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Peace Activists, Criticism, and Nonviolent Imperialism

All peace activists want peace, but do activists want peace at any cost?  In Aldous Huxley’s classic book, Brave New World, peace came at a high price, but there was ‘peace’ nonetheless.  Arguably, ‘peace’ also exists within most Western citizens’ minds, mainly because their daily lives are neatly partitioned off from the multitude of ultra-violent actions that are committed in their names by their electoral representatives.  Of course, these examples of ‘peace’ are no more than illusions, as for the most of us, the clothes that we wear and the food that we eat are born of the sweat and blood of distant ‘others’, while our ‘homes’ are only ‘ours’  by virtue of genocidal colonial predecessors.  So, if it is agreed that peace by delusion is undesirable, we must ensure that we are constantly working for a meaningful peace, built upon equitable and democratic foundations, not lies and subterfuge.  As the majority of the world’s inhabitants’ ‘lives’ are dictated by the whims of the minority world’s war-dependent governments, making the transformation from military subjugation to peaceful coexistence will require nothing less than a social revolution.  It is vital that such a revolution arouses the majority of people (in the minority countries particularly) to recognize injustice (which many already do) and incites them to demand its immediate replacement with justice.

The proposition above is not controversial for peace-minded citizens.  However, there is still a vigorous debate over the strategies to be adopted by those citizens in order to attain a peaceful new world order.  It is highly doubtful that the pathway from war to peace can be facilitated by seeking partnerships with the main perpetrators of the world’s violence.  An example of the distasteful pursuit of such alliances may be seen in the current lobbying, by US-based group the Peace Alliance, for the creation of an Orwellian, cabinet-level US Department of Peace.  It is also repugnant to consider the antidemocratic activities of misnamed quasi-nongovernmental organizations, like the US Institute of Peace and its manipulative partner the National Endowment for Democracy, with their intimate ties to the military and intelligence communities.  Peace activists are not yet necessarily aware of the nature of these foundations, but, once they familiarize themselves with their regressive imperial adventures, they should confront and address the difficulties that arise from collaboration with these democracy manipulators.

Such a confrontation has not been welcomed by Professor Stephen Zunes, a celebrated peace activist, regular contributor to progressive media like ZNet, and author of a number of books, the most recent of which is Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism (Common Courage Press, 2003).  Zunes remains the prime example of ‘head in the sand’ peace activism, as, in addition to his commendable activism, he also serves in a less than progressive capacity as chair of the advisory board of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC).  Again, like the benign-sounding US Institute of Peace and the National Endowment for Democracy, if one looks beyond its rhetorical facade, there is more to this Center’s work than first meets the eye, as its activities are intimately tied to that of the international democracy-manipulating community.

It is possible to give Zunes the benefit of the doubt, given that many people are not familiar with the work of the aforementioned democracy manipulators.  Indeed, some may believe that he became involved with the ICNC’s work only because he knew no better and that, if he became informed of the Center’s antidemocratic connections, he might consider the problems that his association may create for the sustainability of the broader peace movement.  I thought so, too, before the dialogue I had with Zunes within the (online) pages of the Green Left Weekly (GLW), a radical Australian-based newspaper.

The dialogue was initiated by Jack DuVall, the president of the ICNC, who, in July 2007, wrote a letter of complaint to GLW because, he argued, Eva Gollinger had misrepresented the nature of the ICNC’s work in one of her recent articles.  Having already published an article about DuVall’s antidemocratic background earlier in the year, I immediately realized that his letter represented a whitewash of the ICNC’s work.  The following month I wrote an article for GLW that provided a brief outline of the ICNC’s democracy-manipulating credentials.  At this stage I was unaware that Professor Zunes was affiliated to the ICNC, primarily because the details of its advisory board are not available online, so it was staggering to read Zunes’s response the following week alleging that I had made “some serious factual errors and misleading comments.”  His response demonstrated a defensive attitude about his role within the ICNC.  I subsequently answered his arguments, extending my analysis of the ICNC.  Zunes disputed the validity of this more extensive analysis and remained adamant that the ICNC was a harmless peace-loving organization.  This continuing refusal to subject his association to scrutiny encouraged me to try to further demonstrate how the position he was adopting was incompatible with progressive outcomes for the global peace movement.

Zunes’ unwillingness to accept criticism and subject his ICNC involvement to self scrutiny is disturbing.  Zunes suggests that, because he is an established progressive (something that is not challenged), this meant that he was beyond criticism, and consequently so was the ICNC.  This stance is spelled out in Zune’s last response where he notes that it:

“is totally wrong to claim that I ‘maintain associations with manipulative anti-democratic elites’.  Anyone familiar with my more than 35 years as an activist and scholar struggling against US imperialism and in support for human rights, democracy and a more just and equitable economic order would know that I would never work with such people.”

