forums – particularly those who have been criticized.

Martin may have been inspired to write his article because he has been criticized here and elsewhere for belonging to a dodgy organization that does openly what the CIA used to do covertly, namely, help people in country’s abroad overthrow their governments. That might not be such a bad thing were the successor regimes leftwing and advanced human progress but they’re invariably rightwing and keen to open their doors to US military bases and exploitation by Western capital.

What’s interesting about the advice that Martin delivers is that he seems to be telling scholars to shed their cloaks of dispassionate scholarly contemplation, in favour of a style of attack suited to persuading non-scholars. His advice: Ignore obscure critics who have no profile (otherwise you’ll give them credibility) and reply only to those who can command an audience. And then to do so with short, clear, punchy replies. Few people will read long, detailed, counter-arguments. Brevity and clarity are important.

If your aim is to win as many people to your side as you can, as opposed to say, thrashing out the issues in scholarly debate to arrive at the truth, there could be no better advice. Which makes you wonder why a scholar is recommending tactics more familiar to those who practice the cut and thrust of sharp political debate, than a battle of evidence and reasoned argument. Could it be that he’s a politician at heart?

I think so. The International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, the outfit Martin belongs to as an academic adviser, is an advocacy organization for non-violent direct action, or what is sometimes deceptively called “peace scholarship.” Peace scholars are not at all interested in peace as you and I understand it (say, avoiding unnecessary conflict). Instead, peace studies amount to figuring out how to win in a political conflict without using insurrectionary violence (because it is often ineffective against modern militaries) or traditional military methods (because it is often impractical). Seizing political power through the use of strikes, demonstrations, boycotts and non-violent sabotage – what used to be called destabilization – is what non-violent conflict is all about, according to the ICNC’s principals. Not surprisingly, militaries take a keen interest in peace scholarship. After all, it’s concerned with what militaries have traditionally existed to do, namely, guard political power at home and take it abroad. It’s not by accident that peace scholars sometimes refer to their discipline as the study of non-violent warfare.

Ah, but the phrase “peace scholarship” makes seizing power through destabilization sound leftwing and gosh, peaceful. It couldn’t possibly be a CIA-style thing, right?

Think again. It’s implicitly understood that when peace scholars talk about seizing political power that this is to happen in other countries, and not, God forbid, the United States, where the ICNC’s chiefs are firmly ensconced in the US establishment leading very comfortable lives, thank-you very much. They would hardly want to carry out a people power revolution close to ICNC headquarters.

The outfit’s founder, Peter Ackerman, is an immensely wealthy investor who engineered the KKR leveraged buy-out of RJR Nabisco and hobnobs with other board members of the US establishment on the influential Council on Foreign Relations and various other think-tanks and foundations. Not too long ago he sat on 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. And he once headed the far right Freedom House, which Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman described in their Manufacturing Consent as being interlocked with the CIA.

The ICNC’s defenders say that Ackerman’s connections are irrelevant, and that bringing them up amounts to assigning guilt by association. They have charged one of the ICNC’s most vigorous critics, Michael Barker, with trying to discredit sincere peace activists through a line of attack that amounts to singling out people because “they may have once been in a room with someone who may or may not have worked for the CIA.”

The rhetoric is clear, brief, punchy and memorable – exactly what, one suspects, Martin would recommend. The only problem is that it’s wrong.

Consider Ackerman. Wall Street background. Bags of money. Council on Foreign Relations membership. Task forces with the US foreign policy elite. Former Freedom House supremo. Holds seminars on how to destabilize governments for foreign activists sent his way by the US State Department. Hardly the model of a leftist peace activist. Or consider Lester Kurtz, one of Martin’s ICNC colleagues and another of Ackerman’s scholars. He has admitted to – indeed, was proud to acknowledge on his CV – that he has given advice to the CIA.

And that’s where Martin seems to have taken a wrong turn in his upcoming article. He seems more concerned with impression-making – of the kind that turns a wealthy establishment figure who works at overthrowing the bad boys on the State Department hit list into a left-leaning peacenik — and less with truth-telling. It’s like he’s saying to scholars: “Okay, now let me tell you how successful politicians and PR executives cover up embarrassing revelations.”

Well, one thing politicians, PR experts and other bamboozlers do is to prey on the weaknesses of people’s cognitive heuristics: that is, the ways they deal with complexity and too much information.

How do you tell whether the advice you’re receiving is sound? One way is to evaluate the credentials of the person offering it. For example, who are you going to believe about how you ought to deal with your troubling hernia — a licensed physician, or the local health food fanatic with a certificate in reflexology who peddles hot stone massage and flax seed oil? Evaluating statements about, say nuclear physics or hernia operations, by examining the credentials of the source is a good idea, if you know nothing about nuclear physics or hernias. Cognitive heuristics (that is, mental short-cuts) often work, but sometimes they can lead you astray, especially when unscrupulous people use them to lead you by the hand down the garden path.

One example of using peoples’ mental short-cuts to trip them up is a woman who not too long ago created a huge profile for herself by dispensing tough-love advice to troubled people on the radio. She called herself Dr., lending the impression that she was a psychiatrist or counselling psychologist – a person with credentials to deal with troubled individuals. She was neither. She was, instead, a Ph. D. in physiology. It’s as if your dentist, Dr. Hackensack, masquerades as a physician.

