The ICNC: Propagating Uncle Sam’s Narrative

By Stephen Gowans

“The narrative we want to come out of this is that the Libyan people overthrew a dictator, not that we came in and toppled a despot,” said Stephen J. Hadley, a former national security adviser to President George W. Bush.

“And that’s the problem with going after command and control if it results in the death of Qaddafi, because what we really want him to do is for him to leave or to die at a Libyan hand, not an American hand,” said Mr. Hadley, speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union.” (1)

To explain the 2000 overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic in the former Yugoslavia, the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict promotes the very same narrative Hadley wants for Libya.

Through its video, Bringing Down A Dictator, and articles written by scholars on its academic advisory board–at least one of whom has met with the CIA and RAND Corporation–the organization brazenly rewrites history to put forward the narrative that an indigenous pro-democracy movement overthrew a dictator, not that NATO intervened massively to topple an elected president.

At least three facts are at odds with the ICNC narrative:

• NATO carried out a 78-day terror bombing campaign whose purpose was to induce “Milosevic’s own people…to turn on him,” according to the commander of US Air Force units in Europe at the time, General John P. Jumper. (2). In 1999, US General Michael 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)
• The West engineered a sanctions campaign that uniquely targeted areas in which Milosevic had strong support. This added to pressure on Milosevic’s own supporters to oust their president.
• Washington spent $10 million in 1999 and $31 million in 2000 to train, equip and advise an overthrow movement to destabilize the former Yugoslavia and oust Milosevic. [4] It is this movement that the ICNC celebrates as a largely indigenous pro-democracy movement.

Wherever Washington is trying to topple an independent government, the ICNC’s scholars can be counted on to help build a narrative that says the people overthrew a dictator, not that Washington allied with part of the population to sweep the old government from office. Invariably the replacement governments have aligned themselves closely with US financial, commercial and military interests.

Of the ICNC founder and chairman Peter Ackerman, Edward Herman and David Peterson note: He “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.” (5) Ackerman is also a board member of the Council on Foreign Relations, equally as clear an instrument of US foreign policy.

On Stephen Zunes, the organization’s chief scholar, the pair add: “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.” (6)

This, indeed, is another way of saying that Zunes works to make the narrative of US regime change operations come out the way Hadley wants it to come out in Libya – with a targeted leader’s fall seen to come at the hands of his own people with US complicity erased from history.

Herman and Peterson condemn this narrative-setting as “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.” (7)

Zunes and other ICNC scholars claim to be on the left. Some even anti-imperialist. If so, what’s left?

1. Kareem Fahim and Mark Mazzetti, “Allies defending actions in Libya after airstrike”, The New York Times, May 1, 2011.
2. Thom Shanker and David E. Sanger, “Nato says it is stepping up attacks on Libya targets”, The New York Times, April 26, 2011.
3. New York Times, May 13, 1999. Cited in William Blum’s Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower.
4. Dobbs, Michael, “US advice guided Milosevic opposition,” The Washington Post, December 11, 2000.
5. Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, “Reply to Stephen Zunes”, December 30, 2010.
6. Herman and Peterson.
7. Herman and Peterson.

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.

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.

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.

Lester Kurtz’s Duty

By Stephen Gowans

This is the continuation of an exchange between me and Lester Kurtz, a sociology professor and exponent of nonviolent resistance who sits on the academic advisory board of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.

Lester Kurtz, an exponent of nonviolent warfare who sits on the academic advisory board of the Council on Foreign Relations-linked International Center on Nonviolent Conflict says he felt it was his duty to meet with members of his country's intelligence community to discuss nonviolent resistance. The ICNC provides information on civil disobedience tactics to groups seeking to take power from foreign governments.

Kurtz’s reply to my “Leftist overthrow advisor Lester Kurtz: ‘I talked with the CIA’” is below, followed by my reply to him.


Stephen Gowans’ commitment to justice and opposition to imperialism is admirable and I wish to thank him for his contribution to that ongoing struggle. I am not convinced, however, that his approach will help him achieve his goals, and would like to offer some friendly suggestions and a gentle critique regarding his approach to what I consider our common endeavor. I welcome a dialogue with him, as well as with anyone wishing to address these vital issues that he raises.

First, I am flattered by his inaccurate headline calling me a “Leftist overthrow advisor,” but that is not me – I am a sociology professor at George Mason University who educates people in the strategies of nonviolent civil resistance. What I teach and write about is not a recipe for taking “power from foreign governments” as Mr. Gowans suggests, but frameworks to understand better a complex phenomenon known as nonviolent conflict and a set of tools that have proved – across various historical cases – effective in resisting different types of oppression. It is a matter of educating and therefore empowering people to stand up to injustice no matter what the source – leftist, right-wing, domestic, or foreign governments, as well as tyranny within the workplace, the home, or the neighborhood.

Mahatma Gandhi, my professor in these matters and the subject of years of research on my part, in addition to being an extraordinary strategist was the genius of anti-imperialism in his day, who set in motion the forces that toppled the colonial system. He wanted everyone to be trained as a Satyagrahi, a nonviolent civil resister who would oppose any kind of injustice in any sphere or at any level, from the micro level (e.g., domestic violence) to the global (e.g., international imperialism).

