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A Reply to Stephen Gowans’ False Allegations against Stephen Zunes


[Stephen Gowans has written an article, "Stephen Zunes and the Struggle for Overseas Profits." This is Zunes' reply.]

Stephen Gowans’ February 18 article, "Stephen Zunes and the Struggle for Overseas Profits," is filled with demonstrably inaccurate and misleading statements about both me and the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC), with whom I serve as chair of the board of academic advisors. Below is a 13-point refutation which only begins to challenge the lies and misinformation.

1) I never have and do not "defend U.S. government meddling in the affairs of other countries." This is a complete lie. I’ve dedicated most of my academic and activist life to opposing U.S. interventionism in all its forms. I have written whole books and scores of articles opposing U.S. interference in the affairs of other countries, spoken at and taken part in numerous protests and rallies, and have even been arrested on a number of occasions protesting U.S. imperialism. If there are any doubts whatsoever to my categorical opposition to U.S. interventionism, please check out my website: www.stephenzunes.org.

2) ICNC has not been "heavily involved in successful and ongoing regime change operations, including in Yugoslavia," nor was Yugoslavia an example of a revolution "Zunes and his colleagues assist." Neither I nor ICNC had anything to do with the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic, which took place prior to ICNC being founded in 2001. It is totally false, therefore, to claim that Serbia was a place that "ICNC considers to be the site of one of its most successful engagements" since ICNC was never engaged there prior to the 2000 uprising.

Nor, contrary to Gowans’ assertion, did I or ICNC have any contact whatsoever with Georgians or Ukrainians before the popular nonviolent uprisings in those countries.

3) Gowans’ claim that

"Wherever Washington seeks to oust governments that pursue economically nationalist or socialist policies, you’ll find Helvey (and perhaps Zunes as well) holding seminars on nonviolent direct action: in Belarus, in Zimbabwe, in Iraq (before the U.S. invasion) and in Iran"

is a complete lie. Neither Helvey nor I (who have met each other only on handful of occasions and only in the United States) have ever held seminars in any of those countries. Furthermore, I have absolutely no interest in supporting — and have always strenuously opposed — Washington’s agenda to "oust governments that pursue economically nationalist or socialist policies."

4) One of the most bizarre quotes from Gowans is as follows:

"Zunes would be a more credible anti-imperialist were he organizing seminars on how to use nonviolent direct action to overthrow the blatantly imperialist U.S. and British governments. With the largest demonstrations in history held in Western cities on the eve of the last conspicuous eruption of Anglo-American imperialism, it cannot be denied that there’s a grassroots movement for peace and democracy in the West awaiting Zunes’ assistance. So is he training U.S. and British grassroots activists to use nonviolent direct action to stop the machinery of war? No. His attention is directed outward, not on his own government, but on the governments Washington and ruling class think-tanks want overthrown."

As a matter of fact, for more than thirty years I have indeed been "training U.S. … activists to use nonviolent direct action to stop the machinery of war," working with Peace Action, War Resisters League, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Ruckus Society, Direct Action Network, Direct Action against the War, and other groups through which I have led trainings for sit-ins, blockades and other forms of nonviolent direct action against the Pentagon, military recruiters, military contractors and other targets in the military-industrial complex. Regarding the "largest demonstrations in history held in Western cities on the eve of the last conspicuous eruption of Anglo-American imperialism," I happened to have been a speaker at the February 2003 rally in San Francisco, in which I explicitly called upon the half million people gathered to support mass nonviolent direct action to stop the invasion and other manifestations of U.S. imperialism.

My background in strategic nonviolent action is rooted in my involvement in the late 1970s in Movement for a New Society, a revolutionary cadre decidedly anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist in orientation. Of the more than one hundred seminars, trainings, workshops and related events designed to educate people on nonviolent action with which I have been involved subsequently, only three have primarily consisted of participants from countries with governments opposed by the United States, approximately a dozen have consisted primarily of those from foreign countries with governments supported by the United States, and the remaining 85% or more have been for Americans struggling against U.S. government and corporate policies.

For Gowans to claim, therefore, that I have never trained American anti-war activists or that my "attention is directed [toward] governments Washington and ruling class think-tanks want overthrown" is totally and demonstrably false.

Indeed, in the final chapter of my book Nonviolent Social Movements (Blackwell, 1999), I write:

"As militarism and corporate capitalism has become global, so must nonviolent movements. For nonviolence to continue being an effective force, it must be within the context of transnational movements which struggle not just at where the worse manifestations of institutional violence occur, but at their source — which is often in the advanced industrialized countries, particularly the United States… Those of us with an appreciation for nonviolence should … be more … willing to use it ourselves."