Another example would be a scholar writing a book which he prefaces with a short article by a well-known person who knows nothing about his book. He then presents the book as My Big Ideas, by Dr. X, with a forward by a well-known and admired person. This creates the impression that the well-known person endorses the book, and that the book – and its ideas — must therefore be worth paying attention to. Has this actually happened? Perhaps. Listen to this interview with journalist and science writer Fred Jerome, beginning at the 40 minute mark.

Stephen Zunes, the chief ICNC scholar, makes a habit of letting people know he is a professor with a Ph. D. He often refers to his docent, Ackerman, as Dr. Ackerman, but never as junk bond king Michael Milken’s former right-hand man or “the sniff” as he was known by his colleagues, for plumbing Milken’s proctological depths. Zunes, the sniff’s sniff, also makes sure to refer to critics as Mr. or Ms. even when he hasn’t the slightest idea whether they’re also Ph.D.s, who happen to shun honorific titles and therefore don’t make a big display of their educational attainments. Peacock-like credential displays, with the added intimation that your critics haven’t any, says: “I’m an expert; my critics aren’t. Who are you going to believe?”

Gravitas is related. Noam Chomsky’s gravitas is based on his reputation as a high profile linguist, his connection to MIT, and his prolific book-writing. A short-cut to evaluating whether what he says makes sense is to refer to his credentials. Wow, a guy like this must know what he’s talking about. Astonishingly, someone recently wrote a Z-Net article making a case whose support was largely that his position was based on what Chomsky told him. He was hoping to earn instant credibility by exploiting the cognitive heuristic that makes you deem anything Chomsky says as probably true (or probably wrong if you dislike him) without actually having to do the leg-work to figure it out yourself.

Many people hope that gravitas will unburden them of actually having to produce evidence for what they claim and it appears the hope is not always in vain. They can then make all manner of bold statements and expect to be believed, because, well…they have gravitas. That’s not to say Chomsky does this. But others do.

Here’s an interesting exercise. Read through one of Stephen Zunes’ articles and notice how many statements he makes with complete certitude about matters he couldn’t possibly know to be true. For example, in a recent article he said: “What has been remarkable about the successful civil uprisings against the Tunisian and Egyptian dictatorships, the serious popular challenges to the Yemeni and Bahraini dictatorships and the smaller-scale protests sweeping the region, is that they were completely indigenous and not sullied by foreign intervention.”

To this, I have three replies.

First, how could Zunes, or anyone else, possibly know this? It’s easy, in principle (and it turns out in fact too) to prove that it’s not true. All you have to do is cite one instance of foreign intervention and the claim that the uprisings were unsullied by foreign intervention crumbles. But how can you prove there has been no foreign intervention? You can’t. Zunes, however, wants us to believe he’s possessed of some sort of preternatural power that allows him to prove what mere mortals cannot — a negative.

Second, what evidence does he offer? Answer: Not a speck.

Third, if completely indigenous uprisings unsullied by foreign intervention are remarkable, it must be that uprisings that aren’t indigenous and are sullied by foreign intervention are the norm, otherwise how would the indigenous and unsullied ones be so remarkable? And yet Zunes is always prattling on about how the uprisings in which Uncle Sam and the ICNC have had an obvious hand (e.g., Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine, and attempts in Belarus and Iran) were completely or largely indigenous. It seems Zunes just makes it up as he goes. Indeed, the following from Ron Nixon’s April 14, 2011 New York Times’ report (“U.S. groups helped nurture Arab uprisings”) is strikingly at odds with Zunes’ confident assurance that the uprisings were unsullied by foreign intervention.

[A]s American officials and others look back at the uprisings of the Arab Spring, they are seeing that the United States’ democracy-building campaigns played a bigger role in fomenting protests than was previously known, with key leaders of the movements having been trained by the Americans in campaigning, organizing through new media tools and monitoring elections.

A number of the groups and individuals directly involved in the revolts and reforms sweeping the region, including the April 6 Youth Movement in Egypt, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and grass-roots activists like Entsar Qadhi, a youth leader in Yemen, received training and financing from groups like the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House, a nonprofit human rights organization based in Washington, according to interviews in recent weeks and American diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks.


The Republican and Democratic institutes are loosely affiliated with the Republican and Democratic Parties. They were created by Congress and are financed through the National Endowment for Democracy, which was set up in 1983 to channel grants for promoting democracy in developing nations. The National Endowment receives about $100 million annually from Congress. Freedom House also gets the bulk of its money from the American government, mainly from the State Department.


Some Egyptian youth leaders attended a 2008 technology meeting in New York, where they were taught to use social networking and mobile technologies to promote democracy. Among those sponsoring the meeting were Facebook, Google, MTV, Columbia Law School and the State Department.

“We learned how to organize and build coalitions,” said Bashem Fathy, a founder of the youth movement that ultimately drove the Egyptian uprisings. Mr. Fathy, who attended training with Freedom House, said, “This certainly helped during the revolution.”

Ms. Qadhi, the Yemeni youth activist, attended American training sessions in Yemen.

“It helped me very much because I used to think that change only takes place by force and by weapons,” she said.

Through what magic does Zunes get away with it? The answer is in Martin’s upcoming article. Assess the way the audience is likely to perceive things. And then prey on their mental shortcuts. When you have no evidence, the truth is embarrassing, and your case is pure wind, it’s the only way to go.

Updated April 15, 2011.