Zunes’ Compromising with Capitalism’s Sad Reality

By Stephen Gowans

Stephen Zunes has written a reply to my article criticizing his connections to US government- and ruling class-funded “peace” organizations, but far from rebutting my criticisms, he helps make my point.

He writes, “The unfortunate reality in capitalist societies is that most non-profit organizations – from universities to social justice organizations to art galleries to peace groups (and ICNC as well) – depend at least in part on donations from wealthy individuals and from foundations which get their money from wealthy individuals.”

On this we agree: The capitalist class, through its money power, dominates capitalist societies, including its universities, social justice organizations, peace groups and scholars of non-violence (at least those willing to feed at the trough.) Is it any surprise, then, that handsomely-funded social justice organizations, peace groups, progressive media and scholars of nonviolence might be understood to be agents of capitalism and imperialism within the left community?

But Zunes continues: “Just because the ultimate source of funding for various non-profit groups is from members of the ruling class, however, does not mean that ruling class interests therefore set the agenda for every such non-profit group; they certainly do in some cases, but not in many other cases, including that of ICNC.”

There’s an obvious exceptionalism in Zunes’ argument. Maybe others are bought, but not me. Lay that aside. The ruling class doesn’t need to set the agenda for all organizations and individuals; it only needs to fund individuals and groups who promote its interests. This is the same argument Chomsky and Herman have made in connection with the mainstream press propagating elite narratives. Media outlets don’t need to set the agenda for journalists; they simply need to hire journalists who say the right things, and fire those who don’t. The New York Times won’t hire Chomksy or Herman to write a regular column, but it will hire Thomas Friedman, because he can be relied on to stay within a narrow band of opinion acceptable to ruling class interests. No one sets an agenda for Friedman. But, then, no one has to. As Humbert Wolfe once said, “You cannot hope to bribe and twist, thank God, the British journalist. But seeing what the man will do unbribed, there’s no occasion to.”

So what does Zunes do, unbribed, that obviates his funders setting an agenda for him? For one, he promotes a peaceful activism at home that is useful to the ruling class in channeling inchoate militancy into ritualistic, symbolic, forms of protest, whose effect in countering the ruling class is approximately zero. He says he “has even been arrested on a number of occasions protesting US imperialism” (doubtlessly in a ritualistic way that minimizes inconvenience for all concerned) but his being arrested has accomplished nothing, except to bulk up his credentials as an activist. And all those who have followed his lead had the same effect. The Washington Consensus is in no danger of falling apart and US war-making hasn’t been set back a millimeter in its relentless advance.

By contrast, non-violent activists in Belarus, Zimbabwe, Iran and formerly in Serbia can be much more effective; they have the US ruling class on their side. They’re helped immensely by the sanctions Washington deploys against their governments, by the threats of war the US uses to intimidate governments it wants to overthrow, by US bombing campaigns, by US assistance to the political opposition, and by the wads of money from the NED, USAID, and their equivalents in Britain, Germany and so on. Non-violent regime change in foreign countries is only possible as a result of contextual violence related to economic and conventional warfare. The contextual violence is absent in the case of peaceful protest in the US, which is why non-violent activism plus sanctions plus threats of war plus funding of subversion plus establishing media to broadcast anti-government propaganda works abroad and non-violent activism plus none of these other things doesn’t work at home.

Another reason the ruling class foundations on which Zunes relies do not have to set his agenda is that Zunes is an absolutely reliable amplifier within the progressive community of the arguments the State Department uses as the basis for its human rights imperialism. He assures us, without adducing the tiniest jot of evidence, that Belarus, Iran, and Zimbabwe are dictatorships and that Yugoslavia was in 1999. That’s helpful to the imperialist class in dampening interest among those politically conscious enough to be inclined to get in the way of imperialist designs being carried out against target countries. Who’s going to spring to the aid of foreign governments and anti-imperialist movements that are widely portrayed in the mass media, and seconded by foundation-supported “independent” progressive scholars, as oppressive and dictatorial?

Indeed, there are three ways Zunes promotes the ruling class agenda within the progressive community which makes the setting of an agenda for him by the wealthy individuals and foundations who furnish him with money completely unnecessary. He (1) lionizes ritualistic and symbolic forms of non-violent protest at home which have no effect in impeding the ruling class in pursuing its interests, and which, therefore it seeks to promote as an alternative to potentially more effective opposition (and if this safe outlet of opposition can be promoted by someone with activist credentials, all the better); by (2) amplifying ruling class justifications for its meddling in the affairs of other countries and thereby turning progressives against ruling class foreign policy targets; and (3) by burnishing US government regime change operations, portraying them as legitimate home-grown operations against oppressive governments.

The only way we cannot accept that Zunes is an agent of imperialism, is if we accept that the ruling class is incredibly stupid and funds the activities of those who are against its interests and fail to promote its agenda. Since this is highly unlikely, it is also highly unlikely that he is not a grassroots lieutenant of imperialism, along with all the other left scholars who have made their compromise with “the unfortunate reality” that in capitalist societies peace groups and social justice organizations are funded by wealthy individuals and their foundations.

Stephen Zunes and the Struggle for Overseas Profits

The name for our profits is democracy” – Phil Ochs, Cops of the World

By Stephen Gowans

Stephen Zunes, a professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco, is bristling against what he calls the leftist attack on “independent” grassroots nonviolent activists who are trying to bring down “autocratic” governments and “dictatorships” in places like Zimbabwe, Belarus and Iran (1). People who have cast votes in these countries may be surprised to discover they’re living in dictatorships, but the U.S. government says they are, and “progressives” like Stephen Zunes are happy to lend credibility to Washington’s charges. “Independent” grassroots activists in these same countries may be surprised to hear they’re independent, despite the cataract of support they receive from U.S. and Western governments and Western ruling class foundations, but if Zunes wants to elevate them from fifth columnists to independent democracy activists, they’re pleased to receive his support.

These days, Zunes’ bristling against the leftist attack may have something to do with the attack hitting too close to home (2). His association with dodgy U.S. ruling class foundations that hide the pursuit of U.S. foreign policy objectives behind a high-sounding commitment to peace has increasingly come under scrutiny. And judging by his reaction, he doesn’t like it (3).

Although he boasts of having impeccable progressive and anti-imperialist credentials, Zunes chairs the board of academic advisors for the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (the ICNC), a Wall Street-connected organization that promotes nonviolent activism in the service of destabilizing foreign governments — the same ones the U.S. State Department (and Zunes) likes to discredit by calling them dictatorships.

The ICNC’s founding chair is New York investment banker Peter Ackerman, who is also a member of the board of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), an organization dominated by directors of major U.S. corporations, corporate lawyers and CEOs. The CFR brings together executives, government and military officials and scholars to provide policy advice to the U.S. State Department. Its key members circulate between the council, corporate board appointments and State Department positions. The CFR has never been particularly concerned about promoting peace, freedom and democracy, but has had a single-minded focus on promoting the overseas profit-making interests of U.S. corporations and investors.

Ackerman is also chairman of the board of Freedom House, an organization that champions the rights of journalists, union leaders and democracy activists to organize openly to bring down governments whose economic policies are insufficiently friendly to U.S. trade and investment. Funded by the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Congress’s National Endowment for Democracy, Freedom House features a rogues’ gallery of U.S. ruling class activists who have sat, or currently sit, on its board of directors: Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Otto Reich, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Steve Forbes, among others. These people share Zunes’ rhetorical commitment to “freedom and democracy,” though the only freedom they’re interested in is the freedom of U.S. corporations and investors to accumulate capital wherever and whenever they please.

Ackerman’s Center has been heavily involved in successful and ongoing regime change operations, including in Yugoslavia, which Ackerman celebrated in a PBS-TV documentary, Bringing Down a Dictator, about the ouster of Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic. Ackerman, who studied under U.S. nonviolence guru Gene Sharp, has a U.S. Marine Corps officer son who earned a silver star for service in Iraq, using bombs and bullets, not nonviolent activism, to change Iraq’s regime. Apparently, Ackerman did little to instill nonviolent values in members of his own family.

The Center’s vice-chair is Berel Rodal, a former senior Canadian government official in foreign affairs, international trade, defense, security and intelligence, hardly the kind of background you would expect of an advocate of nonviolence, but fits well someone who has taken a leadership role in promoting Western foreign policy goals. Put the two together and you get nonviolent direct activism in the service of US foreign policy goals – -exactly what Rodal, Ackerman, the ICNC and Stephen Zunes are all about.

