The New Velvet Revolutionaries

Located on the 7th floor of a skyscraper in downtown Washington (I have been asked, for security reasons, not to disclose the precise coordinates), the center is a small, privately funded undertaking with a big aim: to promote a set of rebellion strategies, from mass strikes to clever graffiti, that successful dissidents have used to topple tyrannical regimes. Founded in January 2002, the group has already arranged strategic training and provided other non-financial assistance to Iraqi Kurds and expatriates (before the U.S. invasion) and to Venezuelans working against the Hugo Chvez government, and supplied training materials to Iranian oppositionists. The group is now gaining notice from both neoconservatives and liberals, and its ideas are beginning to receive attention within the Bush administration.

The center represents the latest version of a kind of venture that has long thrived in D.C.: The boutique nonprofit policy organization. From the liberal-left consumer groups which Ralph Nader created in the 1970s, clustered today among the few unrenovated buildings still left around Dupont Circle, to the more upscale outfits launched by conservatives like Grover Norquist in the 1980s and 1990s, Washington tends to attract policy entrepreneurs who dream not of making billions but of altering the course of history.

The ICNC fits the pattern, even as it confounds ideological labels. Its founder is Peter Ackerman, a lanky 56-year-old with gray temples and a passing resemblance to Alan Alda. A Ph.D. turned finance whiz, Ackerman spent the late 1970s and 1980s at Drexel Burnham Lambert’s Los Angeles office working with his colleague Michael Milken on popularizing junk bonds. Not surprisingly, the center’s offices look less like a scruffy, under-funded human rights organization than a successful hedge fund, with new computers sporting flat-screen monitors and a gourmet coffee machine in the kitchen. Indeed, the office doubles as Ackerman’s investment firm. “I think one of the reasons I get a lot of my phone calls answered is because people think I’m a financier,” muses Ackerman.

In the early 1990s, he decided to pursue his true passion, the subject of the doctoral thesis he’d completed two decades before: nonviolent political change. At Harvard, Ackerman’s mentor and thesis advisor had been Gene Sharp, an iconoclastic thinker and author of The Politics of Non-Violent Action. That book was the first to attempt a systematic review of the best practices from nonviolent insurrections of the past, from Jesus to Gandhi, with chapters devoted to such topics as “Taunting High Officials”and “Protest Disrobings.”Sharp went on to become something of a cult favorite among dissidents. He consulted with student leaders in China during the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising, and his book was used as a blueprint by the Serbian opposition movement Otpor that brought down Slobodan Milosevic in October 2000.

That latter uprising was especially important because it received vital support from the U.S. government–Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeline Albright arranged for Otpor leaders to be trained and funded out of the American Embassy in Budapest. Shortly after, Ackerman and his producing partner Jack DuVall were in Serbia making a documentary about Otpor with filmmaker Steve York. Dissidents from around the world now traipse through the center’s offices to see the film, Bringing Down a Dictator, which has been translated into several languages, significantly including Spanish, Farsi, and Chinese. (The documentary’s promotional posters bear the tag line “Coming to a repressive regime near you”and boast of the film’s narrator, Martin Sheen.) Demonstrators arrested in Cuba last spring had copies of the video on them.

Ackerman is no pacifist. “I’m not against the use of military options in certain circumstances,”he explained to me. Nor is he with those, like former president Jimmy Carter, who believe in reconciling with even the harshest governments to prevent bloodshed. Rather, he’s a regime-changer, but one who breaks, for pragmatic reasons, with the neocons’ focus on invading countries and fomenting violent coups. “Violent insurrection is a very high-risk proposition,”he told me. “It is costly to the public and has a low chance of success.”If marshalled prudently, Ackerman believes that the activist’s arsenal of boycotts, protests, sit-ins, and strikes can persuade a dictator’s police, civil service, and military to disobey him and side with the people, accomplishing the objective of most military campaigns without firing a shot. The center is even developing a computer game wherein players assume the role of opposition leader in a repressive country. One staffer described it as “Sim Revolution”; they hope to make it available on the Internet. Ackerman assures me the game will “change the world.”

When I stopped by the center’s offices in July, Ackerman was chatting with a trainer about an upcoming seminar planned for Palestinians in Bethlehem and Ramallah. The trainer’s contacts had relayed to him the mood of the Palestinian street: They were wary of a cease-fire and not too happy with new Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. This was good news for Ackerman, because it meant they might be open to his muscular brand of direct action. “There are a lot of tent-posts on the ground already,”noted the trainer, who asked not be identified. But those tent-posts, including one called Search for Common Ground–which brings small groups of Israelis and Palestinians together for heart-to-heart discussions–were all focused on “mediation and reconciliation”–not a strategy that matched the mood of the street. The Palestinians, he worried, were growing disenchanted with the feel-good mediators to the point that they were beginning to wonder which side they were on. Taking it all in, Ackerman concludes with a grin that this makes for a good opportunity for strategic nonviolent action: “Maybe it’s better that they don’t talk for a while. Now’s the time for them to push.”

Now the Bush administration, having committed half of the Army’s combat forces to an occupation of Iraq but still interested in changing a regime or three, is starting to see the wisdom of the ideas Ackerman promotes. As Lorne Craner, the current Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, but at the time president of the International Republican Institute, said in an interview, “Our experience in Serbia, including our efforts working with those advocating nonviolent resistance, added to the repertoire of the possibilities that fall between doing nothing and going to war.”

And this is exactly what the Bush administration’s hawks are advocating for Iran. Since last spring, the Pentagon’s civilian leaders introduced a plan to provide material and money to segments of the growing Iranian democracy movement, focusing on the kind of non-lethal support–digital cameras, and text pagers for example–popular movements need to become better organized. Ackerman has since made tapes of Bringing Down a Dictator available to California-based satellite television stations broadcasting into Iran. And in a recent interview, Pentagon adviser Richard Perle said that, during meetings he has had with German officials, he made the following proposition: “If you want reconciliation with the United States, a good place to start would be a common policy supporting democracy in Iran.”

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