What is disturbing about Mr. Gowans’ comments is that many of his facts are simply inaccurate. I have never collaborated with the CIA, nor has the ICNC on whose academic advisory board I sit. I spoke as an independent academic and in no way as a representative of the ICNC, when my government asked me to dialogue with members of its intelligence community. I feel that it is my duty as a citizen to educate others when requested, and I was glad to give my modest input, among others, into a greater understanding of nonviolent processes that I think are often so badly misguided and– as Mr. Gowans’ article proves – misinterpreted.

To be completely transparent so Mr. Gowans understands clearly that there are no hidden conspiracies, at the first event, at the Rand office in Washington, I served on a panel with distinguished scholars (including Juan Cole) and spoke about religion and violence (one area of my expertise). Later I was asked to respond to a presentation by UCLA professor David Rapoport about terrorism and then at the National Intelligence Council’s request I gave a presentation on nonviolent movements, which I had mentioned as playing a more significant role than violent ones when examining religious movements. At no time did I provide any information that I did not already present in my publications and courses.

More broadly, Mr. Gowans has a serious misunderstanding of what is being taught by me (and by ICNC), and to whom it is being taught. It would be helpful if he would peruse ICNC’s website or obtain and read its extensive materials on civil resistance before making assumptions about its content. He might also sample my writings and books. Quite the opposite of providing tools for U.S. imperialism, we are offering content much of which is based on struggles that were conducted against regimes supported by the U.S., such as the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, the movement against Pinochet in Chile, the people power movement against Marcos in the Philippines, and the first Intifada against Israel in occupied Palestine. Moreover, ICNC’s educational materials have been used, and workshops that it supported have been attended, by organizers and participants in the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation, in the Maldivians’ successful campaign for democracy, in the West Papuans’ struggle for independence from Indonesia, in the Sahrawis’ struggle for independence from Morocco, in the Egyptian and Ethiopian resistance to dictators in those countries, and in the struggle of Hondurans against the coup regime in that country. All of these nonviolent struggles have been waged against governments supported or assisted by the U.S. government.

As Mr. Gowans essentially concedes, nonviolent civil resistance is empirically proven to be more effective than any other method for bringing about change. The best study demonstrating that is Maria J. Stephan and Erica Chenoweth, “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict.” International Security, Vol. 33, No. 1(Summer2008), pp. 7–44. In disseminating information about this phenomenon, the ICNC is merely one of many organizations internationally working to develop nonviolent civil resistance and encouraging its exploration. Training for Change, Nonviolent International, Voices in the Wilderness, the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence, and Peaceworkers in the U.S., War Resisters International based in the U.K., and Nova/Center for Social Innovation in Spain, are just a few of the other international organizations that are shouldering the work of global education in nonviolent struggle (and with all of whom ICNC has cooperated).

I wish Mr. Gowans – who I want to believe is as ardent supporter of strategic nonviolent action as I am – would join me and others in creatively developing nonviolent strategies and actions for fighting imperialism and injustice rather than attacking people who are actually providing education for oppressed peoples in hope of helping them mount effective nonviolent resistance.

Gowans’ Response

It is presumptuous of Lester Kurtz to equate his opposition to imperialism to my own. Kurtz’s commitment is not to anti-imperialism but to nonviolent resistance and the thought of Mahatma Gandhi. The two, notwithstanding the efforts of Kurtz, Stephen Zunes, and others to suggest they are the same, are very different.

Embracing nonviolent resistance does not make one an anti-imperialist, anymore than embracing violence does. With equal illogic, we could say that those who take up arms are anti-imperialists, because the use of violence has been central to many past anti-imperialist struggles. But that would imply that the Nazis were anti-imperialists, because they too relied on the use of violence to achieve their political goals. The means used to achieve a goal bear no necessary relationship to the goal to be achieved. The idea that all applications of Gandhian nonviolent resistance are anti-imperialist, because Gandhi led a struggle against British imperialism, is based on the same logical blunder. We can conceive of violence to achieve anti-imperialist ends and nonviolence to do the same. Equally, we can conceive of violence used to strengthen and defend imperialism, and nonviolence used for the same ends.

To be sure, Kurtz’s commitment to nonviolent resistance does not rule out the possibility that he is a committed anti-imperialist. But it would indeed be a strange anti-imperialist who feels that when his government (whose imperialist credentials are beyond dispute) calls upon him to dialogue with members of its intelligence community (who have a lead role in defending and promoting imperialism), that it he is duty-bound to comply. Had he been a German citizen in 1939, would he have felt it his duty to dialogue with members of the SS had he been asked? Apparently, in his felt obligation to meet with the CIA, and in his willingness to provide information on nonviolent struggle to groups with pro-imperialist aims, Kurtz sees himself as having a duty to an imperialist government which is higher than his duty to those struggling against it.

Kurtz takes another logical misstep when he argues: “Quite the opposite of providing tools for U.S. imperialism, we (the ICNC) are offering content much of which is based on struggles that were conducted against regimes supported by the U.S.” It does not follow that the tools the ICNC disseminates are not being used for US imperialism simply because they are based on previous struggles against US imperialism. Logically, Kurtz’s statement is equivalent to saying ICBMs are not weapons of mass destruction because the underlying rocket technology has been used for peaceful space exploration. Or that because guerrilla warfare was central to many anti-imperialist struggles, that the Contras, Mujahedeen, and Kosovo Liberation Army were anti-imperialist.

