How Washington Learned to Love Nonviolence

Nonviolence can be a major force for democratic social change, but not when it becomes a tool for covert intervention.

A close-cropped, no-nonsense infantry officer, Col. Robert Helvey was studying at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs on an Army fellowship. One day in 1987, he happened upon a seminar led by Gene Sharp, a draft resister imprisoned for refusing to serve in Korea and a systematic scholar of the kind of strategic non-violence that activists of my generation had helped to develop in the free speech, civil rights, and anti-war movements of the 1960s.

“I had an image of nonviolence as being a bunch of long-haired hippies,” Col. Helvey recalled. But Dr. Sharp had come a long way from his Gandhism roots, and Helvey quickly realized that the older man’s approach had “nothing to do with pacifism.” Sharp was talking “about seizing political power or denying it to others,” and doing it without having to break things or kill people.

The idea fascinated Col. Helvey. He invited Sharp to lunch, spent time at the Albert Einstein Institution (AEI), which Sharp had created in Cambridge in 1983, and came to see his new mentor as “the Clausewitz of the nonviolence movement.” An energetic disciple, Col. Helvey would in time become president of AEI and a forceful champion of nonviolent conflict as a weapon of American intervention in other countries.

Were these interventions good or bad? In my opinion, they had elements of both, at least at the start. But they have become a major danger to democracy, not least our own, and an increasing threat to the lives of those that the United States and its allies encourage to make nonviolent revolutions.
The art of political defiance

Col. Helvey’s first intervention was in Burma, where he had served as military attaché, reporting to the Defense Intelligence Agency. In December 1987, while still a serving officer, he invited two Burmese expatriates to spend several days talking with Gene Sharp about how best to overthrow their country’s brutal military rulers. According to Helvey, the activists went back and explained Sharp’s thinking to other of the regime’s opponents.

Retiring in 1991 from thirty years of active duty, Col. Helvey took up a new career, traveling to the Burmese jungle village of Mannerplaw to run the first of a long series of intensive training sessions in nonviolence for the Democratic Alliance of Burma. Gene Sharp helped design the courses, which Helvey renamed political defiance. With armed struggle, he taught, you attack the generals where they are strongest. With political defiance, you look to hit them where they are weak.

”He used his military skills in strategic planning for nonviolent protest methods,” one of Helvey’s trainees later told Reuters. “Everybody was fascinated by Bob, because he was a military man and was applying that to non-violence.”

Training the Burmese opposition was a small-scale operation, and Washington paid for it largely through its National Endowment for Democracy, or NED, which the Reagan administration had created in 1983 to take over the funding of foreign interventions formerly handled by the Central Intelligence Agency. Washington’s interest in Burma was obvious, given its proximity to China and its enormous reserves of oil and natural gas.

Bringing down a dictator

In March 2000, Col. Helvey scored his biggest coup, running a 4-day training session at the Hilton Hotel in Budapest for more than 20 militants from a Serbian student group called “Otpor!“. Helvey’s purpose was to teach the militants how to undermine the authority of Slobodan Milošević, “the Butcher of the Balkans.”

“His presentation was something that I had never seen in my life, and I have seen maybe 200 trainings and maybe performed 200 or 300,” recalled one of Otpor’s founders, Srdja Popovic. “I am really experienced. But he is a miracle!” Returning to Serbia, Helvey’s students became the backbone and creative masterminds of a multi-million dollar nonviolent revolution financed and stage-managed by Washington, its European allies, and George Soros‘s Open Society Institute.

The overthrow of Milošević in the former Yugoslavia led Washington and its allies to finance and organize similar efforts all around the periphery of the former Soviet Union. These included the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004 and 2005, and the Pink or Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan in 2005. In these interventions, Otpor veterans taught what they had learned to militants in the other countries, while hundreds of thousands of ordinary people risked beatings, jail, torture, and even death. But, once the nonviolent protestors brought new governments to power, Washington and the Western Europeans used their influence to extend the North Atlantic Treaty Organization eastward, push for economic privatization and strengthen Western sway over the oil, natural gas, and pipelines from the Caspian Sea, Caucuses, and Central Asia.

Less publicly, Washington and its allies made Optor a permanent part of their arsenal, as described by Strategic Forecasting, Inc. (STRATFOR), a private intelligence newsletter available by subscription. “Otpor strengthened its connections with Western governments and nongovernmental organizations, which provided the group with funding and limited amounts of intelligence about potential weaknesses in regimes they were already targeting,” STRATFOR explained.

“The tactics used in the crucible in Belgrade were ‘marketed’ in documentaries and training manuals. Otpor became more than ‘just’ a student group and transformed itself into the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS). Among the group’s strongest allies are Freedom House and the Albert Einstein Institute and, through them, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the US Department of State.”

CANVAS itself has been anything but transparent about its funding and intelligence ties to Western governments. But the group proudly put the STRATFOR analysis on its website, while Freedom House confirmed in its annual report for 2001 that it received funding from NED, USAID, and the State Department and, in turn, continued to fund the Otpor students. In 2005, the U.S. Institute of Peace provided a grant to CANVAS to publish Nonviolent Struggle: 50 Crucial Points by Srdja Popovic and two other Otpor veterans. All of which put the lie to the group’s oft-repeated claim that “CANVAS does not accept any governmental funding.”

