Swans Commentary » swans.com February 28, 2011  



The Velvet Slipper And The Military-Peace Nonprofit Complex


by Michael Barker





(Swans - February 28, 2011)   In his timeless novel The Iron Heel (1907), Jack London was all too aware of John D. Rockefeller and his plutocratic ilk's desire to crush humanity "under the iron heel of a despotism as relentless and terrible as any despotism that has blackened the pages of the history of man." Yet London recognized the other dangers that capital posed to an increasingly powerful revolutionary movement, as he warned how the oligarchy complemented their violence against organized labor by providing selective subsidies to conservative unions much as the Rockefeller Foundation went on to do in the wake of the Ludlow Massacre of 1914. (1) But in 1907, when London first published his book, the art of capitalist philanthropy was not fine-tuned, and so if he were writing today, London might well have authored a second book titled The Velvet Slipper.

The Velvet Slipper would have highlighted the threat posed by forward-thinking members of the oligarchy, emphasizing their cynical ambitions to harness natural human tendencies -- to promote a just and harmonious world -- to its very antithesis, capitalism. Rather than crushing oppositional forces, the velvet slipper of despotism would entice would-be revolutionaries into its comfortable confines. Living as we do in the age of propaganda, and a visible crisis of global capitalism, the oligarchy is desperate and will seek out any tactics to stave off the ongoing and intensifying threats to their power: this includes the development of a military-peace nonprofit complex. Thus the narrative of The Velvet Slipper would illustrate the dangers posed by the splicing of limited aspects of the peace movement onto the military-industrial complex. While this paradoxical tale has yet to be told in its entirety, progressive authors like Joan Roelofs have done much to document the co-optive practices of liberal elites. But thankfully the outline for this story of war and peace has already been written by one of the oligarchy's many proficient intellectuals. Therefore this article will review this individual's text in order to demonstrate the dangers posed to the rest of the world by The Velvet Slipper approach to social change.

The author of the aforementioned recipe book for the application of hard and soft power is Mark Palmer, the former US Ambassador to Hungary (1986-90), whose illustrious career in the service to the oligarchy has meant that he has served as deputy assistant secretary of state in charge of US relations with the Soviet Union and East Central-Europe, and as director of the State Department's Office of Strategic Nuclear and Conventional Arms Control. Palmer lies firmly at the heart of the US government's "democracy-promotion" establishment and in addition to being counted as a founding board member of the National Endowment for Democracy (a key nongovernmental agency that interferes in social movements globally), he was the vice chair of Freedom House when he penned the book in question, Breaking the Real Axis of Evil: How to Oust the World's Last Dictators by 2025 (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003) -- a book that "Most of all, ... is about intervention." (2)

During his tenure at Freedom House, Palmer worked closely with a man called Peter Ackerman -- an individual who, in 2005, was promoted from being a board member of Freedom House to becoming its chair. This is significant because in the first line of the acknowledgments of Palmer's book, he writes how: "Peter Ackerman and Max Kampelman encouraged me to think through a strategy and tactics to achieve a 100 percent democratic world." Both Peter Ackerman and Max Kampelman are emeritus chairs of Freedom House, with Kampelman formerly serving as the vice chair of the Orwellian US Institute for Peace (1992-2001). Moreover, when Palmer first published Breaking the Real Axis of Evil, Ackerman had just spent more than a decade on the board of a group known as the Albert Einstein Institution -- a nonprofit that describes itself as being dedicated to "advancing the study and use of strategic nonviolent action in conflicts throughout the world." (3) Ackerman's connection to this group is very pertinent to this article, all the more so because of the high esteem with which this Institution is held within both progressive and elite circles. Indeed, Ackerman's involvement with this organization should raise more than a few questions about its activities, especially given his current leadership role alongside Palmer at "Spirit of America" -- a neoconservative nonprofit that for the past eight years has sought to enhance the power of the US military in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan (see "Promoting the Real Spirit of America").