Kurtz, Zunes and their ICNC colleagues borrow the anti-imperialist prestige of previous nonviolent anti-imperialist struggles, and the progressive prestige of the nonviolent civil rights struggles in the US, to suggest the application of similar techniques is always anti-imperialist and progressive, and to whitewash the applications that aren’t. This is no different, in its political aim, from efforts in the 1980s to marshal support among left-leaning people for the Contras and Afghan Mujahedeen, or in the late 1990s to drum up support for the Kosovo Liberation Army. In doing so, the practitioners of the deception that these guerrilla movements were anti-imperialist used the public relations technique of exploiting a previous association (between guerrilla warfare and anti-imperialism) to suggest that the association is enduring and invariable (and that the Contra, Mujahedeen, and KLA struggles were therefore anti-imperialist.) The reasoning—illogical—follows this form: They must have been anti-imperialist; after all, the tools they used were based on struggles against U.S. imperialism. This anticipates Kurtz’s : “Quite the opposite of providing tools for U.S. imperialism, we are offering content much of which is based on struggles that were conducted against regimes supported by the U.S.”

Kurtz, then, seeks to portray collaboration with imperialism as anti-imperialist by drawing on instances where the use of nonviolent warfare and anti-imperialist struggles intersected. Attempts to breathe life into the false idea that nonviolent warriors are necessarily anti-imperialist can be seen in Kurtz’s attempts to frame his debate with me as one between two people who are committed to the same anti-imperialist goals but disagree on the means to achieve them. That we share very different goals is evident in the contrast between this by Kurtz, and this, by me.

I argued in an article on Peter Ackerman, the founder of the ICNC on whose academic advisory board Kurtz sits, that Ackerman does what the CIA used to do while working to make it seem progressive. In Kurtz’s reply, we can see that he, too, is engaged in the same project.

Finally, Kurtz argues that I essentially concede that nonviolent civil resistance is empirically proven to be more effective than any other method for bringing about change. If he could point out where I conceded this, essentially or otherwise, I would be grateful. I can’t recall ever being interested enough in the point to have either conceded or challenged it. However, now that Kurtz has drawn my attention to the question, let me offer two observations.

First, I shy away from absolutist statements of the kind that any one method is more effective than all others under all conditions, in all places, and at all times. That nonviolent resistance – or any other method of social change — is always the best method, everywhere, under all circumstances, seems highly unlikely to me.

Second, I can’t imagine how the superiority of nonviolent resistance could ever be empirically proven. There are far too many things going on in any struggle for change to disentangle the effects of one form of struggle from all the others that are likely to accompany it and from the effects of the different responses to the struggle that different governments may make.

For example, the Gandhian struggle against British control of India was not unaccompanied by a violent resistance. Moreover, Britain’s exhaustion and depletion following WWII likely figured prominently in the country’s willingness to loosen some control over its colonial possession.

Likewise, it is impossible to isolate the effects of the US-sponsored, aided- and organized-civil disobedience movement on the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic from the effects of NATO bombing; the US-sponsored and funded KLA insurgency; sanctions; and the differential withholding by NATO of heating oil from areas that supported Milosevic’s Socialist party. Isolating one element of the anti-Milosevic struggle from its many and diverse elements, and then attributing the outcome of the struggle to one element alone, seems to me to be as dishonest as it is methodologically untenable. And yet, this is exactly what the ICNC has done in its paean to nonviolent struggle, Bringing Down a Dictator.

That Kurtz could argue that a method of social change has been “empirically proven” should raise serious questions about his intellectual honesty. Sadly, he seems to be less a social scientist than a kind of salesman for nonviolent resistance who dishonestly exploits his academic credentials to peddle what any intelligent undergraduate would recognize as a conclusion based on methodological nonsense.

To be clear, my view on nonviolent warfare is that it can be effective, but not at all times, in all places, and under all circumstances. Some conditions seem likely to increase the likelihood of a campaign of nonviolent warfare succeeding. These include outside support in the form of funding, training, and organization (what the US government, imperialist foundations and ICNC provide); diplomatic and military pressure on the target government; the use of sanctions and economic warfare to destabilize the economy; and the cooperation of the media to undermine the legitimacy of the target government, as well outside support for so-called “independent” media to do the same. The aim is to weaken and disorganize a government to sap its will to rule. Other governments at other times have been weakened and disorganized by crises (economic catastrophe or the devastation of war, for example) that were not methodically engineered by an outside power. Some of these governments have also been brought down by opposition forces, sometimes violently, sometimes non-violently. The point is that recognizing that nonviolent warfare can be effective in some instances does not amount to essentially conceding that nonviolent civil resistance is empirically proven to be more effective than any other method for bringing about change.

But this is hardly the main concern. Even if I were to concede the point, as Kurtz erroneously claims I have, it wouldn’t erase the collaboration of Kurtz and other exponents of nonviolent warfare with imperialism. That’s the real strike against the ICNC and its agents.

Leftist overthrow advisor Lester Kurtz: “I talked with the CIA”

By Stephen Gowans

Lester Kurtz is a professor of sociology who sits on the academic advisory board of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, an organization that trains activists in the use of mass civil disobedience to take power from foreign governments.

Lester Kurtz, another academic pony in Peter Ackerman’s ICNC stable. Kurtz talked to the CIA because they asked him to.