5) Gowans is completely wrong to claim that "the governments Zunes really seems to be concerned about (Zimbabwe, Iran, Belarus and Myanmar) are hostile to the idea of opening their doors to unrestricted U.S. investment and exports." Indeed, anyone who bothers to look at the extensive writings on my web site and elsewhere will note that 95% of my criticisms of dictatorships and other autocratic regimes and human rights abusers are in reference to U.S.-backed governments that adopt a U.S.-backed neo-liberal agenda and not governments opposed by the United States or those which adopt a more progressive economic agenda.

As I have observed in numerous writings, public speeches, and media interviews, the United States remains the world’s number one supporter of repressive regimes and I have repeatedly criticized the ways in which the U.S. government places so-called economic "freedom" above political freedom and human rights. Therefore, Gowans’ claim that "Zunes’ rhetoric is reminiscent of Bush’s" is completely false, since I support freedom and democracy universally (with particular emphasis on repressive U.S.-backed regimes), whereas the Bush administration speaks out for "freedom and democracy" highly selectively, targeting only regimes that challenge American hegemony. Also, unlike the U.S. government, I believe that social and economic rights — which are routinely denied under capitalism — are just as important as civil and political rights.

Gowans is also completely inaccurate in insisting that the government of Zimbabwe is "one of Zunes’ and the U.S. government’s favorite bêtes noire." That is certainly true of the U.S. government, which hypocritically singles out Zimbabwe’s dictatorship for criticism, sanctions, and subversion while supporting similar dictatorships in Equatorial Guinea, Cameroun, Chad and other African nations. In my case, however, in the scores of articles, book chapters, public lectures, and interviews of mine in which I have expressed my opposition to repressive regimes around the world, I have never written or said anything — except in passing — about Zimbabwe. To claim, then that Zimbabwe is one of my favorite bêtes noire is a total fabrication.

Having said this, I fully acknowledge my distaste for the repressive and autocratic regimes in Zimbabwe, Belarus, Iran, and Burma. The "elections" in these countries that Gowans cites to counter charges that they are dictatorships — like similar "elections" staged by such U.S.-backed dictatorships as Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan — can hardly be considered free and fair. And just because the governments of Zimbabwe, Belarus, Burma and Iran oppose U.S. imperialism, it does not mean that they are therefore progressive or democratic, nor does it mean they are not guilty of corruption and repression.

Even though the U.S. government opportunistically and hypocritically criticizes these regimes for their lack of freedom and democracy, it does not mean that progressives like me who also criticize these regimes’ human rights abuses are therefore, in Gowans’ words, "mimicking State Department press releases."

Gowans is also incorrect to allege that I deny that the U.S. is attempting to subvert the Zimbabwean government. Such destabilization efforts — which focus upon an institution-building advancement of the U.S. agenda — are very real and I oppose them. This is very different, however, from the solidarity work provided by independent progressive non-profit groups in foreign countries to independent progressive movements in Zimbabwe and elsewhere working for justice and human rights, which focus on popular empowerment.

6) Gowans is also completely inaccurate and misleading in claiming that the "revolutions Zunes admires (Yugoslavia, Georgia, Ukraine) have brought pro-U.S., pro-foreign investment governments to power." First of all, while there are certain aspects of those revolutions in Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine that I do admire, I was frankly more excited and hopeful about earlier socialist revolutions in Nicaragua, Mozambique, Vietnam, and elsewhere that brought anti-U.S., anti-foreign investment governments to power.

More to the point, to claim that these Eastern European governments are all more "pro-foreign investment" than their predecessors as a result of their nonviolent revolutions is overly-simplistic. For example, despite enormous pressure from the United States and international financial institutions, the post-Orange Revolution government in Ukraine maintains the strongest state role in the economy of all but one of Europe’s 42 countries.