Palmer has come a long way since his days as a "member" of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the civil rights movement. But while a handful of progressive activists who came to international prominence during the sixties subsequently moved from the far left to the far right (with David Horowitz being a good example), it would appear that Palmer was never really on the left in the first place. In his book, he recalls how in 1951, when he was just ten years old, his father was "a US Navy captain assigned to the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon," which was at the same time that Palmer was "learning the ways of the business world on a newspaper route, delivering copies of the Alexandria Gazette door-to-door." As Palmer tells it, what he apparently learned during these formative years was that when people repeatedly refused to pay their subscriptions the best way to enforce payment was with the threat of force. He never again had capital problems after his father accompanied him on his paper round one day.

Often the mere presence of a mature and powerful player standing shoulder to shoulder with thwarted aspirants to freedom is enough to tip the scales toward democracy. Sometimes, as I learned half a century ago, you need to bring a grownup, and it helps if that grown-up is a navy captain. (p.318)

No surprise then that in 1964, at the height of the civil rights movement, Palmer became an officer in the US Foreign Service, soon becoming the chief speech writer for Richard Nixon's secretary of state, Henry Kissinger. (4) One should note that Kissinger, just before his rise to state power, had acted as director of the Harvard Defense Studies Program (1958-71), which connects him directly to the Albert Einstein Institution. This is because it was during exactly this time that Harvard developed a strong interest in understanding its class enemies through its decision to focus on the politics of nonviolent resistance. Thus after completing his Ph.D. in the UK, Gene Sharp, who would later go on to found the Albert Einstein Institution, was employed as a research fellow at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (1965-72) to undertake exactly these studies -- at a research center to which Kissinger was affiliated. (In later years Sharp then helped set up Harvard's Program on Nonviolent Sanctions in Conflict and Defense.)

Palmer is clear that "democrats must develop the political and economic tools and techniques for the nonviolent overthrow of their oppressors." In this light, he sees the US government as the natural ally of democrats, and seeks to refine what he refers to as the "misguided common wisdom" of the national security state that (he says) "gave rise to many of the great blunders of the cold war": that is, encouraged the U.S. to support dictators, not democrats. He suggests that: "By attempting to base US security on tyranny in other parts of the world, the practitioners of foreign policy common wisdom not only failed but also undermined American credibility worldwide." (5) The key then, in his mind anyway, is to utilize the power of nonviolence to strengthen US national security objectives, in a manner that has the additional bonus of providing rhetorical cover for imperialism. Palmer is well experienced in smoothing over the contradictions between such peace activism and imperialist power politics; indeed, he recalls:

I went through a similar situation in 1989 in Budapest, where I was US ambassador. The embassy actively supported democratic change, so much so that Foreign Minister Gyula Horn complained to Secretary of State James Baker. I was recalled to Washington and urged to moderate this activity. During a subsequent visit by President George Bush in the summer of 1989, I arranged for him to meet with the country's leading democrats in my living room. Afterwards, Secretary Baker told me, "Mark, I know these are your friends, but they will never run this country." That was American conventional wisdom talking. The barbed wire had already come down along the Austrian border; four months later the Berlin Wall came down. My "friends" won the election shortly thereafter. One of them, Viktor Orban, later became prime minister of Hungary. In 1989, he was the head of Fidesz, the student movement that was at the forefront in ousting the communists, while being largely ignored by the West. (6)

With such first hand experience, Palmer's book is a call to arms for the evolution of a more creative approach to national security. In effect Palmer provides what he sees as a remedy to the widely understood limits of the military option (especially "against dictators armed with nuclear weapons"), and of what he considers to be the failure of economic sanctions. Part of this "strategic paradigm shift" requires the "elevat[ion of] the promotion of democracy to the number one priority of national security, foreign policy, and international relations." He thus argues for the need for "a new strategy" and the adoption of "a better set of tools" to implement such revolutionary warfare. These, he says, "are primarily the implements and tactics of nonviolent protest, strike actions and boycotts, and what used to be called passive resistance." But unlike many other state department pacifists, Palmer is well aware of how "a small application of military force, or even a credible threat to use it" when used in conjunction with "nonviolent" protests invests the nonviolence with real power. As he writes, occasionally "the tools of democratization will be drawn from military arsenals, to add elements of force to the nonviolent design." (7)

Sometimes it takes military force to oust a dictator and pave the way to democracy. ... As Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute has said, "The best democracy program ever invented is the US Army." (p.30)