Another Center associate is Robert Helvey, whose book “On Strategic Non-Violent Conflict: Thinking about the Fundamental”, is promoted on the Center’s website. Helvey is a retired U.S. Army colonel and former U.S. military attaché to Myanmar (like Rodal’s, an improbable background for a budding Ghandi) who has been linked to anti-Chavez groups. Chavez has accused Helvey’s employer, the Albert Einstein Institution, of being behind an imperialist conspiracy to overthrow his government (4). Zunes says that “charges that…Bob Helvey” or the Albert Einstein Institution or the ICNC “are serving as agents of U.S. imperialism are totally unfounded” and that “the only visit to Venezuela that has taken place on behalf of any of these non-profit groups engaged in educational efforts on strategic nonviolence was in early 2006 when” Zunes “led a series of workshops at the World Social Forum in Caracas.” (5) Chavez, he says, has fallen for a conspiracy theory. These “individuals and groups” are not “plotting with his opponents to overthrow him.” (6)

But a Reuters’ report says Helvey was brought to Caracas in 2003 “by a group of businessmen and professionals to give courses to young activists on how to ‘resist, oppose, and change a government without the use of bombs and bullets.’” (7) Is Zunes unaware of this, or is he paltering with the truth?

Helvey’s dalliances with the anti-Chavez opposition came fast on the heels of “his work in Serbia before Milosevic’s fall” where he “briefed students on ways to organize a strike and how to undermine the authority of a dictatorial regime.” (8)

Zunes has received at least one research grant from the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) and has served as a fellow of the organization (9). USIP’s aim is to “help prevent and resolve violent conflicts”, an improbable mandate given that the organization was established by the U.S. government, receives funding from Congress, and has a board of directors appointed by the President, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense and the president of the National Defense University – hardly the world’s greatest advocates of peace, but pretty effective advocates of the pursuit of U.S. corporate and investor interests abroad.

What’s not so improbable is that Zune’s ICNC colleagues (you know, the guys who are absolutely not agents of U.S. imperialism) are also connected to USIP. ICNC founder and Freedom House chair Peter Ackerman is on the advisory council. Former U.S. Air Force officer, presidential campaign speechwriter and ICNC director Jack DuVall – who Zunes must know well based on his assurances that “Jack DuVall…is not an agent of U.S. imperialism” (10) — is also connected to the USIP.

It’s hardly curious, then, that a group of Americans, many with backgrounds in the military, but also in foreign policy and investment banking, connected in some way to the U.S.-government funded and directed Institute of Peace, and involved in training foreign activists to destabilize foreign governments, might be seen as agents of U.S. imperialism. But Zunes says they’re not, offering his assertion alone (and his self-proclaimed credentials as a progressive and anti-imperialist) as proof.

Zunes’ rhetoric is reminiscent of Bush’s. He says nonviolent activists are pursuing “freedom and democracy” (in the same way, apparently, the U.S. invasion of Iraq was a project in bringing freedom and democracy to the Middle East). He throws the charge of dictatorship around as facilely as Bush does. Yugoslavia (in 1999), Belarus, Zimbabwe, and Iran are dictatorships, he says. Apparently, Zunes has been too busy mimicking State Department press releases to notice there are elections and opposition parties in these places.

He says “there is no evidence…to suggest…that the U.S. government or any U.S.-funded entity has ever provided training, advice, or strategic assistance for the kind of mass popular nonviolent action campaigns that have toppled governments or threatened the survival of incumbent regimes.” (11)

Maybe he hasn’t been paying attention. When it comes to Zimbabwe, one of Zunes’ and the U.S. government’s favorite betes noire, there’s plenty of evidence. The British newspaper The Guardian revealed as early as August 22, 2002 that, “The United States government has said it wants to see President Robert Mugabe removed from power and that it is working with the Zimbabwean opposition” “trade unions, pro-democracy groups and human rights organizations” “to bring about a change of administration.” (12)

Washington confirmed its own civil society-assisted regime change plans for Zimbabwe in an April 5, 2007 report, revealing that in 2006 “The U.S. government continued to support the efforts of the political opposition, the media and civil society,” including providing training and assistance to the kind of grassroots “pro-democracy” groups phony anti-imperialists, among them, another ruling class foundation-connected academic, Patrick Bond, celebrate as “the independent left.” (13) The U.S. “supported workshops to develop youth leadership skills necessary to confront social injustice through nonviolent strategies.” (14)

Zunes tries to defend U.S. government meddling in the affairs of other countries by pointing out that “the limited amount of financial support provided to opposition groups by the United States and other Western governments in recent years cannot cause a nonviolent liberal democratic revolution to take place.” (15)

Who said it could? The real issue isn’t whether groups that challenge foreign governments are homegrown; it’s what they’re struggling for, why phony peace institutes are helping them, and what they’re going to end up with if they’re successful.

How curious that the governments Zunes really seems to be concerned about (Zimbabwe, Iran, Belarus and Myanmar) are hostile to the idea of opening their doors to unrestricted U.S. investment and exports. How curious that the successful soft revolutions Zunes admires (Yugoslavia, Georgia, Ukraine) have brought pro-U.S., pro-foreign investment governments to power.

And what happens when the soft revolutions Zunes and his colleagues assist, succeed? In Serbia, which Zunes’ ICNC considers to be the site of one of its most successful engagements, “dollars have accomplished what bombs could not. After U.S.-led international sanctions were lifted with Milosevic’s ouster in 2000, the United States emerged as the largest single source of foreign direct investment. According to the U.S. embassy in Belgrade, U.S. companies have made $1 billion worth of ‘committed investments’ represented in no small part by the $580 million privatization of Nis Tobacco Factory (Phillip Morris) and a $250 million buyout of the national steel producer by U.S. Steel. Coca-Cola bought a Serbian bottled water producer in 2005 for $21 million. The list goes on.” (16)

Meanwhile, in Kosovo, the “coal mines and electrical facilities, the postal service, the Pristina airport, the railways, landfills, and waste management systems have all been privatized. As is the case across the Balkans, ‘publicly-owned enterprises’ are auctioned for a fraction of their value on the private market with little or no compensation for taxpayers.” (17)

It should be recalled that prior to the soft revolution-engineered corporate takeover, the Yugoslav economy consisted largely of state- and socially-owned enterprises, leaving little room for U.S. profit-making opportunities, not the kind of place investment bankers like Ackerman could easily warm up to. That the toppling of Milosevic had everything to do with opening space for U.S. investors and corporations should have been apparent to anyone who read chapter four of the U.S.-authored Rambouillet ultimatum, an ultimatum Milosevic rejected, triggering weeks of NATO bombing. The first article called for a free-market economy and the second for privatization of all government-owned assets. NATO bombs seemed to have had an unerring ability to hit Yugoslavia’s socially-owned factories and to miss foreign-owned ones. This was an economic take-over project.

Zunes’ associate Helvey hasn’t limited himself to training activists to overthrow governments in Venezuela and Serbia. Wherever Washington seeks to oust governments that pursue economically nationalist or socialist policies, you’ll find Helvey (and perhaps Zunes as well) holding seminars on nonviolent direct action: in Belarus, in Zimbabwe, in Iraq (before the U.S. invasion) and in Iran (18).

Zunes would be a more credible anti-imperialist were he organizing seminars on how to use nonviolent direct action to overthrow the blatantly imperialist U.S. and British governments. With the largest demonstrations in history held in Western cities on the eve of the last conspicuous eruption of Anglo-American imperialism, it cannot be denied that there’s a grassroots movement for peace and democracy in the West awaiting Zunes’ assistance. So is he training U.S. and British grassroots activists to use nonviolent direct action to stop the machinery of war? No. His attention is directed outward, not on his own government, but on the governments Washington and ruling class think-tanks want overthrown. He’s also busy applying for grants from a phony U.S. government institute of peace, hooking up with Peter Ackerman and his gaggle of fifth column promoters and mimicking U.S. State Department nonsense about countries the U.S. ruling class would like to dominate but can’t being dictatorships and their Western-funded oppositions being independent.

Genuine progressives and anti-imperialists should carefully scrutinize the backgrounds of Zunes and others, paying special attention to their foundation and think-tank connections. They should also ask whether the “independent” grassroots groups these people celebrate are really independent, or whether they’re as tightly connected to Western governments and ruling class activist foundations as Zunes is.

1. “Nonviolent Action and Pro-Democracy Struggles,” Z-Net, February 17, 2008, http://www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/16538. See also Zune’s “Leftist Attack on Nonviolent Direct Action for Democratic Change, www.canvasopedia.org/files/various/Leftist_Attack_on_NVA.doc
2. Michael Barker, “Peace Activists, Criticism, and Nonviolent Imperialism,” MRZine, January 8, 2008, http://www.monthlyreview.org/mrzine/barker080108.html and John Bellamy Foster, “Reply to Stephen Zunes on Imperialism and the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict,” MRZine, January 17, 2008, http://www.monthlyreview.org/mrzine/foster170108.html.
3. Stephen Zunes, “Spurious Attacks on Supporters of Nonviolent Resistance to Oppression, MRZine, January 18, 2008, http://www.monthlyreview.org/mrzine/barker080108.html#zunes.
4. The Guardian, June 7, 2007.
5. Zunes, February 17, 2008.
6. Ibid.