Zunes’ position provides the perfect illustration of a phenomenon that runs far deeper than the faults of any single person or group and highlights a basic weakness of much of the progressive Left — a fault that helps explain the Left’s fundamental inability to counter the intensifying neoliberal assault on life: the failure to recognize that internal criticism is a vital tool to strengthen the Left, not to diminish it.

This failure to promote critical self-reflection in turn encourages progressive commentators, researchers, and activists to overemphasize the importance of exposing the (blatantly) antidemocratic, neoconservative dystopian vision that is being forced upon the world, while simultaneously discouraging critiques of the Left.  It is a valid concern for progressives that undertaking self-critiques may appear to ‘divide the Left’ and give ammunition to the Right to more effectively attack an already faltering progressive movement.  However, this reluctance to publicly reflect on their own failures has meant that elementary weaknesses have become institutionalized into the cultural heart of progressive activism to such an extent that they are invisible to many activists.  Consequently, critiques of progressive groups or individuals, if they arise at all, are either quickly dismissed or are met with a resounding silence — this is demonstrated by the non-reaction to recent critiques of Human Rights Watch, one written by Edward Herman, David Peterson, and George Szamuely, and another by myself.

I contend that the predominantly accepted approach to thinking within the Left, particularly in the West, is in need of a massive ideological overhaul.  Only after a thorough critical examination can we realistically determine whether the broader social justice movement is capable of ever delivering on its proposed mission of bringing peace and equality to all corners of the globe.  To commence this process there should be a systematic detection and criticism of the obvious signs of collaboration with antidemocratic entities, like the US Institute of Peace and the National Endowment for Democracy.  Another equally fundamental starting point would be the undertaking of a comprehensive analysis of any successes achieved by working alongside other ‘less than democratic’ groups like government agencies and/or multinational corporations.  To really get to the root of the Left’s structural malaise, we need to look beyond the surface symptoms of capitalist infection and reflect more critically upon some of the Left’s most regular and influential patrons, that is, liberal foundations.

Like an undiagnosed cancer that lurks hidden in an inner recess, these liberal foundations, if unrecognized for the deeply antidemocratic institutions that they are, will continue to undermine civil society’s ability to ward off hostile neoliberal attacks on our civil liberties.  That the topic of criticizing liberal foundations is strictly off limits in many progressive circles further illustrates the power of the ‘Zunes syndrome’ at work, and, as many activists have clearly not fully understood the extent of the problem posed to their work by liberal foundations, this renders their work even more vulnerable to this insidious infection.

As with any disease, the first step towards finding the cure for this liberal ailment is to identify its root cause.  Activists intent on promoting peace and more participatory forms of democracy must recognize that such progressive work must not be guided by the invisible Left hand of the marketplace, that is, by liberal foundations.  This is because this Left hand only distributes its largess, as any good capitalist hand should, to sustain the capitalist system, a system which in turn replenishes their generous tax-free endowments.  Liberal philanthropy is in fact a crucial means by which elites exert their cultural hegemony, a process of domination that is all the more powerful because capitalism’s Left hand is truly invisible, even to nearly all progressive scholars and activists (unlike the Right hand of capitalism, which is often referred to as the invisible hand of the market but should be more appropriately referred to as the visible hand owing to the obvious way in which capitalists must lend a hand to one another to undermine competition in the marketplace).

There are antidotes.  Professor Joan Roelofs has rendered progressives a vital service in recent years by revealing the antidemocratic machinations of liberal philanthropists, like the Ford, Carnegie, and Rockefeller Foundations’ — a topic which is covered in great detail in her book Foundations and Public Policy: The Mask of Pluralism (SUNY Press, 2003).  Moreover, in 2007, she co-edited a special issue of the journal Critical Sociology, which examined the corrosive influence of liberal foundations on democracy.  Similarly, INCITE! published a groundbreaking book on this subject aptly titled The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex (South End Press, 2007).  Doing justice to this subject would require more space than is available in this brief article, so I would direct interested readers to the above resources and also to my recent article which summarizes some of the key arguments against liberal philanthropy.  In addition, myself, Roelofs, and Professor Daniel Faber — co-author of Foundations for Social Change: Critical Perspectives on Philanthropy and Popular Movements (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005) — have just issued a call for submissions for a forthcoming book which will critique the hegemonic function of liberal foundations: PLEASE SEE HERE.