When a military coup fails

In April 2003, Reuters reporter Pascal Fletcher went to a university campus in east Caracas. On a closed classroom door, he found a sign that read, “Seminar on strategic marketing.” Inside he found “representatives of Venezuela‘s broad-based but fragmented opposition, who are struggling to regroup after failing to force Hugo Chávez from office in an anti-government strike.” According to Reuters, they were meeting with Col. Robert Helvey, “a consultant with the private US Albert Einstein Institution.” Another AEI staff member, Chris Miller, also participated.

Opponents of Chávez had previously met with Gene Sharp in Cambridge after the failure of the U.S.-backed military coup against Chávez in 2002. These contacts continued after Col. Helvey’s visit to Caracas and included a privately funded workshop in March 2005 in Boston, in which two Otpor veterans took part. The Center for Applied NonViolent Actions and Strategies (CANVAS) in Belgrade then trained five student leaders from Venezuela in October 2005, and another four in October 2007. CANVAS also set up an office in Venezuela in latter part of 2007.

“Another color revolution may be forming — in Latin America,” wrote the sympathetic STRATFOR. “When you see students at five Venezuelan universities hold simultaneous demonstrations, you will know that the training is over and the real work has begun.”

Signs of this “Marigold Revolution” became visible in May 2007, after Chávez refused to renew the broadcasting license for the privately owned Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV), which had openly backed the military coup in 2002. The newly created Venezuelan Student Resistance took to the streets in their thousands, proclaiming their nonviolence and dedication to free speech. The student resistors then staged dozens of marches throughout the country to oppose Chávez in a constitutional referendum in which he tried to remove term limits so that he could run for president as many times as he wanted.

Mostly middle-class and leaning to the right, but including some on the left who found Chávez autocratic, the protestors openly acknowledged their debt to Otpor and the thinking of Gene Sharp. They painted their hands white to show their innocent intentions. They put flowers into the rifle barrels of the security forces. And, they staged street theater to mock Chávez and the constitutional rewrite he was promoting. The students made a significant impact on the December 2007 referendum, which Chávez lost 51% to 49%, one of his only electoral defeats.

Chávez put much of the blame on Gene Sharp and the Albert Einstein Foundation for attempting to overthrow him with “a soft coup.” In a personal reply to Chávez, Sharp offered his usual disavowal. “Our work,” he insisted, “has not been backed by powerful political or economic interests in the United States or internationally.”

Washington and its nonviolent allies are already preparing similar, if smaller, interventions against populist governments in Ecuador and Bolivia and will likely use the same tactics against post-Castro Cuba.

Iran’s Green Revolution

Nowhere has Washington’s encouragement of nonviolent revolution caused greater grief than in Iran. While President Obama publicly appeared above the fray, his State Department used its Persian language radio services and its considerable influence with Twitter and Facebook to back the election campaign of the tainted reformist Mir-Hossein Mousavi and to spur on the popular protests against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the hard-line ayatollahs that back him. I have previously written at length about the intervention itself. Here I want to consider what it means, especially to those of us who support the aspirations of so many Iranians for a freer and more democratic country.

Many friends hated that I raised the issue of American intervention. Few denied the facts I presented. They simply preferred to turn a blind eye. All they wanted to consider were inconclusive arguments that Mousavi had won the election, which many reputable scholars still dispute, and the need to stand in solidarity with the protestors, with which I agree. But, unless we explicitly acknowledge and condemn the American intervention, our solidarity will end up pouring more money into the National Endowment for Democracy, the CIA, and the State Department’s propaganda radios. Do we really want to do that?

Other friends have argued that most of the money for training Iranians in nonviolent protest came not from Washington but from private sources, primarily Wall Street financier Peter Ackerman and his International Center on Nonviolent Conflict. This could be true, though the funding of much of the training remains secret. But what difference? Once Washington unleashed its propaganda radio and Internet resources, it made little difference who trained the non-violent protestors.

Finally, and most important to me, the undeniable evidence of Western intervention, both private and governmental, has made it far too easy for Ahmadinejad to crack down on the Iranian protestors. We should clearly condemn the crackdown and attempt to defend the activists. But our greatest show of solidarity would be to stop Washington’s continuing intervention.

[A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France. For previous articles by Steve Weissman on The Rag Blog, including those about Iran's "Green Revolution," go here.]

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One Response

  1. Thanks to Steve Weissman for a thoughtful and necessary essay.

    Disclosure: I am a big fan of Gene Sharp and his books.

    It seems obvious to me that the Powers that Be (to use Walter Wink’s term) will use whatever strategy and tactics that may support their narrowly conceived self-interest, including strategic nonviolence.

    I am a little surprised that the the Powers now seem to understand that strategic nonviolence is extremely powerful.

    The big question, for me, is the extent to which nonviolence can or cannot be used for nefarious purposes. In the past, nonviolence has always depended upon the commitment of those using it. Therefore, historically nonviolence has only been useful as a tool of the people and against the Powers that Be.

    It may be possible to use nonviolence by paying the participants, but I don’t know of anyone having tried this. What we have so far experienced is some funding of training by outside forces, but the masses of the participants have been motivated by their own commitments. This, it seems to me, is a very good limit on the extent to which the Powers that Be can pervert nonviolence toward nefarious purposes. Regardless of the (possibly evil) intentions of the outsiders, the participants are acting out of their own interests.

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