The ICNC was founded by former Freedom House head, Peter Ackerman, Michael Milken’s right-hand man at the Wall Street investment banking firm Drexel Burnham Lambert. Ackerman became ridiculously wealthy organizing the KKR leveraged buy-out of RJR Nabisco. [1]

These days Ackerman is a board member of the Council on Foreign Relations, along with former US secretaries of state, defense, and treasury, and CEOs, investment bankers and highly placed media people. When he’s not helping formulate foreign policy recommendations at the CFR, he’s lending a hand on the Advisory Council of the United States Institute for Peace, a phoney U.S. government peace outfit headed absurdly by the U.S. secretaries of defense and state.

As you might expect of a wealthy investor who hobnobs with the US foreign policy establishment, Ackerman defines protection of private property rights as an integral part of democracy and believes the United States has a lot of teach the world. [2]

After learning investment banking at the knee of Milken, Ackerman turned his energies to training foreign activists in the use of the nonviolent resistance techniques of Gene Sharp, probably the first person to situate mass civil disobedience in the context of military strategy. [3] This earned Sharp the sobriquet the Clausewitz of nonviolence, after the Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz. [4]

An interviewer working for a Canadian nonviolent resistance magazine once pointed out to Sharp — with some incredulity — that people say a government cannot fund or sponsor the overthrow of another government.

Sharp replied, “Why not?” adding, “What do they prefer that the U.S. spend money on?” [5]

Gene Sharp, the Clausewitz of nonviolence, who sees no trouble with the U.S. government spending money on overthrowing foreign governments. When Sharp was accused of advising right-wing Venezuelans on how to topple Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, the head of the ICNC academic advisory board, Stephen Zunes, sprang to his defense. Sharp is old and sick, Zunes explained. Besides, he has adopted a “transpartisan’ position that cuts across political boundaries and conceptions and (talks) to essentially anyone”. It used to be that leftist peaceniks were against the US government and other rightist forces. Now they advise them.

Nonviolent resistance – also more aptly called nonviolent warfare – is about taking power, not making a point. It’s not pacifism or a principled religious or ethical position based on abhorrence of violence. It’s power politics. Ackerman and other nonviolent warriors believe that mass civil disobedience – the shrewd use of strikes, boycotts, demonstrations, and nonviolent sabotage backed by sanctions and demonization of target governments – can be more effective in taking political power than military intervention. [6] That makes them instrumental nonviolence advocates. They advocate nonviolence, not because they hate violence, but because they think nonviolence works better than armed revolt or military intervention.

With the help of people like Lester Kurtz, the ICNC trains a modern cadre of mercenaries, who travel the world in the pay of NGOs, Western governments, wealthy individuals and corporate foundations, in order to train local groups in regime change through nonviolent warfare. [7] Ackerman, Kurtz and company, sit at the head of a kind of imperialist International, whose aim is to spread the US system, US influence and ultimately US capital around the world, under the guise of “promoting democracy.” It calls to mind a line from Phil Ochs’ condemnation of US imperialism, “We’re the Cops of The World”. Ochs sang, “The name for our profits is democracy.” Of course, the ICNC isn’t admitting to any of this. ICNC members say they’re just handing out information on nonviolence to anyone who will listen.

Last April, Kurtz posted a comment to my blog, calling my linking of Ackerman and his ICNC to US imperialism a “non sequitur.”

I replied. In my reply I pointed out that Kurtz discloses on his CV that he gave workshops to the CIA and the U.S. government- and corporate- funded think-tank, the RAND Corporation. Nine months later, Kurtz replied, with a bombshell. Sure, he talked with the CIA and RAND, he said, because they asked him to.

Albert Szymanski, also a professor of sociology, would never have received an invitation from the CIA to conduct a workshop on anything, and if he had, we can be pretty sure he would have turned them down. So why Kurtz (an academic advisor to an outfit founded by a wealthy CFR member who celebrates the overthrow of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, an act which cleared the way for a US-backed pro-capitalist government to come to power to sell off state and socially-owned assets to investors like Ackerman) and not Szymanski (a Marxist-Leninist who deplored imperialism)? If ever there was a sign you’re part of the problem, it’s being asked by the CIA for advice. Giving it erases all doubts.

Here’s the exchange. It begins with Kurtz’s comments on my article, “Washington Post: North Korean, Iranian nuclear capability threatens US imperialism”, on April 5, 2010.

It’s no surprise that US foreign policy is somehow linked to the economics of things is not a shock – what is surprising is Stephen Gowans’ effort to link “pro-democracy nonviolence activists,” and Peter Ackerman, with US imperialism! What a non-sequitur! Those activists (with the aid of only educational resources from the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict that Ackerman funds) have taken on oppressors of all political stripes, many of them (like Marcos, Pinochet, etc., etc.) part of the US orb. While Washington no doubt has a hit list, it has nothing to do with providing information and resources to people who would organize for their rights regardless of who is thwarting them. The kind of imprecise thinking that links these activities through some leap of logic simply distracts from other aspects of the argument and leaves me puzzled as to the point of the article.

I replied the same day.

I’m assuming the above was written by Lester Kurtz, Professor of Sociology at George Mason University, and a member of the academic advisory board of Peter Ackerman’s organization, the ICNC. In March, 2005, Kurtz ran a workshop on religion and violence for the CIA and RAND.

