Inaccurate and unfair attacks on the ICNC

August 31, 2007

Michael Barker's reply ("Promoting 'democracy' through civil disobedience", GLW #722) to a letter-to-the-editor by Jack DuVall (GLW #718, online edition) contains some serious factual errors and misleading comments regarding the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC), for which I serve as chair of the board of academic advisers.

Green Left Weekly readers may recognise me as the author of Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism (Zed Press, 2003) and scores of articles for Common Dreams, Alternet, Tom Paine and other progressive websites, including Foreign Policy in Focus, where I serve as a board member and Middle East editor. My visibility as an anti-imperialist scholar has earned me a prominent place on lists of the most dangerous "anti-American" and "anti-Israel" professors on websites and in articles of those backing US President George Bush's global agenda.

This fact alone should raise serious questions regarding Barker's claim that ICNC's program is geared toward supporting US hegemony. If that were true, why would they have someone like me in such an influential position? And why would I agree to take such a post for an organisation if it really supported an imperialistic agenda?

As a result, I feel obliged to address specifically some of the false allegations brought up by Barker:

First of all, ICNC does not "work closely" with the Albert Einstein Institution, does not "provide its theoretical underpinnings" and has never had a single operational meeting with anyone representing them. The primary connection between the two independent non-profit institutes has been ICNC's support for foreign-language translations of their literature, which have been used by nonviolent activists struggling for freedom and justice in dozens of countries.

(In any case, contrary to Barker's assertion, the Albert Einstein Institution has never received any government funding nor does it take ideological sides in conflicts. The research on the power on nonviolent action by its founder and director Gene Sharp — who began his career as the personal assistant to the legendary radical pacifist and labour organiser AJ Muste — has inspired generations of peace and social justice activists in the United States and around the world. No evidence has emerged that he has ever worked with the CIA or any other organ of the US government, an idea that those of us who know Sharp and his work find completely absurd.

In addition, the Albert Einstein Institution has funded research and educational activities for scores of left-leaning scholars and activists, including Palestinian feminist Souad Dajani, Rutgers University sociologist Kurt Schock, Common Courage Press co-founder Greg Bates, Israeli human rights activist Edy Kaufman, Kent State University Peace Studies professor Patrick Coy, Nigerian human rights activist Uche Ewelukwa and Bradford University Peace Studies professor Paul Rogers, among others, all of whom have been outspoken critics of US foreign policy.)

Secondly, while some ICNC staff members attend conferences and meet with various individuals connected with foreign policy think tanks in Washington, this hardly constitutes a conspiracy to advance US imperialism. Indeed, anyone who bothers to read articles or speeches by ICNC president Jack DuVall and other ICNC staff would find that they regularly criticise the failure of the foreign policy establishment to appreciate or understand the power of nonviolent struggle. As DuVall, in a recent speech, put it, "It will not be Western policymakers [or] international institutions … who will rescue from oppression the people of the Middle East or Africa or any other region soaked with injustice and misery. It will be the ordinary people inhabiting what we call 'civil society', who are now usually treated by outsiders as victims or beneficiaries of action by others." This is hardly the perspective that would be taken by a supporter of US hegemony in the name of "democracy".

Indeed, the idea that nonviolent theorists like Sharp and DuVall subscribe to a hegemonic ideology is ridiculous. Both have long sought the greatest possible diversity of thought and experience in the understanding of popular nonviolent struggle, for which the left has had far more experience and understanding than any government will ever have. Prominent American radical pacifists like George Lakey, Michael Nagler and David Hartsough — who are leading activists against US imperialism — have worked closely with both Sharp and DuVall and have strongly supported the work of their organisations.

The ICNC spends far more time with nonviolent activists from Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Latin America than they do with anyone from the Washington establishment. The ICNC has supported workshops for progressive activists around the world challenging US-backed governments, including Palestinians struggling against the Israeli occupation, West Papuans struggling against the Indonesian control and Sahrawis struggling against the Moroccan occupation, as well as pro-democracy activists in Egypt, Azerbaijan, the Maldives, Guatemala and elsewhere.

Barker is also totally wrong in claiming that ICNC's goal is to "help promote revolutions in geo-strategically useful countries". In reality, ICNC's only purpose is to help develop and disseminate knowledge regarding strategic nonviolent struggle in support for human rights, democracy, and social justice. ICNC's operating guidelines prohibit the organisation from initiating contact with activists from any country; the initiative must come from activists themselves. In fact, ICNC responded favourably to an inquiry by Medea Benjamin — co-founder of Global Exchange and Code Pink — about leading seminars for anti-war activists in the United States.