Like most people on the left, I have been very disappointed regarding capitalist encroachment in Eastern Europe. The examples Gowans cites, however, are terribly misleading:

a) Kosovo came under Western tutelage not as a result of a nonviolent struggle, but as the result of the 11-week NATO bombing campaign in 1999; the earlier Kosovar nonviolent struggle between 1990 and 1998 was largely ignored by the United States and other Western governments.

b) The 1999 NATO bombing campaign of Serbia — which I and most of those subsequently associated with ICNC strenuously opposed — was completely unrelated to the overthrow of Milosevic more than a year and a half later. The leaders of Otpor — the student-led movement which led the popular nonviolent uprising against the regime in October 2000 — were largely left-of-center nationalists who strongly opposed the bombing, which seriously set back their efforts as the Serbian people united against the foreign aggression. Indeed, Otpor suspended their anti-Milosevic campaign for the duration of the war and joined their fellow Serbs in opposition to the NATO attacks.

c) Capitalist penetration of Serbia and Georgia really got underway under the old Milosevic and Shevardnadze regimes, not the governments which came to power following those countries’ nonviolent revolutions. It should also be noted that the United States actually backed the Shevardnadze regime in Georgia because of its friendly relations with American oil companies and related economic interests, withdrawing its support just hours before the Rose Revolution toppled him. And, as recent events have reminded us, the post-Milosevic government of Serbia can hardly be considered a puppet regime of the United States.

7) It is simply untrue to claim that what "the ICNC and Stephen Zunes are all about" is "nonviolent direct activism in the service of US foreign policy goals." My work through ICNC in educational projects on strategic nonviolent action has included support of Egyptians struggling against the U.S.-backed Mubarak regime, Palestinians struggling against the U.S.-backed Israeli occupation, Sahrawis struggling against the U.S.-backed Moroccan occupation, Maldivians struggling against the U.S.-backed Gayoom regime, West Papuans struggling against the U.S.-backed Indonesian occupation, and Guatemalan Indians struggling against the ramifications of U.S.-backed neo-liberal economic policies, among others. How could working with progressive activists struggling against U.S.-backed governments and policies possibly be construed as being "in the service of US foreign policy goals"?

Similarly, ICNC has provided educational materials on strategic nonviolent action to such American antiwar leaders as Medea Benjamin of Code Pink, Kathy Kelly of Voices in the Wilderness, as well as such peace groups as the Fellowship of Reconciliation and Peaceworkers, among others. I have also been involved in ICNC-facilitated workshops on strategic nonviolence for immigrant rights groups and progressive unions here in the United States. How is working with progressive activists explicitly struggling against U.S. policies be considered as being "in the service of US policy goals"?

I would also challenge Gowans to find any evidence whatsoever to back up his charge that I have ever supported "fifth columnists" or any other opposition movement dependent upon and beholden to "U.S. and Western governments and Western ruling class foundations."

8) ICNC is not "Wall Street-connected." There has never been any coordination, meetings, dialogue or any other connections between ICNC and any Wall Street company or organization.

9) ICNC does not "promote nonviolent activism in the service of destabilizing foreign governments." ICNC provides generic information and educational forums on the history and dynamics of strategic nonviolent action for indigenous struggles and NGOs concerned with human rights abuses, the oppression of women and minorities, corruption, and other abuses of power. In fact, ICNC’s legal charter explicitly prohibits the organization from initiating actions relative to any country.

ICNC provides its educational material and seminars for grass roots activists struggling for freedom and justice regardless of the ideological orientation or foreign policy of the ruling regimes in their countries. As mentioned above, virtually all of my work with ICNC — and most of ICNC’s work with foreign pro-democracy activists in general — have been with those struggling against governments supported by the United States, not governments opposed by the United States.

10) Gowans claims that I say that "nonviolent activists are pursuing ‘freedom and democracy’ in the same way [as] the U.S. invasion of Iraq was a project in bringing freedom and democracy to the Middle East." In reality, I never said anything like that. I was a leader in the U.S. movement against the invasion of Iraq and I have consistently challenged the myth that that war of aggression had anything to do with advancing freedom and democracy. Again, check out my web site.

11) Despite Gowans’ claims to the contrary, I have no associations with "dodgy U.S. ruling class foundations that hide the pursuit of U.S. foreign policy objectives behind a high-sounding commitment to peace." The unfortunate reality in capitalist societies is that most non-profit organizations — from universities to social justice organizations to art galleries to peace groups (and ICNC as well) — depend at least in part on donations from wealthy individuals and from foundations which get their money from wealthy individuals. Just because the ultimate source of funding for various non-profit groups is from members of the ruling class, however, does not mean that ruling class interests therefore set the agenda for every such non-profit group; they certainly do in some cases, but not in many other cases, including that of ICNC.