Concerning Zunes’ assurances that Gene Sharp, Robert Helvey and the Albert Einstein Institution are not agents of U.S. imperialism and aren’t assisting groups plotting to overthrow the Chavez government:

“The AEI is run by Gene Sharp, a self-titled expert of what he calls ‘nonviolent defense,’ though better termed ‘regime change.’ His methodologies have been studied and utilized by opposition movements in Burma, Thailand, Tibet, Belarus, Serbia, Zimbabwe, and Venezuela. In the AEI’s 2004 annual report, Venezuela is highlighted as an area where actions are currently being taken:

Venezuelans opposed to Chavez met with Gene Sharp and other AEI staff to talk about the deteriorating political situation in their country. They also discussed options of opposition groups to further their cause effectively without violence. These visits led to an in-country consultation in April 2003. The nine day consultation was held by consultants Robert Helvey and Chris Miler in Caracas for members of the Venezuelan democratic opposition. The objective of the consultation was to provide them with the capacity to develop a nonviolent strategy to restore democracy to Venezuela. Participants included members of political parties and unions, nongovernmental organization leaders and unaffiliated activists…Helvey presented a course of instruction on the theory, applications and planning for a strategic nonviolent struggle. Through this, the participants realized the importance of strategic planning to overcome existing shortcomings in the opposition’s campaign against Chavez. Ofensiva Cuidadana, a pro-democracy group in Venezuela, request and organized the workshop. The workshop has led to continued contact with Venezuelans and renewed requests for additional consultations.”

Eva Golinger, Bush vs Chavez: Washington’s War on Venezuela, Monthly Review Press, New York, 2008, p. 136.

Either Zunes doesn’t know what’s going on, or is playing fast and loose with the truth.

7. Reuters, April 30, 2003.
8. Ibid.
9. See http://www.stephenzunes.org/ and http://www.fpif.org/advisers/37
10. Zunes, February 17, 2008.
11. Ibid.
12. The Guardian, August 22, 2002, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2002/aug/22/zimbabwe.chrismcgreal .
13. Stephen Gowans, “Talk Left, Funded Right, April 7, 2007, https://gowans.wordpress.com/2007/04/07/talk-left-funded-right/ .
14. U.S. Department of State, The U.S. Record 2006, http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/shrd/2006/.
15. Zunes, February 17, 2008.
16. Elise Hugus, “Eight Years After NATO’s ‘Humanitarian War’: Serbia’s new ‘third way’”, Z Magazine, April 2007, Volume 20, Number 4.
17. Ibid.
18. The Albert Einstein Institution, Report on Activities, 2000 to 2004, http://www.aeinstein.org/organizations/org/2000-04rpt.pdf .

Color Revolution Counterpunch

The arrest by Iranian authorities of U.S.-Iranian scholar Haleh Esfandiari should come as no shock. She is almost certainly guilty of working to foment a color revolution, and governments, especially revolutionary ones, never stand for attempts to reverse their revolutions or to make fundamental changes in the class which wields state power. Whether her arrest was legitimate depends on which rights one believes to be senior: the rights of public advocacy and freedom to organize politically or the rights of self-determination and freedom from foreign domination.

By Stephen Gowans

Few people had heard of Haleh Esfandiari until she was jailed by skittish Iranian authorities who feared she was involved in a U.S. plot to engineer a color revolution in Iran.

The director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Esfandiari had been visiting her mother when she was detained by Iranian authorities in May. She was accused of co-opting Iranians into a U.S.-sponsored regime change program, offering them research grants and scholarships, paying their way to conferences and linking them up with “decision making centers in America.” (1)

This wasn’t the first regime change-related arrest. Last summer, Iranian authorities arrested Ramin Jahanbegloo, a scholar with dual Canadian-Iranian citizenship (*). The Ministry of Intelligence said the arrest was made in connection with U.S. efforts “to start a soft revolution in Iran.” (2)

Parnaz Azima, a reporter who works for Radio Farda, a Persian language radio station financed by the U.S. government has also been arrested, as has Kian Tajbakhsh, a consultant with billionaire speculator George Soros’ Open Society Institute. OSI has been instrumental in providing funding for color revolutions in Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine.

While there has been “a spate of recent crackdowns against Iranian activists” reflecting a “concern by the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that the United States is using democracy advocates to promote regime change,” (3) Esfandiari’s case has received the most attention.

Left scholars, like Noam Chomsky and Juan Cole, have condemned Esfandiari’s arrest, and others have suggested that the Ahmadinejad government is cracking down on legitimate dissent.

But how legitimate, and how independent, are the so-called democracy advocates, Tehran has jailed?

Esfandiari is the director of the U.S. government-established Woodrow Wilson Center’s Middle East Program. The Center is hardly a neutral body, independent of either the U.S. government or its foreign policy goals. Partly funded by the OSI, the Middle East Program was launched in February 1998 to assess “American interests in the region” and “strategic threats to and from the regional states.” It’s no secret that the U.S. considers Iran to be a strategic threat and considers its interests are best served by regime change in Iran.

Esfandiari’s program, according to the Center’s website, “devotes considerable attention to the analysis of internal domestic and social developments in Iran” including “the aspiration of the younger generation for reform and expansion of individual liberties” as well as the development of “civil society.” (4)

Is it any wonder Iranian authorities regard Esfandiari as a threat? She’s an Iranian living in the U.S., works for a U.S. government-established body, and directs a program whose mandate relates to American interests in the region. The program receives funding from the OSI, which has been instrumental in regime change operations in countries that had remained stubbornly outside the U.S. imperial orbit.

By itself, this is damning, but in the broader context of U.S. policy, it’s difficult to dismiss Tehran’s accusations as either paranoid or contrived.

Bankrolling a counter-revolution

In May of 2005, R. Nicholas Burns, U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs said the U.S. was ready to hike funding to groups within Iran seeking regime change. The United States had already spent $1.5 million in 2004 and $3 million in 2005 on exile groups with contacts inside Iran. (5)

Burns equated the ramped up spending to “taking a page from the playbook” on Ukraine and Georgia, where, as the New York Times explained,” in those countries the United States gave money to the opposition and pro-democracy groups, some of which later supported the peaceful overthrow of the governments in power.” (6)

But it would take longer to spark a color revolution in Iran, Burns warned. “We don’t have a platform to do it. The country isn’t free enough to do it. It’s a much more oppressive environment than Ukraine was…during the Orange Revolution” where the U.S. was able to take advantage of the country’s openness to meddle in its internal affairs. (7)

On February 15, 2005 U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice proposed to add $75 million to the $10 million already earmarked for U.S. government programs to “support networks for Iranian reformers, political dissidents and human rights activists.” Two-thirds of the additional funding was to be used to “increase television broadcasting to 24 hours a day all week in Farsi into Iran.” (8)

It’s unlikely that Esfandiari, working for the U.S. government through the Woodrow Wilson Center, and on a program that emphasized U.S. interests in Iran, wasn’t part of the stepped up efforts to oust the Ahmadinejad government.

Mercenaries of non-violent struggle

Equally unlikely is that the Iranian Center for Applied Non-Violence was passed over for Uncle Sam’s regime change largesse. The Center invites Iranians to workshops to teach them how peaceful revolts in Georgia, the Philippines and elsewhere were set off. Training sessions are held “every month or so, hoping to foment a non-violent conflict in Iran.” The Washington-based International Center on Non-Violent Conflict helps organize the sessions. (10)

The U.S. Center is interesting. It appears to be a grassroots organization – the kind of group that appeals to Z Magazine-reading activists in the West — but has strong connections to Wall Street and the U.S. foreign policy establishment.

The Center’s founding chair is New York investment banker Peter Ackerman, who is also a member of the board of the Council on Foreign Relations, an organization dominated by directors of major U.S. corporations, corporate lawyers and CEOs. The CFR formulates foreign policy for the U.S. State Department. Its key members circulate between the council, corporate board appointments and State Department positions.

Ackerman is also chairman of the board of Freedom House, an organization that champions the rights of journalists, union leaders and democracy activists to organize openly to bring down governments whose economic policies are insufficiently friendly to U.S. trade and investment. Funded by the OSI, USAID, the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Congress’s National Endowment for Democracy, Freedom House features a rogues’ gallery of U.S. ruling class activists that have sat, or currently sit, on its board of directors: Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Otto Reich, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Steve Forbes, among others. The only freedom these people are interested in is the freedom of U.S. corporations and investors to accumulate capital wherever and whenever they please.

Ackerman’s Center has been heavily involved in successful and ongoing regime change operations, including in Yugoslavia, which Ackerman celebrated in a PBS-TV documentary, Bringing Down a Dictator, about the ouster of Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic. If Ackerman, who studied under U.S. non-violence guru Gene Sharp, is truly committed to the peaceful way, he’s done a terrible job of transmitting a commitment to non-violent change to his children. Ackerman has two sons, one of whom is a U.S. Marine Corps officer, who earned a silver star for service in Iraq, using bombs and bullets to change Iraq’s regime.