I wonder whether Kurtz sees the connection between RAND and the CIA on the one hand and US imperialism on the other. Probably not.

While it may come as no surprise to Kurtz that US foreign policy is somehow linked to the economics of things, showing that this is so is much more difficult than showing that Peter Ackerman is linked to US imperialism. The latter is easily demonstrated.

(1) US foreign policy is imperialist,
(2) The Council on Foreign Relations plays a major role in shaping US foreign policy, and
(3) Peter Ackerman is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

We could add other observations (e.g., Ackerman’s previous role as head of the CIA-interlocked Freedom House, hardly what you would call a non-imperialist organization, and his privileged position atop the economic order of things) but the points above should suffice.

What comes as a surprise to me is that while Kurtz can grasp the nexus between the economics of things and the imperialist nature of US foreign policy, he can’t see the much more obvious connection between Ackerman and US imperialism, but perhaps that is so because to see it, would mean acknowledging his own connection to it.

Nine months later Kurtz responded.

Of course there’s a connection between RAND, the CIA, and US imperialism – that’s why I talked with them when asked to do so. What good does it do to sit in a corner and talk to ourselves? I used to complain to my students that nobody ever asked me about important policy questions – do they ask you? I’d ask. So, when they asked me to speak, I did. I’d not work for them, but will talk with them, with you, with the devil, with anyone who will listen. The whole system is rotten, but won’t be replaced or transformed until people stand up and speak out.

Interestingly, Kurtz used the same defense that the head of the ICNC academic advisory board Stephen Zunes used on behalf of the Clausewitz of nonviolence, Gene Sharp, when it was revealed that Sharp had advised right-wing Venezuelans on how to bring down Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. Sharp, explained Zunes, had “taken a ‘transpartisan’ position that cuts across political boundaries and conceptions and (talks) to essentially anyone” [8], apparently just as Kurtz does. If that’s a defense, the world dodged a bullet when Zunes turned down a career in law.

Here’s more of Zunes defending Sharp:

Unfortunately, Sharp – who is now well into his 80s and whose health is failing – appears to show little discernment as to who he meets with and his audience has sometimes included some right-wing Cubans or Venezuelans who have sought him out to see if any of his research would be of relevance in their efforts to organize some kind of popular mobilization against the Castro or Chavez governments. Some of those may have indeed been later found to have engaged in assassination plots. [9]

Since Kurtz isn’t well into his 80s, how do we explain his lack of discernment in who he meets with? Or does age have anything to do with it? Meeting with right-wing Venezuelans, right-wing Cubans [10], followers of Reza Pahlavi, the son of the deposed Shah of Iran [11], and the CIA seems to be standard operating procedure for nonviolent warriors. The New Republic’s Franklin Foer pointed out that “When some of State’s desk officers don’t want to create international incidents by advising activists on how to overthrow governments, they gently suggest visiting Ackerman, who has fewer qualms about lending a helping hand.” It seems that if there’s a nationalist or socialist government to be overthrown, the nonviolent warriors are always willing to step up to the plate. They’ll talk to anyone: right-wing assassins, followers of a former US-backed Iranian dictator, the CIA. Adopting a position that “cuts across political boundaries and conceptions” means that where leftist peaceniks once were against the US government and other rightist forces, not they advise them.

On January 5, I responded to Kurtz’s latest comment.

Good work Les. Maybe after you deliver a few more seminars, the CIA will see the light, and decide that taking down foreign governments that refuse to subordinate themselves to Washington’s dictates isn’t such a good thing after all… Oh, but I forgot, that’s no longer a CIA function, is it? It’s now your job, and that of your ICNC colleagues.

Exactly what is it you’re standing up and speaking out about to the CIA anyway: that organizing nonviolent warfare campaigns against foreign governments is more effective in achieving US foreign policy goals than taking out wedding parties with predator drones?

You are, indeed, making the world a better place, Les. Keep accepting those CIA invitations.

Kurtz and some other ICNC academic advisors seem bewildered that they should be so vigorously criticized for trying to show the powerful that nonviolent overthrow movements are a better alternative to armed intervention. After all, what could be wrong with trying to persuade Washington that there’s a nonviolent way to achieve its foreign policy objectives? What they fail to grasp is that the tools the US government uses to prosecute its foreign policy aren’t the problem. The problem is US foreign policy.

1. Franklin Foer, “Regime Change Inc. Peter Ackerman’s quest to topple tyranny,” The New Republic, April 16, 2005.

2. Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, “Interview with Peter Ackerman, founding chair of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict,” October 19, 2006. .

3. Eli Lake, “Iran launches a crackdown on democracy activists,” The New York Sun, March 14, 2006.

4. Peace.Ca, “Gene Sharp: A Biographical Profile.”

5. Spencer, Metta, “Gene Sharp 101,” Peace Magazine, July-Septmeber, 2003.

6. Peter Ackerman, “Paths to peace: How Serbian students brought dictator down without a shot fired,” National Catholic Reporter, April 26, 2002; Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall, “The nonviolent script for Iran,” Christian Science Monitor, July 22, 2003; Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall, “With weapons of the will: How to topple Saddam Hussein – nonviolently,” Sojourners Magazine, September-October 2002 (Vol 31, No. 5, pp.20-23.)