Here Palmer cites the case of Kosovo and the ouster of Slobodan Milosevic as a "clear-cut case for the use of force." But the use of massive violence (as in Kosovo) is not the only imperial tool that can be used to strengthen the power of nonviolent protest; and he argues that more thought should be "given to applying international law enforcement and/or military force very narrowly tailored to the task of ousting a dictator." Modeled after NATO, Palmer suggests that the international community needs to coordinate its promotion of overthrow movements by creating a "global democratic security structure or alliance," which would be equipped to use force if need be -- as "of course the capacity to use force yields enormous leverage." That said, Palmer concedes that despite all this power, "The fight for democracy cannot be successfully directed from without -- only assisted and advised." (8) Thus the role of the democracy-promotion national security cadre is to ensure that only the right-thinking democracy activists receive support.

To better coordinate these activities in the United States, Palmer would like to see the appointment of a deputy secretary of state for democracy, who would have "the authority to oversee democracy efforts throughout the US government, including oversight of Defense Department and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) relationships as they affect democracy." In his ideal world, working under this appointee would be two "new bureaus headed by assistant secretaries," one for "helping consolidate democracy in countries in transition," and the other to be "responsible for countries under dictatorship." (9) The latter's task would be...

... to get help to those brave activists working to bring down the most repressive regimes, now numbering forty-five. This position also requires highly developed political skills, so that the assistant secretary can work with the Congress, all aspects of the American bureaucracy, the media, NGOs, the policy community, and diplomatic allies to accomplish the formidable tasks at hand. To achieve results, she or he will need real power and considerable resources. Given the importance of the task; presidential backing, and Congress's track record of supporting efforts to promote democracy in such places as Serbia and elsewhere, acquiring these should not be overly difficult. (p.56)

Palmer considers the thorough-going integration of democracy promoters into US foreign policy as part of a much needed paradigm shift in international affairs. Indeed, he recognizes that in spite of the existence of "nongovernmental" bodies like the National Endowment for Democracy, previous foreign interventions have been overly reliant upon private philanthropists, like for example George Soros and his Open Society Institute. So while the National Endowment for Democracy does...

... give material support to few movements engaged in an organized campaign directed at regime change. Too often, the endowment has been unwilling to take the lead in large-scale programs to oust dictators. In Serbia, for example, it refused the State Department's urgent request to channel the initial $10 million in post-Kosovo war democracy assistance through the endowment. The Democratic and Republican core institutes did make vital contributions to the opposition and independent civic organizations like Otpor through training, polling, and other means. ... However, more such efforts are needed in all dictatorships. (p.63)

Of course Palmer envisages a place for the private sector in his democracy initiatives, and he "propose[s] that the major multinational corporations and their associations establish [something he refers to as] the Business Community for Democracy." In addition, he calls upon "democracy and human rights activists" to take a more active stance against dictators, and he chides them for often "spend[ing] more effort attacking their own democratic governments and business leaders than on the serious culprits, the dictators themselves." Rejecting their focus on leading imperialist states, he counsels them to cast their gaze overseas and...

...get on the front lines, where they can help organize strategic nonviolent actions and get the job done. Amnesty International USA's William Schulz notes, "A new realism ... would view human rights as more than the release of prisoners of conscience or an end to torture but as a comprehensive effort to shape democratic communities of rights that will be peaceful neighbors, fair trading partners, and collaborators in the effort to preserve a green planet." (10)

Palmer also suggests that a "US Center to Oust Dictators" should be set up to lobby for and coordinate the newly emergent nonviolent stream of interventions being developed by democratic governments worldwide. Such a group would be the political companion organization to Peter Ackerman's more theoretically inclined International Center for Nonviolent Conflict -- a group that was formed in 2001, and which subsequently co-sponsored a workshop with Freedom House that brought together "activists from sixteen countries, from successful campaigns and those still under way," to create what Palmer refers to as a Two-Stage Campaign to Oust Dictators. (11) Successfully launching such campaigns clearly relies upon a basic understanding of nonviolent tactics, but as Palmer makes abundantly clear, external support is critical. Thus in his consideration of the ouster of Milosevic in 2000, he writes that after "NATO bombing clearly weakened his credibility," "a student organization called Otpor ('Resistance' in Serbian) picked itself up and brushed itself off -- and proceeded to jump-start" a revolution.