The Center’s vice-chair is Berel Rodal, formerly a senior Canadian government official in foreign affairs, international trade, defense, security and intelligence (hardly the background of a budding Ghandi.)

Another Center associate is Robert Helvey, whose book “On Strategic Non-Violent Conflict: Thinking about the Fundamental”, is promoted on the Center’s website. Anyone who does a little digging into Helvey’s background will soon discover that strategic non-violent conflict means enlisting grassroots activists to bring down socialist or economically nationalist governments in order to privatize their socially-owned assets for the benefit of U.S. corporations and investors.

Helvey is a retired U.S. Army colonel and former U.S. military attaché to Burma (like Rodal’s, an improbable background for a budding Ghandi) who was brought to Caracas in 2003 “by a group of businessmen and professionals to give courses to young activists on how to ‘resist, oppose, and change a government without the use of bombs and bullets.’” (10) Helvey’s dalliances with the anti-Chavez opposition came fast on the heels of “his work in Serbia before Milosevic’s fall” where he “briefed students on ways to organize a strike and how to undermine the authority of a dictatorial regime.” (11)

What comes after a color revolution?

So, what has happened to Serbia, now that the non-violence loving, dictator-hating Ackerman and Helvey have completed their missions and moved on to plotting the overthrow of other foreign leaders, like Hugo Chavez, Robert Mugabe and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?

“In Serbia dollars have accomplished what bombs could not. After U.S.-led international sanctions were lifted with Milosevic’s ouster in 2000, the United States emerged as the largest single source of foreign direct investment. According to the U.S. embassy in Belgrade, U.S. companies have made $1 billion worth of ‘committed investments’ represented in no small part by the $580 million privatization of Nis Tobacco Factory (Phillip Morris) and a $250 million buyout of the national steel producer by U.S. Steel. Coca-Cola bought a Serbian bottled water producer in 2005 for $21 million. The list goes on.” (12)

Meanwhile, in the Serb province of Kosovo, the “coal mines and electrical facilities, the postal service, the Pristina airport, the railways, landfills, and waste management systems have all been privatized. As is the case across the Balkans, ‘publicly-owned enterprises’ are auctioned for a fraction of their value on the private market with little or no compensation for taxpayers.” (13)

It should be recalled that prior to the U.S. corporate takeover, the Yugoslav economy consisted largely of state- and socially-owned enterprises, leaving little room for U.S. profit-making opportunities, not the kind of place investment bankers like Ackerman, or speculators like Soros, are keen on. That the toppling of Milosevic had everything to do with opening space for U.S. investors and corporations should have been apparent to anyone who read chapter four of the U.S.-authored Rambouillet ultimatum, an ultimatum Milosevic rejected, triggering weeks of NATO bombing. The first article called for a free-market economy and the second for privatization of all government-owned assets. NATO bombs seemed to have had an unerring ability to hit Yugoslavia’s socially-owned factories and to miss foreign-owned ones. This was an economic take-over project.

Helvey hasn’t limited himself to training activists to overthrow governments in Venezuela and Serbia. Wherever Washington seeks to oust governments that pursue economically nationalist or socialist policies, you’ll find Helvey holding seminars on non-violent direct action: in Belarus, in Zimbabwe, in Iraq (before the U.S. invasion) and in Iran. “Helvey conducted a week-long course on nonviolent struggle for a group of Iranians in March 2003. The participants were young professionals in exile in the United States and Canada who would be used as spokespeople for various Iranian democracy groups.” (14)

A mercenary of non-violent direct action, Helvey would be a much more sympathetic figure were he also organizing seminars on how to use non-violent direct action to overthrow the U.S., British and other war-mongering Western governments, but somehow his list of targets always seems to line up with the governments Washington wants to overthrow. Helvey and Ackerman aren’t really committed to non-violence as a way of life, but only to non-violent struggle as one of a number of tools to be used (along with air strikes, ground invasion, saber-rattling and economic warfare) to achieve U.S. foreign policy objectives – objectives which have nothing to with the stated goals of promoting human rights and democracy and everything to do with putting U.S. capital in the driver’s seat.

Advancing U.S. corporate interests

Iran, as is true of other countries Washington has targeted for regime change, is economically nationalist, and it is this, and less so concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, that lies the heart of U.S. efforts to bring down the Ahmadinejad government. “’Regime change’ did not begin with the administration of George W. Bush,” New York Times journalist Stephen Kinzer points out in his book Overthrow, “but has been an integral part of American foreign policy for more than one hundred years…starting with the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1883” (15) and yes, including the overthrow of Iran’s economically nationalist president Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953. Mossadegh had nationalized British-owned oil companies. The U.S. engineered his overthrow and then handed the once British-owned and now nationalized oil industry over to U.S. companies.

In his survey of Washington’s addiction to regime change, Kinzer couldn’t help but trip over the centrality of the profit-making interests of U.S. capital in decisions to overthrow foreign governments. American corporations, Kinzer explains, are so powerful that they find “it relatively easy to call upon the military or the Central intelligence Agency to defend their privileges” in other countries. Of course, no one ever says regime change is about profits. Who’s going to rally around fattening ExxonMobil’s, Lockheed-Martin’s, GM’s, General Electric’s and Bechtel’s bottom lines? Regime change is always said to be about something larger: democracy, human rights, freedom, checking the spread of nuclear weapons and combating terrorism.

From the perspective of U.S. corporations and investment banks the problem with Iran is the same as the problem with Yugoslavia under Milosevic and Belarus today. There are too many publicly-owned enterprises, which means not enough room for U.S. investors and corporations to sell their goods and services and to profitably invest their capital. “Today,” observes the New York Times, “Iran’s economy … is almost entirely in the hands of the government.” (16) The country has its own automobile industry, and has secured deals with Venezuela and Syria to produce cars in those countries. Virtually all of the country’s drugs are produced domestically. (17) And, of course, there’s oil. “Iran’s petroleum reserves are the second largest of any OPEC country.” Only “Russia has more natural gas.” (18)

Ahmadinejad represents the economically nationalist wing of the Iranian ruling class, which “advocates state control of the economy, subsidies, continuation of uranium enrichment and the standoff with the U.S.” (19) “His call for justice – primarily economic justice…resonate(s) with a population angered by a perception that it had been denied the benefit of oil wealth.” (20) Iran will spend $25 billion this year to hold down the price of flour, rice, even gasoline. Ali Hashemi Rafsanjani, who lost the last presidential election to Ahmadinejad, represents the neo-liberal faction and favors “privatization, negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program and overtures to the U.S.” (21)

While Tehran’s support for the Palestinian nationalist struggle and the country’s nuclear program may irritate Washington’s policy makers, it’s unclear that these irritants figure prominently in Washington’s regime change policy. Soon after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Iran approached Washington with a proposal for a broad dialogue, to include “full cooperation on nuclear programs, acceptance of Israel and the termination of Iranian support for Palestinian groups.” (22) In other words, Iran would act to resolve all the irritants Washington said were at the heart of its dispute with Iran.

Richard Hass, then head of policy planning at the U.S. State Department and now president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said Washington rejected the proposal because the administration wanted the regime changed. And the administration believed “the Iranian government was on the verge of collapse.” (23) If Ahmadinejad’s government fell, or was toppled from within thanks to U.S.-funded regime change efforts, the neo-liberal, pro-West Rafsanjani would likely be the successor.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, pro-capitalist ideologue Francis Fukuyama asked, “What is it that leaders like Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez have in common that vastly increase their local appeal?” His answer: “Their ability to promise, and to a certain extent deliver on social policy – things like education, health and other social services, particularly for the poor.” Fukuyama lamented that “The U.S. and the political groups that it tends to support around the world…have relatively little to offer in this regard.” (24)

The Brzezinski warning

Earlier this year, former Carter National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski speculated on how Washington might engineer a “plausible scenario for military collision with Iran.” He warned that U.S. military action against Iran could follow “Iraqi failure to meet the benchmark followed by accusations of Iranian responsibility for the failure, then by some provocation in Iraq or a terrorist act in the U.S. blamed on Iran.” (25)

In late May, Brzezinski’s prediction seemed to be coming true. U.S. officials began to accuse Iran of forging an alliance with al Qaeda, Sunni insurgents, and Syria, with the goal of undermining achievement of the benchmarks in Iraq. In addition, the U.S. claimed to have “proof that Iran had reversed its previous policy in Afghanistan and is now supporting and supplying the Taliban’s campaign against U.S., British and other NATO forces.” (26)

Bush has repeatedly warned that while the United States is prepared to explore non-military means of forcing Iran to relinquish its right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to enrich uranium, “all options are on the table.”