7. Mark R. Beissinger, “Promoting democracy: Is exporting revolution a constructive strategy?” Dissent, Winter 2006.

8. Stephen Zunes, George Cicariello-Maher and Eva Golinger, “Debate on the Albert Einstein Institution and its Involvement in Venezuela”,, August 5, 2008.

9. Ibid. It’s bad enough that Zunes tries to excuse Sharp’s meeting with right-wing Venezuelans as a lack of discernment attributable to age and illness when nonviolent warriors regularly aid right-wing forces, but his descent into bafflegab in the construction of the truly prolix phrase “‘transpartisan’ position that cuts across political boundaries and conceptions” — meaning I’d give advice to Hitler if he asked — would be comic were it not intended to prettify a reactionary position. Zunes, I think, would give British MP Sir Norman Fry a run for his money as a concocter of tortured explanations to cover up what he doesn’t care to admit.

10. Foer.

11. Ibid.

Reply to Peace Activist Stellan Vinthagen

By Stephen Gowans

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

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

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

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

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

In their Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman described Freedom House, which Ackerman not too long ago headed up, as having interlocks with “the CIA, and has long served as a virtual propaganda arm of the government and international right wing.” (1988, p. 28.) As for Ackerman’s ICNC, its role in facilitating US regime change efforts is obvious in the following, from a 2005 New Republic article by Franklin Foer: “When some of State’s desk officers don’t want to create international incidents by advising activists on how to overthrow governments, they gently suggest visiting Ackerman, who has fewer qualms about lending a helping hand.” (“Regime Change Inc. Peter Ackerman’s quest to topple tyranny,” The New Republic, April 16, 2005.)

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

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

The Revolution Will Not Be Assisted By The ICNC (The Counter-Revolution Is Another Matter)

By Stephen Gowans

I confess that when Michael Barker sent me a link to nonviolence advocate Brian Martin’s Gandhi Marg article “Dilemmas in promoting nonviolence” I wasn’t too keen on reading it. [1] With a pile of unread books threatening to bury me under an avalanche, I thought my time could be better spent on avalanche control. Plus, I was hoping to get around to mowing the tufts of hair that advancing age have brought to my ears.

It was, therefore, with scant enthusiasm that I flipped desultorily through Martin’s article. Undecided as to whether to plunge in, I skipped to the conclusion. If anything there grabbed my attention I would read the article in full. Otherwise, I would toss “Dilemmas in promoting nonviolence” on my not-worth-the-time pile, along with the stack of Stephen Zunes articles I had accumulated.

The first sentence of Martin’s conclusion read: “Proponents of nonviolence have come under attack for supporting bad causes, in particular US imperialism.”

My attention shifted more firmly to the article, away from a precariously balanced book teetering atop my book pile.

The next sentence brought me fully awake. “[F]ew of the claims of the critics stand up to scrutiny and many lack evidence.”

I was immediately interested. Which claims lack evidence? Which don’t? Which stand up to scrutiny? Which wither under Martin’s analysis?

Laying a brace against the tottering mountain of books beside me, I dove into Martin’s article, anxious to discover how the claims of nonviolence critics fell apart under careful examination.

Hmmm. Nothing on page 1. Oh well, he’s just getting started. Page 5 – Still nothing, but there are 15 pages of text to go. It’s early. Page 10 – A bus rumbles by and shakes the Himalaya of books beside me. A book hurtles to the floor. I move quickly to avoid it. Nothing yet. Page 15 – Still nothing. Did I read the conclusion correctly? I skip ahead to check. Proponents of nonviolence…under attack…supporting US imperialism…lack evidence. No mistake. Page 16. Nothing. Pages 17 and 18. Still nothing. Page 19. Ah, there it is. In the final paragraph before the conclusion. A single sentence: “the stance of the anti-imperialist critics is seriously flawed, including by the absence of any proof that nonviolent movements are pawns of the US government.”

What? I just cancelled a much needed date with my ear-hair scissors to learn that “[F]ew of the claims of the critics stand up to scrutiny and many lack evidence” because “the stance of the anti-imperialist critics is seriously flawed”?

Nonviolence advocate Brian Martin: His Gandhi Marg article should have been tossed on the not-worth-the-time pile.

This is like being told that the secret to getting rich is to accumulate a lot of money. Or that when people lose their jobs, unemployment happens. I should have trusted my instincts and tossed Brian Martin on the not-worth-the-time pile.

Problems with Martin’s Case

Here are the problems, if they’re not already evident.

First, the ICNC (International Center on Nonviolent Conflict), one of the proponents of nonviolence that has come under attack for supporting bad causes, has been criticized for its connections to ruling class organizations and for aiding groups whose aim is to bring down foreign governments whose policies are not conducive to the interests of Western economic elites. Of this there is considerable evidence and documentation. Michael Barker has catalogued a lot of it. Click here.

Rather than dealing with the criticism above and the evidence that supports it, Martin deflects attention. Those who criticize the ICNC for its ruling class connections are deemed champions of the idea that “nonviolent movements are pawns of the US government.” This has demagogic potential. No one wants to be called a dupe, and accusing the ICNC’s critics of branding grassroots activists as victims of a swindle serves two purposes: it turns grassroots activists against the critics and takes attention away from the central issue: the ICNC’s ties to the US foreign policy establishment.