Paradoxically, one of the main problems of liberal foundations is not that they have colluded with the Central Intelligence Agency, or have and continue to support the work of elite planning groups like the Council on Foreign Relations, but rather that they support all manner of progressive causes — as a quick perusal of their annual reports will demonstrate.  Most progressive groups only receive a small proportion of their funding from liberal foundations, but, as many of these groups are regularly on the brink of financial bankruptcy, the money that is distributed by liberal philanthropists is much sought after and has formidable (if rarely acknowledged) influence — even when there are ‘no strings attached’ to the funding — on the contours of civil society.

Earlier criticisms of liberal foundations appear to have simply washed off their backs.  However, in the past few years a groundswell of new activists and researchers are openly questioning the antidemocratic nature of liberal philanthropy, so now is the perfect time for activists, all over the world, to really get to the bottom of the funding/activism nexus: only then can concerned people start to create and sustain grassroots movements that will be able to truly challenge capitalism and successfully promote peace.

Michael Barker is a doctoral candidate at Griffith University, Australia.  He can be reached at Michael. J. Barker [at]  His other articles can be found here.

I’m used to being attacked on the websites of David Horowitz, Richard Pipes, Sean Hannity and other rightists as a result of my anti-imperialist writings and activism, especially since I am supposed to be “one of the most dangerous left-wing professors in America.”   I did not expect, however, to ever be attacked on websites like MRZine, as I was in Michael Barker’s January 8 posting “Peace Activists, Criticism, and Nonviolent Imperialism.”

Because I happen to serve in the voluntary capacity as chair of the board of academic advisors for the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC) — which Barker has falsely accused of being part of the Bush administration’s imperialist “democracy-promotion” schemes — and have co-led some workshops on strategic nonviolence that ICNC has helped sponsor, I have suddenly become guilty of what he calls “head in the sand peace activism.”

Barker has been among a number of leftist writers who have raised concerns regarding the way the Bush administration has used the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and other quasi-independent but government-funded groups to support opposition groups, through financial support and advising, which are struggling against regimes opposed by the United States, including democratically-elected governments like Venezuela.  This is a legitimate concern that deserves greater attention.

Where Barker is totally off the mark is in his charge that ICNC is part of this nefarious Bush agenda.

ICNC is an independent, nonprofit educational foundation that promotes the study and utilization of nonmilitary strategies by civilian-based movements to establish and defend human rights, social justice and democracy.  The extent of ICNC’s work with opposition activists in various countries is in providing generic knowledge on the history and dynamics of strategic nonviolent action.

Unlike the NED and similar groups, ICNC has never received any government funding whatsoever, has never given direct financial or logistical support to any opposition groups in any country, and has never advised any opposition movement on specific strategies or tactics to utilize in their particular struggles.  Unlike the NED and similar groups, ICNC does not seek out particular individuals or groups with which to provide its educational materials but waits for people to come to them.  Unlike the NED and similar groups, which primarily assist pro-Western elites develop sophisticated political campaigns centered on seizing power, ICNC works primarily with grassroots activists working for popular empowerment through nonviolent direct action.

Also unlike NED and similar groups, which tend to target governments opposed by the Bush administration, ICNC is strictly apolitical in the sense that it doesn’t take into account a given country’s relations with the United States.  Indeed, the majority of people and movements with which ICNC has worked have been activists struggling against regimes supported by the Bush administration.  (In fact, ICNC responded favorably to an inquiry by Medea Benjamin — co-founder of Global Exchange and Code Pink — about leading seminars for American anti-war activists.)

Just in the past few months, for example, through support from ICNC, I have co-led seminars on strategic nonviolent struggle for Sahrawis resisting the U.S.-backed Moroccan occupation, Palestinians resisting the U.S.-backed Israeli occupation, Egyptians resisting the U.S.-backed Mubarak regime, and Guatemalan Indians resisting U.S.-backed elite interests.  In these seminars, I have explained the history and dynamics of the kinds of militant nonviolent struggles which have been utilized by popular peasant and worker movements throughout the word for centuries and which, in more recent decades, have ousted dictatorships from Indonesia to Bolivia to the Philippines to Madagascar to Chile and more than two dozen other countries.

Barker, however, wants MRZine readers to think that there is somehow something wrong about my working through ICNC to provide this kind of information to those engaged in popular struggles against oppression.  He wants MRZine readers to think that I and others who work to provide such potentially useful information to those struggling against some of the ugliest manifestations of U.S. imperialism are somehow guilty of advancing U.S. imperialism.  He wants MRZine readers to think that those of us working with popular nonviolent progressive movements are somehow “seeking partnerships with the main perpetrators of the world’s violence” in doing so.