The Democrats are equally bellicose. “Top Democrats in the House and Senate issued a report” in July 2005 calling for the United States to use “military pressure, including ‘the possibility of repeated and unwarned strikes’” against Iran. (27)

Earlier this year, the U.S. and Britain started to beef up their joint armada of warships and strike aircraft in the Persian Gulf region “in a show of military resolve toward Iran.” (28)

The American Enterprise Institute, a principal fixture of the U.S. ruling class policy formulation network, has been “urging Mr. Bush to open a new front against Iran.” (29) The think tank, whose mandate is to promote free enterprise, counts Coors, Microsoft and ExxonMobil among its major funders. Bush’s decision to send more troops to Iraq originated in a recommendation from the AEI. (30)

Economic warfare

“More than 40 major international banks and financial institutions have either cut off or cut back business with the Iranian public or private sector as a result of a quiet campaign launched by the Treasury and State Departments.” (31)

The campaign began last September, when the U.S. treasury secretary Henry Paulson announced plans to isolate Iran financially, by prohibiting U.S. banks from dealing with Iran. (32) Paulson also strongly suggested that foreign banks follow suit, listing more than 30 Iranian companies and government enterprises banks should steer clear of. Afraid of jeopardizing their access to the U.S. banking system, several European banks, including Credit Suisse and UBS in Switzerland, HSBC in Britain and ABN Amro in the Netherlands announced that they had scaled back their dealings with Iranian banks and enterprises. (33)

Pressure was also brought to bear “on major U.S. pension funds to stop investment in about 70 companies that trade directly with Iran and international banks that trade with the oil sector, cutting off the country’s access to hard currency. The aim is to isolate Tehran from world markets.” (34)

This is part of a “full-court press on foreign companies…to impress them that it would be a mistake to do anything with” Iran. (35)

The Iranian view

Former Iranian Interior Minister and deputy foreign minister Ali Muhammad Besharati told the New York Times last August that, “If we backed down on the nuclear issue, the U.S. would have found fault with our medical doctors researching stem cells. What they would like to see us do is plant corn, make tomato paste and bottle mineral water. They do not want to see us high-tech.” (36)

Support for this thinking comes from the Bush administration itself. Asked whether Iran “might at some point in the future be allowed to enrich uranium on its own soil” “after it has satisfied regulatory bodies that its nuclear ambitions are peaceful” a senior Bush administration official replied “when hell freezes over.” (37)

The Iranian leadership sees the conflict with the U.S. as “a fight for survival against a far more powerful enemy that has lumped them into an ‘axis of evil’ and allocated millions of dollars to oust the government.” The fight is “Tehran’s frontline effort to…never again allow Washington to have the upper hand in Iran.” (38)

Conflicting rights

It’s no secret that Washington is maneuvering to regain the upper hand in Iran it lost when the U.S.-backed Shah was overthrown in 1979. Washington has a tripartite game plan: threaten air strikes; pressure the world’s banking and investor community to ruin Iran’s economy through financial isolation; build up grassroots activists and exile groups to bring down the government. By these means, Washington hopes to put itself back in the driver’s seat, to reclaim Iran’s resources, labor and markets, and to plunder its publicly-owned assets, on behalf of the U.S. corporations and investors.

Short of capitulation, there’s little the Iranian leadership can do – either to stop the massing of U.S. and British warships and strike aircraft in the Persian Gulf or to stay the quiet campaign of financial isolation the U.S. Treasury Department is pursuing against Iranian banks and enterprises. But it can disrupt U.S. efforts to build a fifth column in the country. Arresting Esfandiari, and other members of the U.S. government and corporate funded complex of regime change groups, is part of that.

Were Iranian authorities justified in arresting Esfandiari? Those who place advocacy rights above other rights will say no. We can place Noam Chomsky and Juan Cole in this group. Neither man, for obvious reasons of self-interest, would like to see much legitimacy given to the idea that fierce opponents of established authority can be locked away for advocating non-violent opposition. This applies even if the critics are on the payroll of a hostile foreign government. On the other hand, those who place more value on the right of societies to be free from foreign domination and meddling will say yes, Tehran was justified.

There are no absolute rights, only conflicting rights whose valence depends on perceived interest. Advocacy rights are favored by corporate groups and the governments they dominate, because they have the money to exercise those rights – and reap the benefits of their exercise — more fully than anyone else does. The class that benefits most from freedom of the press is the class that can afford one.

Rights of economic independence are favored by those who have suffered from economic subordination to a metropolitan power. To them, the right to be free from foreign domination is senior to the right of others to advocate, and organize politically to achieve, the restoration of foreign domination.

What about the interests of ordinary people in the U.S., UK, Canada and other Western countries? Where do their interests lie?

Neutrality or alliance?

There are three views that I know of on this. One says interference in the affairs of other countries is illegitimate. It subverts democracy and the self-determination of other people. Those who hold this view are also likely to say that jailing those who are working to remove a government through peaceful means – even if they’re funded by outside governments and corporations – is also illegitimate. But what happens when these rights clash? Which is senior to the other?

Proponents of this view usually have no answer other than to say that the two rights are equally legitimate and neither cancels the other out. Governments, they contend, shouldn’t be meddling in the affairs of other countries, but equally, victimized governments shouldn’t be jailing the people on the ground whose meddling, however deplorable, amounts to nothing more than political organizing. This is the schoolyard monitor mentality. Johnny shouldn’t beat you up, but equally, you shouldn’t fight back to defend yourself. Like the neutral school authority who abhors the violence of self-defense as much as the violence of the aggressor, proponents of this view refuse to take sides.

Related in its neutrality, but not in the way the neutrality is arrived at, is the view of those who say they are partisans of the working class alone, and since the clash has no direct bearing on the working class per se, there is no need for them to take sides. Indeed, why should they side with capitalist governments, either that of the U.S. or Iran?

A third view says that the defense of the economic independence of countries from the predations of foreign capital is indeed a working class issue, even if the government under threat is not a working class government. The reasoning is that corporations and investors in metropolitan countries become stronger – or at least, avoid crises – as they increase their sphere of exploitation. In one view, this furnishes governments and employers with sufficient wealth to keep the working class in their own country docile with social welfare programs and comfortable living standards.

Alternatively, or additionally, outward expansion averts the otherwise inevitable economic crises in the metropolitan areas that would create momentum for revolutionary change. Since the working class and capitalist class are antagonistic, what strengthens one weakens the other. If Iran’s successfully defending itself from integration into the imperial orbit of the U.S. capitalist class checks growth in the strength of that class, or disorganizes it, the revolutionary possibilities for the working class are strengthened. Proponents of this view, then, are quick to side with governments that resist subordination to the profit-seeking interests of the corporations, banks and investors of their own country.

Conclusion

It’s probably true that Haleh Esfandiari was working to build a U.S. government and U.S. corporate-funded fifth column within Iran to bring down the Ahmadinejad government with a view to installing a pro-Western, neo-liberal government that would open Iran to U.S. exports and investments. Iran’s arresting Esfandiari, as well other mercenaries of public persuasion in the pay of the U.S. government and corporate-backed regime change organizations, is aimed at defending the country from subordination to U.S. corporate interests.

Whether the arrest is legitimate (assuming Esfandiari is guilty of what she is accused), cannot be asserted or denied as an absolute. It depends on which rights are senior – those related to public advocacy and freedom to organize politically or those related to self-determination and freedom from foreign domination. And which right is senior depends on where you’re situated within the global capitalist system.

Iranians who would profit by facilitating U.S. political and economic domination of Iran will favor Esfandiari’s civil liberties. The government of Iran will favor its right to defend itself from outside interference and U.S.-directed regime change. Ordinary people in metropolitan countries who are conscious of belonging to a class, and are able to work through the fog of nonsense on Iran, will take sides, or not, on the basis of strategic considerations: are the interests of the working class advanced by siding with governments resisting integration into an imperialist orbit, no matter what their stripe, or are they advanced by limiting alliances to members of the working class of other countries alone?

There are a number of class-conscious leftists who espouse the latter view sincerely, but there are those who use it as an excuse to climb into bed with their country’s own ruling class, to advance its interests. Left groups that worked to oust the Milosevic government in Serbia have nothing to show for their efforts but a country that is precisely where those leading the charge against Milosevic wanted it to be: subordinate to U.S. corporations and investors. Left groups that are working to oust the Mugabe government in Zimbabwe will have achieved, if they’re successful, not the succession of a socialist or working people’s government, but the installation of the Western-backed, neo-liberal opposition, which will reverse land reforms, and sell off the country’s publicly-owned assets. The rural poor won’t be cheering, but investors, corporate lawyers and CEOs in the West will, along with the former colonial-settler land owners.