The second problem is that Martin fails to show that the critic’s case falters under close examination and lacks evidence. In fact, he doesn’t examine it at all. Instead, he simply asserts that the case lacks substance, footnoting the conclusion with a reference to a personal communication from “Hardy Merriman – of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.” Merriman told Martin that “the burden of proof should be on those making the assertion that recent nonviolent movements are fronts for Western powers. They never provide such proof.”

Just to make this clear: Martin’s careful examination of the critics’ case boils down to an assurance from good old Hardy Merriman, of the ICNC, that the ICNC’s critics haven’t got a case. This is like a George W. Bush supporter declaring that few of the claims of Bush’s critics stand up to scrutiny, because Dick Cheney told him so in a personal communication. No wonder Martin buried this in a footnote.

The ICNC's Hardy Merriman. Told Martin that the critics' case against the ICNC is baseless. Like Dick Cheney assuring a Bush supporter that criticisms of Bush fail to stand up to scrutiny and lack evidence.

But that’s just the start of the problems with this dishonest piece of scholarship. ICNC critics have never said that nonviolent movements are fronts for Western powers (at least, the ones I know haven’t.) What they’ve said is that the ICNC (and Western powers) are fronts for the US ruling class, of which ICNC supremo Peter Ackerman, is a charter member. You can find out more about the ex-leveraged buyout specialist, former head of the CIA-interlocked Freedom House, and now Council on Foreign Relations board member, here. When Ackerman isn’t teaching foreign activists how to use nonviolent civil disobedience to overthrow Third World governments, he’s running Rockport Capital Inc., a private investment firm. Just the kind of guy you would expect to be assisting progressive causes.

ICNC supremo Peter Ackerman. Runs Rockport Capital Inc., is an ex-leveraged buyout specialist, has headed the CIA-interlocked Freedom House, and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Just the kind of guy you would expect to be assisting progressive causes.

Nor do the critics of the ICNC criticize the organization for promoting nonviolence, though Martin would have you believe that nonviolence is the burr under their saddles. The truth is that what bothers the ICNC’s critics is the organization’s integration into the US foreign policy estblishment. It’s not the tactics the ICNC promotes, but the reasons it promotes them, and on whose behalf, that galvanizes the center’s critics. Martin misses this, whether deliberately or not, is unclear.

The Case Against the ICNC

Martin doesn’t name me in his article, and he may never have had me in mind. But all the same, let me summarize my own objections to the ICNC, and its siblings, the AEI (Albert Einstein Institution) and CANVAS (Center for Applied Nonviolent Actions and Strategies), and more broadly, “democracy” promoting organizations like the NED (National Endowment for Democracy, established to take up the former CIA function of meddling in foreign countries’ elections.)

The ICNC and NED are fronts for Western ruling class interests.

These organizations engage with movements abroad to influence them and use them to achieve Western foreign policy goals.

Nonviolent civil disobedience movements can be effective in bringing down governments that have been demoralized or weakened by war, threats of war, sanctions, economic crisis or outside propaganda (delivered via Radio Liberty, Voice of America, NED-funded ‘independent’ media, the Western mass media, and so on) or some combination of the above. Nonviolent civil disobedience movements, by themselves, without outside intervention to disorganize and weaken the governments they seek to change, are usually ineffective. (I provide an example later on in this article.)

By promoting nonviolent civil disobedience the ICNC and CANVAS:

(A) provide tools for activists abroad to overthrow their governments. These tools become effective when Western powers first disorganize and weaken the foreign governments they have targeted for overthrow;

(B) encourage activists at home to adopt nonviolent civil disobedience, pointing to its successes abroad, but ignoring the role played by war, sanctions, economic crisis and propaganda as softening up interventions that help nonviolent civil disobedience to work. This channels domestic activists into a set of activities that, while they may often be successful when used in conjunction with intervention to weaken target governments, are likely to be far less successful otherwise, and may well be completely ineffective and inappropriate to the circumstances.

The problem with pragmatic nonviolence (the nonviolence based on strategic, not ethical considerations that Gene Sharp, the ICNC’s intellectual godfather champions) is not that it is always ineffective, but that it is not unconditionally more effective than violence, as its promoters claim. It is easy to conceive of circumstances in which nonviolence is the method of choice, but equally easy to conceive of other circumstances in which nonviolence will fail miserably. The position of the ICNC, AEI and Brian Martin is that nonviolence is always more effective than violence, a claim which, to throw Martin’s words back at him, withers under scrutiny and lacks evidence. The complaint against Martin and his fellow pragmatic nonviolence promoters, then, is that what they are promoting is a position that locks domestic activists into a nonviolence that is not always the best tactic for the circumstances at hand.

To strengthen their case, Martin et al point to recent successes abroad, intimating that domestic activists can be equally effective if they use the same techniques. This, however, completely ignores the role Western intervention has played in these countries of weakening governments and providing funding to activists to organize civil disobedience and build media support. No Western government is going to sanction itself, threaten to bomb its own population, distribute anti-government propaganda calling for its overthrow, or pay local activists to agitate for its downfall. Absent these conditions, the chances of civil disobedience working in the United States, Britain, Canada and elsewhere in the Western world to achieve anything close to what has been achieved elsewhere, are slim at best. It’s kind of like saying building a roof will keep you safe from the elements, because, look, those people over there built a roof and now they’re warm and dry, ignoring all the preceding work in building a foundation, frame and walls.