While their energy and ingenuity were entirely homegrown, their funding was not. Accepting support from any source, foreign or domestic, willing to provide it, Otpor and other oppositionists -- including independent media, unions, and other pro-democracy groups -- took up to $20 million from Western sources. The latter included such organizations as the Open Society Institute, Freedom House, the American Center for Labor Solidarity, the Center for International Private Enterprise, the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe, the German Marshall Fund, the International Research and Exchanges Board, the International Foundation for Election Systems, Star-Delphi Women's Network, Network of East-West Women, the American Bar Association's Central and East European Law Initiative, World Learning, the US Institute of Peace, the National Endowment for Democracy, the International Republican Institute, and the National Democratic Institute. Numerous European funders and organizations also reached serious levels of participation, including the British Foreign Office; the German foreign ministry; all the German party foundations; the Netherlands foreign ministry; the governments of Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, Greece, Hungary, Canada, Denmark, Luxembourg, and the Czech Republic; Press Now (Netherlands); the Swedish Helsinki Committee; Norwegian People's AID; the Westminster Foundation; and others. (12)

Further, on the central role of violence in precipitating the coup against Milosevic, he adds: "Although it has become fashionable to give NATO bombers no credit for the collapse of the cruel Milosevic regime, few actions carry more weight than the willingness to go to war on behalf of another nation's people." (13)

Palmer, being a central advocate for complete integration of nonviolence into the military industrial complex, speaks far more frankly than the writers who inspired his own book -- here I am thinking of Gene Sharp, Peter Ackerman, and Jack Duvall. Palmer even boasts of his dedication to this cause by noting, "I have bet my career, my money, and much of my adult life on the possibility of a fully democratic world." With regard to his monetary investments (which are not really bets) here he is referring to his role "[A]s one of the first American investors in eastern Europe following the fall of communism" to work with local partners to create "the first politically independent commercial television stations in eight countries." (14) Not surprisingly this "risk" has paid off, and the company he co-founded, Central European Media Enterprises, now describes itself as "the leading vertically integrated media company in Central and Eastern Europe." The other founder of this "independent" media enterprise, who we can assume has an equal commitment to the realization of a "fully democratic world," is the right-wing Zionist Ronald Lauder, who is the longstanding chairman of the ethnic cleansing Jewish National Fund.

Palmer did not, however, put all his democratic eggs in one basket, and at the time of writing Breaking the Real Axis of Evil he was also a board member of MCT Corp, a corporation that provides cellular telephone services in the former Soviet Union. Another significant individual who (at the time) sat with Palmer on MCT's board of directors -- seeking to help former communists hear the power of democracy -- was Lucius E. Burch III, a former board member of the Corrections Corporation of America, a corporation that makes massive profits from imprisoning black Americans. (15)

Last but not least, given his friendship with Ronald Lauder, it is interesting to note that Palmer is the chairman of SignalOne Media, an organization that "is creating independent commercial television stations in emerging markets -- initially in the Middle East." Furthermore, SignalOne's cofounder and CEO, Jim Hake, just so happens to be the founder of Spirit of America, the aforementioned neoconservative group that provides aid to the US military during their state led massacres. Not coincidentally Palmer serves on Spirit of America's advisory board, and their three-person-strong board of directors includes his "peacenik" friend Peter Ackerman.

One might add that contrary to Palmer's own recommendation that activists should avoid becoming fixated on promoting democracy in the United States, in recent years Palmer has decided to do just that. This is because he is a longstanding member of the advisory board of another neoconservative group known as The Democracy Project, whose stated "mission is to strengthen the institutions and conventions that support liberty and democratic rule at home and abroad." Yet, when this group talks about promoting democracy, what they really mean is gutting democracy. Thus their primary objective seems to be to counter the type of reporting -- which they call "hate-filled tracts and pseudo-journalism" -- that casts America as "an imperial power bent on selfish domination of the world's peoples and resources" instead of as a "beacon of freedom and hope." The director and co-founder of this propaganda project is the infamous Winfield Myers, who also acts as the director of Campus Watch -- a "blacklisting organization" created by pro-Israel propagandist Daniel Pipes "that targets [US-based] scholars with views perceived as not sufficiently sympathetic towards Israel." (16)