Likewise, a color revolution in Iran will not be followed by the flowering of a progressive, socialist or working class movement in the country, but by the replacement of an economically nationalist pro-capitalist government with a government prepared to compromise with Western and especially U.S. capital. State enterprises will be sold off at a fraction of their value, subsidies will be cancelled, profits from the sale of the country’s oil and gas will disproportionately accrue to U.S. oil companies, and the lives of ordinary Iranians will become poorer and more uncertain.

It is hard to muster much sympathy for Esfandiari. Anyone who works to reverse the gains of a revolutionary government – and this is undoubtedly what those engaged in regime operations in Iran are up to – should expect to be cracked down upon, especially where their activities constitute a very real threat to the survival of the revolution. With its threats of air strikes, economic warfare, and tens of millions of dollars in overt (and who knows how many more millions of dollars in covert) spending on regime change operations, the U.S., and its agents, of which Esfandiari must surely count herself, are lethal threats to Iran’s revolution. No one should be surprised she was arrested.

Iran’s efforts to resist domination by U.S. capital are no less worthy of solidarity than the efforts of the resistances in Iraq and Afghanistan to throw off the U.S.-led occupations or of Cuba’s and north Korea’s resistances to the unceasing efforts of the U.S. and its allies to return both countries to the capitalist fold and bring them into the U.S. imperialist orbit. Taking sides with the Iranian government in its resistance to U.S. aggression is in no way equivalent to endorsing the Iranian regime, theocratic rule or the theories of Iran’s president on the anti-Jewish holocaust. It is, instead, a recognition of the rights of other people to self-determination and to be free from foreign domination. If the exercise of these rights implies the arrest of those actively working to deny these rights – as it appears Esfandiari was – so be it. The civil liberties of one person – especially when exploited to aid a privileged minority of hereditary capitalist families and wealthy investors – are not senior to the rights of hundreds of millions.

1. New York Times, May 22, 2007
2. New York Times, July 3, 2006
3. Associated Press, May 13, 20074
4. http://www.wilsoncenter.org/index.cfm?topic_id=1426&fuseaction=topics.intro
5. New York Times, May 29, 2005
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid.
8. New York Times, February 16, 2006
9. New York Times, November 20, 2006.
10. Reuters, April 30, 2003; Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez accused Helvey’s employer, the Albert Einstein Institution, of being behind an imperialist conspiracy to overthrow his government. The Guardian, June 7, 2007.
11. Ibid.
12. Elise Hugus, “Eight Years After NATO’s ‘Humanitarian War’: Serbia’s new ‘third way’”, Z Magazine, April 2007, Volume 20, Number 4
13. Ibid.
14. The Albert Einstein Institution, Report on Activities, 2000 to 2004, http://www.aeinstein.org/organizations/org/2000-04rpt.pdf
15. Stephen Kinzer, Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq, Times Books Henry Holt & Company, New York, 2006.
16. New York Times, May 28, 2006
17. Workers World, May 5, 2007
18. Washington Post, April 20, 2006
19. Lalkar, September/October, 2005
20. New York Times, December 20, 2005
21. Lalkar, September/October, 2005
22. Washington Post, June 18, 2006
23. Ibid.
24. Wall St. Journal, February 1, 2007
25. Granma International, February 8, 2007
26. Guardian, May 22, 2007
27. Boston Globe, August 14, 2005
28. New York Times, December 21, 2006
29. Guardian, February 10, 2007
30. Washington Post, February 11, 2007
31. Washington Post, March 26, 2007
32. New York Times, September 17, 2006
33. New York Times, October 16, 2006
34. Guardian, January 26, 2007
35. Washington Post, February 1, 2007
36. New York Times, August 28, 2006
37. New York Times, September 12, 2006
38. New York Times, August 28, 2006

* “On April 27, 2006, the Iranian philosopher was detained at Tehran’s Mehrabad airport, and shortly after was accused of actively preparing to take part in a “velvet revolution” in Iran. This polyglot thinker … elected to write his doctoral dissertation on Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolent change, Satyagraha. Jahanbegloo continued to espouse nonviolence after returning from the West to his homeland. …On one of his many trips to India, Jahanbegloo met with the Dalai Lama, who in turn has made frequent visits to Prague to meet with Havel since 1989. All such links reinforce suspicion among Iran’s clerical rulers that “the velvet revolution” is at hand.

“Rasool Nafisi has suggested that the main reason for Jahanbegloo’s arrest was his research project for the German Marshall Fund in which he compared the Iran’s democratic dissidents with their East-Central European predecessors. This line of comparative inquiry analyzed the balance of political power between Iranian civil society and the governing clerical regime. While Jahanbegloo sat in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, eminent international figures—among them Havel and Habermas—sent an Open Letter to Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad protesting the philosopher’s detention. The Iranian minister of the interior, Hojjatoleslam Qolamhoseyn Mosheni Eyhe’I, said in a July interview that Jahanbegloo was arrested on suspicion that he had been assisting the US to provoke “a velvet revolution in Iran,” an activity that, according to him, seems to be the US’s main business these days.”

Martin Beck Matuštík, “Velvet Revolution in Iran?”, Logos: A Journal of Modern Society and Culture, Fall 2006.

On June 11, 2007 the New York Times reported that Ali Shakeri had been detained by Iranian authorities. Shakeri is a founding board member of the Center for Citizen Peacebuilding at the University of California, Irvine. The Center, according to its web site, studies “the best grassroots peacebuilding methods in both domestic and international conflicts, and utilizes those findings in direct engagement in peacebuilding projects in … selected communities in Northern Ireland, the Middle East, Bosnia/Herzegovina, and the former Soviet Union.” The Center has honored Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev, and the Dalai Lama with its Citizen Peacebuilding Award. The only peace the Center is interested in, is the peace that comes from capitulation to US foreign policy goals.

Zimbabwe and the Politics of Demons and Angels

By Stephen Gowans

Soon after I wrote an article titled “Mugabe gets the Milosevic Treatment,” posted at Counterpunch.org, I received an e-mail from a representative of SW Radio Africa, who said I should visit Zimbabwe before writing articles about the country. This was followed by a Patrick Bond reply to my article in Counterpunch, invoking the same argument, though in an indirect way. Gowans’ views are nonsense, Bond fumed, at least, as he saw them, sitting across the Limpopo river, where, he said, he had managed to establish a pretty good handle on what was going in Zimbabwe.

Had I been writing a travelogue both of my critics would have made a good point, but inasmuch as I was writing about Washington and London having dragooned civil society – and in some cases, having created it from the ground up – for the purpose of ousting the government of Robert Mugabe, their criticism was wide of the mark. You don’t have to travel to Zimbabwe to figure out that Mugabe is getting the Milosevic treatment.

Even Bond, in his characteristically haughty way, acknowledged the US intrigues in Zimbabwe with a dismissive “tell us something we don’t already know.”

For the record, the British newspaper The Guardian revealed as early as August 22, 2002 that, “The United States government has said it wants to see President Robert Mugabe removed from power and that it is working with the Zimbabwean opposition” “trade unions, pro-democracy groups and human rights organizations” “to bring about a change of administration.”

Washington confirmed its own civil society-assisted regime change plans for Zimbabwe in an April 5, 2007 report, revealing that in 2006 “The U.S. government continued to support the efforts of the political opposition, the media and civil society,” including providing training and assistance to the kind of grassroots “pro-democracy” groups the US had used to bring down the government of Slobodan Milosevic, and that Bond had celebrated in his Counterpunch article as “the independent left.”

There are three key reasons why the US is trying to oust the Zanu-PF government:

(1) The Zanu-PF government has expropriated land from white commercial farmers for redistribution to the rural poor.

(2) It has pursued economically nationalist policies at odds with IMF demands.

(3) It has been a rallying point for anti-imperialist sentiment in southern Africa.

SW Radio Africa is a UK-based radio station, funded by the USAID Office of Transition Initiatives to broadcast anti-government propaganda into Zimbabwe. Violet Gonda, one of the station’s interviewers, has been sending me transcripts of her interviews ever since my Milosevic Treatment article appeared on the Counterpunch site. In an April 10 interview with Zimbabwe’s Home Affairs Minister Kembo Mohadi, UK-based Gonda was challenged by Mohadi to “come to Zimbabwe and witness this for yourself and don’t be talking about things that you don’t know,” turning the argument Gonda’s colleague had made to me against her. Mohadi was referring to Gonda’s allegations that MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai had been beaten and that MDC supporters had been tortured.

Amusing as it was to see the same argument used against SW Radio Africa, the “come to Zimbabwe before you say anything” demand is based on the startlingly naïve view that someone else’s perspective must align with your own if only he visits the same piece of real estate. The view of the rural poor in Zimbabwe, or of veterans of the guerilla war for national liberation, can hardly be expected to be the same as those of white commercial farmers, even though they live in the same country. It is experience, race, which side of colonialism you’ve been on, and what opportunities imperialist countries offer you, that account for why the views of Zimbabwe’s rural poor and of Zanu-PF supporters are different from those of comfortable white professors ensconced in foundation-supported positions across the Limpopo river, and of young black Africans from Harare who travel to the US on US State Department sponsored trips to study civil disobedience techniques.