Indeed, the efficacy of these techniques absent help from rich outside donors can be measured by what happened in Georgia, after the Rose Revolutionaries, using techniques of nonviolent civil disobedience, ousted Eduard Shevardnadze, clearing the way for Washington’s new man, Mikheil Saakashvili, to come to power.

A second nonviolence-based revolution should have happened when Saakashvili turned out to be little better than the man he replaced. Instead, nothing.

“Georgia is a semi-democracy,” explains Lincoln Mitchell, who worked for the National Democratic Institute in Georgia from 2002 to 2004. “We have traded one kind of semi-democratic system for another. There is a real need to understand that what happened is another one-party government emerged.” [2]

According to Mitchell, “under Shevardnadze, there was freedom of assembly and the press, and the government was too weak to crack down on dissent. But the state was rife with corruption, and elections were poorly run. Under Saakashvili, the central government is stronger and official corruption has been reduced, but the media have far fewer freedoms and there are fewer civil organizations. Elections still don’t function well.” What’s more, “parliament has been weakened through constitutional changes mandated by Saakashvili, making it difficult for the legislative branch to restrain executive power.” [3]

So why don’t the Rose Revolutionaries dust off their nonviolence skills, and oust Saakashvili, the way they did Shevardnadze?

One reason is that many Rose Revolutionaries have moved on to do Uncle Sam’s work in other countries whose governments Washington has slated for regime change.

“Every few months” explains the Los Angeles Times’ Borzou Daragahi, Nini Gogiberidze, a Rose Revolutionary employed by the nonviolence promoter CANVAS, “is deployed abroad to teach democracy activists how to agitate for change against their autocratic governments, going everywhere from Eastern Europe to train Belarusians to Turkey to coach Iranians.” [4] Apparently, with their fires of indignation burning against the autocracies of Victor Lukashenko and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Gogiberidze and her CANVAS colleagues have failed to notice that Saakashvili is also an autocrat.

George Bush with Georgian autocrat Mikheil Saakashvili: Rose Revolution activists are too busy working to overthrow autocrats on Uncle Sam's regime change hit list to notice the autocrat at home.

Another reason is that the Rose Revolutionaries’ rich donors have withdrawn their funding, and diverted it to the whole point of the Rose Revolution – Saakashvili. As the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler reported in 2008, “the Bush administration scaled back funding for voluntary civil and social organizations” (i.e., the Rose Revolutionaries) “in order to devote resources to building up the central government.” [5] Saakashvili got more help from Washington to consolidate his position, while the nonviolence movement sputtered to a halt, starved of the funding that once fueled it. Money helps in organizing, and organization is critically important in both strengthening governments and overthrowing them.


As I finished Martin’s article I reflected on its title: Dilemmas in promoting nonviolence. One of the dilemmas Martin failed to address is that of defending the ICNC, an organization that is bound up with US ruling class interests and at the same time promotes nonviolent civil disobedience (mainly in Third World countries), and which is condemned not for its promotion of nonviolent activism but for its integration into the US foreign policy establishment and its assistance to the pursuit of US foreign policy goals. As Franklin Foer reported in The New Republic, “When some of State’s desk officers don’t want to create international incidents by advising activists on how to overthrow governments, they gently suggest visiting [ICNC chief] Ackerman, who has fewer qualms about lending a helping hand.” [5] Nonviolence promoters have found themselves springing to the defense of this dodgy organization (which does what the CIA used to do but tries to make it appear progressive) because they’ve misinterpreted attacks on the ICNC as attacks on nonviolence.

Stephen Zunes. Fronts for the ICNC in leftwing circles.

The real dilemma for independent nonviolence promoters is to figure out how to build a firewall between the Western ruling class interests that lurk behind seemingly neutral organizations like the ICNC, fronted by the soi-disant progressive and anti-imperialist Stephen Zunes, and genuine grassroots movements. The solution is summed up clearly in the epigram: the revolution will not be funded (or selflessly assisted by ultrawealthy members of the Council on Foreign Relations.) Genuine grassroots revolutions and movements will only achieve genuine grassroots goals if they reject engagement with fronts for Western ruling class interests. Otherwise, activists abroad may find themselves helping to bring another Saakashvili to power. Another US client, eager to transform his country into a profit center for US investors, may be congenial to the interests of investment firms, like Rockport Capital Inc., but will hardly be congenial to the interests of the bulk of grassroots activist who clear the way for his ascension to power. As for activists at home, they may find themselves straitjacketed into a mode of achieving social change that is not always well suited to the circumstances at hand, and which succeeds only when backed by the massive intervention of Western states, an intervention that clearly won’t be happening at home. The warning, beware of ultra-rich establishment figures bearing gifts, and even more so their progressive lieutenants, scarcely needs justification.


In March 2010 the ICNC revealed on its website who its board of academic advisors is. Among the names was Brian Martin.

1. Brian Martin,” Dilemmas in Promoting Nonviolence,” Gandhi Marg, October-December, 2009.
2. Glenn Kessler, “Georgian Democracy A Complex Evolution,” The Washington Post, August 24, 2008.
3. Ibid.
4. Borzou Daragahi, “A Georgian soldier of the Velvet Revolution”, The Los Angeles Times, September 2, 2008.
5. Kessler
6. Foer, Franklin, “Regime Change Inc. Peter Ackerman’s quest to topple tyranny,” The New Republic, April 16, 2005.