Ironically, Palmer's more rabid neoconservative friends at Campus Watch have in the past even targeted the work of Stephen Zunes, an individual who since 2006 has chaired the academic advisory board for Ackerman's International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, and is perhaps one of the most ardent defenders of the Palmer-Ackerman military-peace nonprofit complex. The double irony in the case of Campus Watch is that, by my own analysis, Zunes's work on Israeli politics actually serves to defend Zionism rather than critique it (see "Stephen Zunes and the Zionist Tinderbox").

The political clout of the military-peace nonprofit complex is growing apace, and too many people at home and abroad are in danger of being lulled and then crushed by an oligarchy capable of wearing both the velvet slipper and the iron heel. Such anti-democratic developments hold no surprises to opponents of the oligarchy, but apologists for the velvet slipper who seek to teach anti-democratic intelligence agencies about the power of nonviolent activism must be identified and excluded from further involvement with progressive social movements. A good example that springs to mind is Lester Kurtz, who -- in addition to residing on the advisory board of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict -- recently responded to an article that challenged the fact that he had given a lecture to the CIA, by "arguing": "I spoke as an independent academic and in no way as a representative of the ICNC when my government asked me to dialogue with members of its intelligence community. I feel that it is my duty as a citizen to educate others..." and "was glad to give my modest input..." (17)

The history of the elite manipulation of social change has been well documented by popular writers like Howard Zinn amongst many others, and to some extent even Jack London gave a warning of how the iron heel may act to defuse large-scale revolutionary movements. Indeed, in his fictitious autobiographical account of a revolutionary, London described how when his revolutionary movement was on the brink of launching "a sudden colossal, stunning blow" to the entire North American oligarchy, their forthcoming revolution was postponed when the oligarchy caught wind of what they planned and pre-empted them. The oligarchy did this by "deliberately manufactur[ing]" the social conditions that would precipitate an isolated and containable revolutionary uprising that could be destroyed. Back in the real world it is perfectly understandable why elites should seek to manipulate progressive social movements, now we just need to decide what actions we can take to protect our movements from such unwanted interventions.


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1.  Jack London, The Iron Heel (The Journeyman Press, 1984 [1907]), p.98, p.104. London pointed out that Rockefeller constituted part of the Plutocracy's brain (pp.102-4). For a discussion of Rockefeller's subsidies to union officials, see "Liberal Elites and the Pacification of Workers."  (back)

2.  According to Beth Sims, the National Endowment for Democracy's "creation [in 1983] represented the culmination of efforts by a tightly woven group of intelligence experts, neoconservative ideologues, and representatives from the national committees of the two political parties, the AFL-CIO, and the US Chamber of Commerce." "Founded in 1941," Sims describes the closely affiliated Freedom House as "a neoconservative clearinghouse, research institute, and documentation center with a selective interest in international human rights and political freedoms."

Beth Sims, "National Endowment for Democracy (NED): A Foreign Policy Branch Gone Awry," A Policy Report by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs and the Inter-Hemispheric Education Resource Center, 1990, p.9, p.67. Palmer, Breaking the Real Axis of Evil, p.xx.  (back)

3.  For criticisms of the US Institute for Peace and the Albert Einstein Institution, see Richard Hatch and Sara Diamond, "Operation Peace Institute," Z Magazine, July/Aug 1990; Michael Barker, "Sharp Reflection Warranted: Nonviolence in the Service of Imperialism," Swans Commentary, June 30, 2008.  (back)

4.  Palmer, Breaking the Real Axis of Evil, p.xviii.  (back)

5.  Palmer, Breaking the Real Axis of Evil, p.19, p.23, p.24.  (back)

6.  Palmer, Breaking the Real Axis of Evil, pp.24-5. Acting in a similar manner, Palmer adds that "Senator Paul Laxalt did much to help oust Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and Senator Ted Kennedy kept pressure on Chile's Augusto Pinochet." (p.50) For a detailed examination of how the U.S. interfered through "democratic" proxies like Laxalt and Kennedy to manipulate local regime change movements in the Philippines and Chile, see William I. Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, US Intervention, and Hegemony (Cambridge University Press, 1996).