If my article  resonated with anyone, it  resonated with black Africans, members of the African Diaspora and anti-imperialists. White commercial farmers and anyone linked to the civil society apparatus deployed to unseat Mugabe’s government angrily dismissed it. But why? Why would opponents of Mugabe – including Bond, who acknowledges that the US is acting to drive Zanu-PF from power (that is, when he’s not arguing the exact opposite) — take exception to someone drawing attention to something that is a matter of public record?

The reason, I think, has everything to do what different groups of people value more: the thwarting of imperialist designs (and the land reform, redress of colonial injustices, and national sovereignty that are thereby given space to come to fruition), or ousting Mugabe. If you want Mugabe to go, you’ll oppose anything that reveals efforts to unseat him as being illegitimate. It won’t be enough to say, “Yes, you’re right, Washington and London are engaged in intrigues to topple the Mugabe government, but all the same I dislike him and his program and here’s why.” Instead, you’ll fulminate, “This is nonsense!”

You’ll probably also practice the politics of demons and angels – the division of the world into two camps: bad guys and good guys, black hats and white hats. The objective is to describe leaders, governments, movements and programs you want to see the end of as demons, and those who are acting to achieve this end as angels. However, because those that lean to the left of the political spectrum are unlikely to regard imperialist governments as angels (although this is far from being invariably true) civil society groups are recruited as proxies. They appear to be independent, to do good works, and they have a “socialism from below” feel that resonates with the Western left. Patrick Bond, who directs a center for civil society, is a master of invoking the kind of rhetoric about social movements being an “independent left” operating in spaces between neo-liberal Third World governments and neo-liberal First World governments that appeals to the Z-Net congregation.

The politics of demons and angels is terribly unsophisticated. That should be enough to keep 100 paces away from it. But it should also be eschewed for an even more compelling reason: because it’s used to build support for imperialist interventions in other countries — interventions that have nothing whatever to do with promoting human rights, building democracy, and keeping the peace, and everything to do with opening up space for the intervening countries’ corporations, banks and investors to make a profit.

Yugoslavia was transformed by Western intervention from a country with a large socially and publicly owned sector, whose government balked at IMF reforms, into a neo-liberal workshop of growing economic insecurity and domination by Western capital. Iraq, brutalized by sanctions, terrorized by war, and humiliated by occupation, may in time yield its prize of a bonanza of oil profits to British and US oil firms. These prizes could not have been won without campaigns of vilification to manufacture consent for intervention. The bases for these interventions – that Milosevic was orchestrating a genocide in Kosovo and that Saddam Hussein was hiding banned weapons – were lies.

In the real world there are three kinds of views on the struggle in Zimbabwe: those that demonize Mugabe; those that angelize him; and those that do neither. In the Manichean world of the politics of demons and angels there are only two: those that demonize Mugabe and those that angelize him. Anyone who expresses a view that neither demonizes nor angelizes Mugabe is accused, by those who demonize him, of angelizing him.

A person who notes, quite accurately, and with the weight of evidence behind him, that Washington, London and the EU have built and enlisted civil society in Zimbabwe to oust Mugabe, will be called by those who demonize him, a pro-Mugger, Mugophile, or practitioner of the basest enemy of my enemy is my friend politics. And yet there is no justification for making these accusations. Repeating what has been said over and over by the US State Department and in newspaper reports about US and British intrigues in Zimbabwe is hardly the same as saying Mugabe is my friend, Mugabe is my hero, or Mugabe is a great guy, let’s organize a celebration in his honor.

When demonizers of Mugabe accuse those who point out that what Washington and London admit to openly, as being Mugabe-angelizers, we have to ask why? Is it because their Manichean worldview allows them to see the world in no other way (if you don’t call him a demon you must think he’s an angel, because there are only angels and demons in my world), or is it because they’re so embittered toward Mugabe that they don’t care who gets rid of him or how or what follows him, just so long as he goes, and therefore anyone who would regard him as something other than a demon must be stopped from doing so in case he persuades other people?

To be sure, these are not mutually exclusive alternatives. Both may be true. But what’s significant is that both mesh nicely with the openly admitted plans of Washington and London to oust Mugabe’s government. If Mugabe is universally understood to be a demon, we can hardly marshal the energy to stop plans to oust him. Why bother? You’ll only soil yourself by association. And who wants to back a demon?

The claim made by Z Magazine’s Michael Albert, that human psychology isn’t this simple – that people recognize that a foreign leader’s being a demon doesn’t justify an intervention to remove him – reveals Albert to be either disingenuous or the last person on earth you would want to invite into an advertising firm as a human relations expert. You don’t have to talk to too many people, including readers of Z Magazine (especially readers of Z Magazine?) to hear it said: “Oh sure, maybe the bombing of Yugoslavia, the invasion of Afghanistan, and the war on Iraq, were done for the wrong reasons, but all the same, they served the useful function of ridding the world of monsters.”

Given a zeitgeist that favors a never-ending series of demons for people to vent their moral outrage on, it comes as no shock to find professed anti-imperialists combing their archives to dredge up whatever dirt they can find on Mugabe. One found an article that exposes Mugabe as a homophobe. But what have Mugabe’s views on homosexuals to do with the struggles in Zimbabwe that connect the rural poor, white commercial farmers, Zanu-PF, civil society, and the imperialist machinations of the US and the UK?

The answer, of course, is nothing. But there is a political function and also a psychological function to be served in good old-fashioned dirt-slinging. Politically, the object is to personify a movement to discredit it by drawing attention to the revolting features of the person the movement has been equated to. There’s a Pavlovian character to this. The pairing of the bell with food, eventually leads to the bell alone calling forth the dogs’ salivation. Likewise, the pairing of the person with the movement, or class, or nation, eventually leads to the negative features of the person being transferred to what he has been equated to. Were one to dredge up articles on Castro and Che being homophobes, Cuba-supporters would immediately recognize the political nature of the act. They don’t, however, seem to recognize the political nature of the act of visibly parading one individual’s failings about, under the guise of a making a significant contribution to understanding the struggle in Zimbabwe — or do, but go about doing it anyway because their commitment to anti-imperialism is fair-weather (strong when there’s no danger of being demonized by association, absent otherwise.)

The psychological as opposed to political function of dirt-slinging is to socially affirm oneself as a decent human being by denouncing those who express indecent values. This is particularly attractive to people on the far left, who are already mistrusted by the larger community for holding dangerous and unsettling views. How better to affirm one’s place in decent society than by leading the chorus in denouncing those vilified by conservative forces as leftist and anti-imperialist “monsters.” See, not all of us are monsters. We hate the monsters just as much as the rest of you do.

Let’s be clear. The very fact that I’m questioning the practice of personifying groups of people in order to demonize the individuals equated to them will be used to denounce me as a thug-hugger, apologist, and lionizer of monsters. In other words, if you’re not with us in vilifying the latest Satan, you’re against us. The great irony is that people who rail against those who refuse to participate in campaigns of vilifying those calumniated as left and anti-imperialist “monsters” accuse people like me, of practicing a with-us-or-against-us politics of the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

“Unhappy is the land that needs heroes,” remarked Brecht. He might have added, unhappy is the land that needs demons (but then, the land that needs heroes, must, per force, need demons as their heroes’ antithesis.) The movie The Motorcycle Diaries, about Che Guevera’s trip through South America with his friend Alberto Granado in the early 50s, has been justly criticized for angelizing the Argentine revolutionary. When those enchanted with Che the angel discover Che the human being, a man with warts – though, as is true of all larger-than-life figures, uglier than those of the rest of us – they become disillusioned, embittered and, if strongly committed to a Manichean view of the world, swing radically to the other pole, denouncing their fallen angel as Satan incarnate, rather than recognizing him as a human being.

The best that can be said about discussions of Zimbabwe, or north Korea, or Sudan, or Iran that reduce to a set of accusations about the demonic character of some leader is that they’re superficial and frivolous. What can also be said is that they’re products of manipulation by forces seeking to manufacture consent for interventions in other countries – interventions that have nothing to do with human rights and democracy and have everything to do with securing advantages for the intervening countries’ corporations, banks and investors. When we dissociate ourselves from “unsavory” regimes – and there’s not one government, Western or otherwise, free from unsavory features that would not allow any of them to be demonized – we isolate really-existing projects for national and class emancipation and thereby undermine the potential for the success of progressive struggles in the real world. It’s true that in behaving in this way we can avoid demonization by association and thereby splatter-proof our own vision – a strategy that may serve the purpose of making our vision more saleable to a skeptical public — but it cannot be safeguarded from vilification forever. The moment it too becomes a threat, it will be vilified as vigorously as all real-world threats to imperialism are. The idea that you can escape being vilified by those you oppose is true only so long as you don’t oppose them in any kind of serious or effective way. Utopian visions – and those whose left politics amount to nothing more than pious expressions of benevolence and goodwill to men – are no threat.