It is particularly ironic that he refers to “obvious signs of collaboration with anti-democratic elites” as the “Zunes Syndrome,” given that I have never done such a thing and have spent most of my life attacking such collaboration.

Contrary to Barker’s assertion, I certainly recognize that “internal criticism is a vital tool to strengthen the Left.”  If such criticism is based on completely erroneous assumptions, however, it must be rejected outright.  I challenged his charges against ICNC in Green Left Weekly, not because of any desire to “whitewash” any malfeasance as he claims, but because they were demonstrably false.  (See “Inaccurate and Unfair Attacks on the ICNC” and “Additional Inaccurate and Unfair Attacks against the ICNC.”)

Typical of the many examples of Barker’s absurd leaps of logic in his series of submissions to the online edition of that Australian paper attacking the work of ICNC include the following:  ICNC director Jack DuVall, a full five years before the founding of ICNC, happened to overlap on the board of the Arlington Institute with former CIA director James Woolsey, five years after Woolsey left the CIA. Barker then uses this as supposed evidence that ICNC has connections with the CIA, ignoring the fact that DuVall and Woolsey were only at two meetings at the same time and never spoke to each other.  This is worse than guilt by association; this is guilt by spatial or temporal proximity.  More importantly, however, is the fact that DuVall and everyone else I know connected with ICNC is vehemently opposed to CIA covert operations and destabilization efforts and would never even consider any such collaboration under any circumstances.

Given all the very real manifestations of U.S. imperialism out there which need to be challenged — including the NED — I remain perplexed as to why Barker has put so much time and effort into attacking individuals and organizations trying to provide oppressed peoples with tools that could aid in their liberation.

It makes one wonder whose side Barker is really on.

Stephen Zunes ( is a professor of Politics at the University of San Francisco and Middle East editor for Foreign Policy in Focus (  He is the author of Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism (Common Courage) and is a contributor to ZNet, CommonDreams, RightWeb and Alternet.

In his reply (“Spurious Attacks Against Supporters of Nonviolent Resistance to Oppression”) to Michael Barker’s recent MRZine criticism of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC — a prominent NGO), Stephen Zunes questions MRZine for throwing doubt on the ICNC.  Zunes indicates that he is himself chair of the academic advisory board for the ICNC and stresses his own considerable left credentials as evidence in its defense.

Are there valid reasons to question the ICNC’s role in contemporary U.S. imperialism?  We think so.  For instance, Zunes criticizes Barker for making too much of the fact that ICNC director Jack DuVall overlapped on the board of the Arlington Institute with former CIA director James Woolsey.  Zunes in his reply suggests that this is overblown, that DuVall and Woolsley “were only at two meetings” together “and never spoke to each other.”  Yet, not mentioned by Zunes, is the fact that Woolsey presently sits together with the ICNC’s founding director Peter Ackerman, an enormously
wealthy investment banker, on the board of the notorious right-wing Freedom House (best known for its insistence that the United States should have continued the Vietnam War)  — see <>.

Ackerman is not only a founding director of the ICNC and sits on the Freedom House board, but is also a director, along with the likes of Colin Powell, of the “imperial brain trust,” the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR — where Woolsey is also a prominent member).  Ackerman sits on the key advisory committee of  the CFR’s Center for Preventive Action, devoted to overthrowing governments opposed by Washington by political means (or where this is not practicable, using political low intensity warfare to soften them up for military intervention).  The CPA is headed by Reagan’s former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, General John W. Vessey, who oversaw the invasion of Grenada.  The members of the advisory committee of the CPA, including Ackerman himself, have all been heavily involved in helping to fulfill U.S. war aims in Yugoslavia, and the Center has recently focused on overturning Chavez’s government in Venezuela (see John Bellamy Foster, “The Latin American Revolt,” Monthly Review, July August 2007).  On top of all of this Ackerman is a director of the right-wing U.S. Institute of Peace, which is connected directly through its chair J. Robinson West to the National Petroleum Council, which includes CEOs of all the major U.S. energy corporations.  On the domestic front, Ackerman has been working with the Cato Institute to privatize Social Security.  His colleague Woolsey is playing a key role in the Scooter Libby Defense Trust.

If all of this isn’t reason to begin to ask searching questions regarding Ackerman’s (and Zunes’s) ICNC and its role in the U.S. imperial system we don’t know what is.  Zunes suggests that Barker (and by implication MRZine) should decide “whose side” he is on.  The question of course cuts two ways.

John Bellamy Foster is editor of Monthly Review.

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