Later in his book Palmer, in a chapter titled Embassies as Freedom Houses, Ambassadors as Freedom Fighters, outlines the strategic importance of foreign US embassies (which have long been the base of CIA operations) in the promotion of democracy. Here, he illustrates the important role that Harry G. Barnes, Jr. played in the ouster of Pinochet during his time as the US ambassador to Chile from 1985 until 1988 (pp.110-25). As Palmer acknowledges: "The hand of the American ambassador and his embassy was everywhere apparent in this transition, although the decision, as always, came from the people, not the representatives of a foreign power." (p.123) Interestingly, Palmer downplays the activities of the CIA in ensuring Pinochet's rise to power in 1973, writing: "Indeed, the widely held view persists to the present day that the Central Intelligence Agency engineered Allende's overthrow, when, in fact, they merely let it happen." (p.111) This is because he likes to pretend that the overt activities of the National Endowment for Democracy were not modeled on the formerly covert democracy promotion activities of the CIA, which enables him to create a neat and unrealistic dichotomy between their activities. For a detailed discussion of the CIA's role in supporting the overthrow movement which targeted President Salvador Allende, see "Taking the risk out of civil society: harnessing social movements and regulating revolutions." (pdf), pp.4-5.  (back)

7.  Palmer, Breaking the Real Axis of Evil, p.28, p.29, p.31, p.28. If we look back in history to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, it is evident that the ongoing threat of massive public violence had much to do with the successes reaped by the "nonviolent" movement: for two excellent books on this subject see Peter Levy's Civil War on Race Street: The Civil Rights Movement in Cambridge (University of Florida Press, 2003), and Lance Hill's The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement (University of North Carolina Press, 2004).

Palmer writes: "A few experienced military men have begun applying their insights and experience to the ousting of dictators. One such is former army colonel Bob Helvey [a former principal at the Albert Einstein Institution], today one of the world's leading experts and trainers in the use of nonviolent force to bring about the downfall of dictators. His skills need to be replicated throughout the armed and security forces of democratic states." (p.70)  (back)

8.  Palmer, Breaking the Real Axis of Evil, p.30, p.31, p.45, p.59.  (back)

9.  Palmer, Breaking the Real Axis of Evil, pp.55-6.  (back)

10.  Palmer, Breaking the Real Axis of Evil, p.41. Palmer downplays the fact that many liberal democracy and human rights activists have worked for years to encourage the US government to take a more interventionist approach to human rights abuses. However, it has only been in the past few decades that such thinking has become institutionalized within Western foreign policymaking elites, see "Human Rights Watch Brings Neoliberalism To Africa."  (back)

11.  Palmer, Breaking the Real Axis of Evil, p.62, p.152.  (back)

12.  Palmer, Breaking the Real Axis of Evil, p.181. Palmer significantly underestimates the degree of Western support for the resistance movement. Michael Dobbs notes that in 2000, the US government alone provided approximately US$40 million to promote democracy in Serbia and "US-funded consultants played a crucial role behind the scenes in virtually every facet of the anti-Milosevic drive." Michael Dobbs, "US advice guided Milosevic opposition," The Washington Post, December 11, 2000.  (back)

13.  Palmer, Breaking the Real Axis of Evil, p.318.  (back)

14.  Palmer, Breaking the Real Axis of Evil, p.xix, p.xviii.  (back)

15.  That said, this is not to imply through his choice of associates that Palmer is not concerned with challenging the injustice of prison; it is just that he thinks human rights activists have the wrong target when they focus on the United States. In Palmer's world such activists should be looking at repressive regimes (not America), like for instance in China. As along with many other "humanitarian" neoconservatives he is a strong advocate for the Falun Gong's cause, and is a former board member of their related television group, New Tang Dynasty Television.  (back)

16.  Muhammad Idrees Ahmad, "Spinwatch Profile: 'Campus Watch'," Spinwatch, April 5, 2005.  (back)

17.  Stephen Gowans, "Lester Kurtz's Duty," What's Left, January 15, 2011.  (back)


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Published February 28, 2011