What’s more, the view that the success of the independent (which is to say, the US government and ruling class foundation supported) left in Zimbabwe in toppling the Zanu-PF government is something to be wished for, is naïve or (given the foundation-connections of those who express this view) disingenuous. A successful civil society-executed regime change operation will not produce a decentralized, participatory democracy committed to egalitarianism, but a neo-colonial regime headed by an Anglo-American puppet which will immediately handcuff land reform and abrogate every policy at odds with neo-liberalism and ownership of Zimbabwe’s assets by US and British capital.

The models are Poland and Yugoslavia (among others.) There, trade unions and civil society also managed to enchant the Western left while bringing down governments that were the only serious obstacle to the installation of comprador regimes — regimes whose agenda was one of shutting down shipyards, selling off socially and publicly owned enterprises, and ushering in an era of growing inequality and subservience to Western capital. You don’t hear much about these places anymore. You should. They’re what Zimbabwe will become if civil society topples another anti-imperialist government.

Talk Left, Funded Right

By Stephen Gowans

In their zeal to demonize Zimbabwe’s Zanu-PF government it sometimes seems that members of the “independent left” are working for the US government. The reason why is that many are.

At the same time, Trotskyites peddling bizarre theories that say the country’s president Robert Mugabe is in league with the same governments that are trying to overthrow him, might as well be.

An April 5th US State Department report [1] confirms what has been revealed in scattered press reports for years: that civil society groups and media some left scholars misrepresent as “the independent left” are actually puppets of the US governments.

That’s not to say these groups don’t believe they’re independent, or that all of their members know that the funding for their expensive websites, magazines, newspapers and radio programs are financed by Uncle Sam. However, knowingly or not, they’re doing Washington’s work.

Only the wilfully blind or naïve would believe the US government lavishes money on groups that aren’t going to be of some service in promoting its agenda. And only the wilfully blind or naïve believe that Uncle Sam’s agenda has anything to do with promoting democracy, freedom of expression and good governance.

Patrick Bond, director of the right-wing funded Center for Civil Society at the University of Natal — whose case against Mugabe is formulated in the same language of hunger for power leading to betrayal and corruption that characterized Trotsky’s case against Stalin — points to such US-funded groups as Sokawanele as the “independent left” in Zimbabwe [2]. Is he wilfully blind, naïve or is he grinding the usual Trotskyite axe against really-existing socialist governments and national liberation movements?

The US and EU use civil society to effect color revolutions – to do overtly what the CIA used to do covertly. An integral part of any color revolution is to demonize target governments to facilitate their replacement by local politicians prepared to open or re-open their country to imperialist penetration [3]. Bond is thoroughly integrated into the civil society apparatus. His Center for Civil Society (whose web site links to Zimbabwe’s US- and EU-funded MDC opposition party) is connected to the ruling class Kellogg and Ford foundations, the South African NGO coalition, the South African bank, ABSA and the South African Chamber of Commerce [4]. It could be said of Bond that he talks left and is funded right.

Last year, according to the US State Department, Washington was busily interfering in Zimbabwe’s internal affairs, funding the opposition, backing civil society groups, showering money on “alternative” media, and seeing to it that Bond’s “independent left” was well greased with lucre [5].

“The U.S. Government continued to support the efforts of the political opposition, the media, and civil society.” (That the efforts pertained to replacing the Zanu-PF government with one that would effectively shelf land reform, lift tariffs, abolish performance requirements on foreign investment, and privatize state-owned enterprises, should be spelled out. That these policies would benefit the corporations, investors and banks connected to Bond’s Center for Civil Society should also be spelled out.)

“The United States sponsored public events that presented economic and social analyses discrediting the government’s excuses for its failed policies, (which is to say, absolving US and EU sanctions of undermining the country’s economy.)

“The U.S. Government sponsored … and supported … several township newspapers” and worked to expand the “listener base” of “Voice of America’s Studio 7 radio station” (by distributing short-wave radios to expose the population to anti-Zanu-PF propaganda.)

“U.S. programs provided funding to NGOs that collected and circulated information on civil society, human rights, and government actions,” (groups like Sokwanele.)

The US “supported workshops to develop youth leadership skills necessary to confront social injustice through nonviolent strategies,” a reference to the “grassroots” “pro-democracy” activist groups the US has previously trained and funded in Yugoslavia (Otpor), Belarus (Zubr) and Ukraine (Khmara), to carry out color revolutions with the intention of installing local politicians that favor pro-US trade and investment policies. The Zimbabwean equivalents are Bond’s favored Sokwanele, and its counterpart Zvakwana.

The State Department also “sponsored an … exchange program to learn about activism by civil society groups in the United States,” groups that one might infer are as deeply embedded in Uncle Sam’s pocket as their counterparts in Zimbabwe are.

Any doubt that these civil society regime change operations are motivated by purely economic considerations should be laid to rest by the State Department’s observation that “A growing number of like-minded donors now agree that fundamental political and economic changes are a prerequisite to reengagement by the international community with the government.” In other words, once Zimbabwe shelves its land reform program, opens its doors to unfettered US investment and exports, and stops interfering in US imperial designs in Africa, funding to civil society and Bond’s “independent left” will dry up.

The actions of some Trotskyite groups and Trotskyite-inspired scholars serve the same ends.

Australia’s Green Left Weekly, and the Zimbabwe International Socialist Organization, have both backed the opposition MDC from the start (in fact, the ISO is a founding member) [6]. The problem with the MDC is that it’s the US and EU vehicle for strengthening a neo-colonial domination of Zimbabwe and of white farmers for stopping land reform.

The ISO and Bond use language to rail against Mugabe that seems to be drawn from the same bag of clichés. Bond’s “Mugabe talks radical — especially nationalist and anti-imperialist–but acts reactionary” [7] is almost a word for word recycling of the ISO’s “Mugabe is compromising with the bosses at the expense of the workers – not only the local capitalists, but with foreign investors,” and “he speaks left but his policy is pro-capitalist” [8].

If Mugabe is as useful to imperialism as his Trotskyite detractors say he is, (Bond says “The Zim counter-example, frankly, is a useful one for imperialism to keep alive” [9]) why are imperialists in Washington and London lavishing money and support on the political opposition, “independent” media and “independent left” to overthrow him?

The anti-Mugabe screed is a replay of the Trotskyite narrative about pure revolutionaries opposing a revolution that has been hijacked and betrayed by an unworthy power-mad monster (Stalin being the Trotskyites’ archetype.) In this view, all revolutions are corrupt and must be overthrown – that is, all but the one that will never happen.

Trotskyites have always been useful to Washington and London: many are reliably against the same revolutions (though for different reasons), and therefore serve the useful function of whittling away at left support.

To discourage left support for Third World anti-imperialist movements, many Trotskyites invoke the argument that those who support Zanu-PF, the DPRK and sometimes even Cuba, are reflexively placing a plus sign beside the enemy of my enemy and that they ought to be more selective in who they support. Since many Trotskyites often have trouble with really-existing socialist governments and national liberation movements, this amounts to a prohibition against putting a plus sign beside any such movement.

The truth of the matter, however, is that anti-imperialists support national liberation movements, not because Washington or London dislike them, but because national liberation movements are anti-imperialist, period.

By comparison, misnamed independent left groups that depend for their existence or funding on the US, the EU and Western ruling class foundations, and those Trotskyites who can be reliably counted upon to oppose all revolutions except those they lead or influence, do what they accuse Zanu-PF of doing: talking left, and walking right.

1. US Department of State, “The U.S. Record, 2006,” http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/shrd/2006/
2. Bond, Patrick (a), “Mugabe: Talks Radical, Acts Lie a Reactionary: Zimbabwe’s Descent,” Counterpucnh.org, March 27, 2007, http://www.counterpunch.org/bond03272007.html
3. Gowans, Stephen, “Zimbabwe’s Lonely Fight for Justice,” March 30, 2007, https://gowans.wordpress.com/2007/03/30/zimbabwe%e2%80%99s-lonely-fight-for-justice/
4. Center for Civil Society at the University of Natal, http://www.ukzn.ac.za/ccs/
5. US Department of State
6. Gowland, Rob, “Zimbabwe: The struggle for land, the struggle for independence,” http://www.cpa.org.au/booklets/zimbabwe.pdf
7. Bond (a)
8. Gowland
9. Bond, Patrick (b), Reply to “Gowans, Stephen, “Grassroots Lieutenants of Imperialism, April 2, 2007, https://gowans.wordpress.com/2007/04/02/grassroots-lieutenants-of-imperialism/ , https://gowans.wordpress.com/2007/04/02/grassroots-lieutenants-of-imperialism/#comment-14