Barker's claims regarding ICNC president Jack DuVall are particularly absurd: DuVall has had absolutely no associations with the Congressionally funded National Endowment for Democracy. In his five years as head of ICNC, he has had just one meeting with one NED staff member for purely informational purposes, and there was no follow-up on either side.

Furthermore, also contrary to Barker, DuVall had no involvement in the founding of the Arlington Institute, though he did serve on its board for a couple of years at the request of his friend John Peterson, whom he got to know when they were active in the left wing of the Democratic Party back in the 1980s. There is nothing in common between the work of the two organisations and they have had no joint projects, no cooperation and no meetings. (Incidentally, Peterson, a co-founder of the Arlington Institute, is a member of the Coalition for Realistic Foreign Policy, which is a group of "scholars, policy makers and concerned citizens united by our opposition to an American empire".)

Similarly, Barker's misleading and highly selective overviews of past affiliations of ICNC staff fail to mention their far more significant work in promoting democratic struggles against US-backed regimes and their involvement in other progressive movements.

For example, Barker's reference to ICNC's manager for educational initiatives Maria Stephan's work with NATO and the Pentagon fails to mention that these positions were short-term fellowships while she was in university some years ago; her primary focus since graduating has been research and advocacy in support of the resistance by the people of East Timor, Palestine and Western Sahara against US-backed occupation forces and she has become known as a sharp and persistent critic of US Middle East policy.

Senior advisor and former ICNC vice-president Shaazka Beyerle, a former resident of East Jerusalem, has been active in research and advocacy in support of the nonviolent Palestinian resistance against the Israeli occupation. Former ICNC director of research and programs Hardy Merriman's principal work with the Albert Einstein Institution was editing Waging Nonviolent Struggle — a book endorsed by leading radical scholars and activists — and his major personal contribution to the collection was the chapter on the United Farm Workers Union's organising efforts among Mexican and Filipino farmworkers in California.

Joanne Leedom-Ackerman has no affiliation with ICNC. In any case, her work for International PEN and the International Center for Journalists, in which she has defended persecuted journalists and writers, can hardly be considered part of an imperialist plot, particularly since most of the people she has supported are being persecuted by US-backed regimes.

There are other errors and misleading statements in Barker's response as well, but the bottom line is this: Unlike the National Endowment for Democracy and other US government-backed "pro-democracy" efforts, which focus primarily on conventional political campaigns led by pro-Western parties, the work of ICNC and related NGOs focus upon nonviolent direct action led by grassroots movements unaffiliated with established political parties.

The US government has historically promoted regime change through military invasions, coup d'etats and other kinds of violent seizures of power by an undemocratic minority. Nonviolent "people power" movements of the kind supported by ICNC and other NGOs, by contrast, promote regime change through empowering pro-democratic majorities that the United States and other foreign governments cannot control.

As result, the best hope for advancing freedom and democracy in the world comes from civil society, not the policies of the US government, which should neither receive the credit nor the blame for the growing phenomenon of largely nonviolent democratic revolutions which in recent decades have toppled authoritarian regimes from Indonesia and the Philippines to Madagascar and Mali, from Czechoslovakia and Serbia to Bolivia and Chile. (Most of the governments emerging from such struggles have not been as progressive as I would like to see, but they are certainly improvements over the dictatorships that preceded them.)

The emergence of civil society organisations and the growing awareness of the power of nonviolent action in recent years has been one of most positive political developments in what has otherwise been largely depressing political times. It is most unfortunate, then, that supposedly "progressive" voices have chosen to attack this populist grass roots phenomenon and the NGOs which support them as part of some kind of Bush administration conspiracy.

It is also ironic that so some on the left — after years of romanticising armed struggle as the only way to defeat dictatorships, disparaging the potential of nonviolent action to overthrow repressive regimes and dismissing the notion of a nonviolent revolution — are now expressing their alarm at how successful popular nonviolent insurrections can be, even to the point of naively thinking that nonviolent revolution is so easy to pull off that it could somehow be organised in foreign capitals.

In reality, every successful popular nonviolent insurrection has been the result of a protracted home grown movement rooted in the belief by the majority of the population that their rulers were illegitimate and the current political system was incapable of redressing injustice. By contrast, no nonviolent insurrection has ever succeeded when the movement's leadership and agenda did not have the backing of the majority of the population. Washington cannot "cause" a nonviolent revolution to occur any more than Moscow could "cause" an armed revolution to occur. To pretend otherwise invalidates popular movements for freedom and justice everywhere and implies that the oppressed masses are simply pawns of great powers rather than the powerful revolutionary forces capable of making their own history that they are.

[Stephen Zunes ( is a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco.]

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.