For example, Gowans reports ominously that "Zunes has received at least one research grant from the United States Institute of Peace (USIP)," which receives U.S. government support, "and has served as a fellow of the organization," the purpose of which he describes as "the pursuit of U.S. corporate and investor interests abroad." I did receive one research fellowship from USIP back in 1989 — which is what makes one a USIP "fellow" — to study the role of the Organization of African Unity and the United Nations in efforts to resolve the Morocco-Western Sahara conflict. The conclusions of that research — which is finally being published later this year as a book from Syracuse University Press — put the blame for the irresolution of the conflict largely on the United States, France and other imperialist powers for supporting the Moroccan occupation. Indeed, my USIP-funded research was openly sympathetic to the struggle of the Polisario Front and the Sahrawi people for self-determination. I would be quite willing to provide Gowans or anyone else a summary of my USIP-funded research to demonstrate that there is absolutely nothing in it that could possibly be construed as being supportive of "the pursuit of U.S. corporate and investor interests abroad."

Gowans is also incorrect to claim that I am "busy applying for grants from a phony U.S. government institute of peace." I have not applied for a grant from USIP or any other government foundation for well over a decade.

And, despite Gowans’ claim to the contrary, ICNC president Jack DuVall has had no personal connection whatsoever to USIP, except for speaking there as part of a couple of public panel discussions.

12) Gowans’ claims that the son of ICNC’s founding director used "bombs and bullets, not nonviolent activism, to change Iraq’s regime." In reality, Peter Ackerman’s son, a U.S. Marine, did not take part in the U.S. invasion of Iraq. (His unit, like most American combat units, was later rotated in and out of the country.) Dr. Ackerman, like everyone else I know affiliated with ICNC, personally opposed the invasion and argued that regime change in Iraq, as needed elsewhere, should come through nonviolent struggle by the subjected peoples themselves, not from foreign invaders.

13) In addition to the factual errors above, there are a series of seriously misleading statements which need to be addressed:

a) Many of Gowans’ attacks consist of guilt-by-association. For example, because ICNC founding director Peter Ackerman happens to sit on various boards which include, among others, some rather notorious neo-conservatives and other imperialists, Gowans wants readers to believe that this somehow makes me and ICNC part of their imperialist agenda. Gowans’ is certainly correctly to point out that, in the cases of many of these people, "the only freedom they’re interested in is the freedom of U.S. corporations and investors to accumulate capital wherever and whenever they please," but they are not the ones who set ICNC’s policies. They happen to sit in the same room a few times a year with Dr. Ackerman, with whom I’ve had relatively little contact, and who has severed his operational ties with ICNC since becoming the chair of Freedom House. Yet Gowans wants readers to think that these degrees of separation are somehow a more significant indication of where I come from than my critical writings against corporate globalization, my facing down the WTO on the streets of Seattle in 1999, my repeated arrests in protests against various nefarious manifestations of corporate capitalism, and other activities. Similarly, Gowans tries to link their imperialist agenda with me because simply because I "share" their "rhetorical commitment to ‘freedom and democracy,’" ignoring everything else I have said or written which challenges such imperialist pursuits of overseas profits.

b) Referring to ICNC President Jack DuVall as a "former air force officer" is a highly-selective summary of his career prior to the founding of ICNC. DuVall served for slightly more than two years in the air force nearly 40 years ago at a time when American males were subjected to military conscription. He enlisted into a non-combat position as a young lieutenant to avoid serving in Vietnam in a war which he strenuously opposed, was glad when he was discharged, and has had no involvement with the U.S. military since then.

c) No one at ICNC was aware of Bob Helvey’s 2003 trip to Venezuela until well after the fact; I only found out about it last week. In any case, whatever he did there had nothing to do with me or ICNC. I certainly oppose any U.S-backed efforts to subvert the democratically-elected government of Venezuela. Gowans is not telling the truth, however, when he refers to Helvey’s "work in Serbia before Milosevic’s fall" where he "briefed students on ways to organize a strike and how to undermine the authority of a dictatorial regime." That allegation has long since been refuted. Helvey was never in Serbia prior to Milosevic’s overthrow. The full extent of his involvement with the opposition student movement prior to the uprising was when he met with some Otpor activists in Budapest in a half-day meeting in April 2000, well after Otpor had already become a powerful dissident organization, had already engaged in a series of nonviolent action campaigns, and the Milosevic regime had already arrested more than 400 of their activists. In any case, Helvey has no formal association with ICNC. His book On Strategic Non-Violent Conflict is featured on ICNC’s web site, but there is absolutely nothing in it promoting U.S. intervention, imperialism, capitalism, or any other aspect of the U.S. foreign policy agenda.

Stephen Zunes
Santa Cruz, California, USA
February 22, 2008

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