Archive for January, 2018

Gene Sharp, the pioneering and prolific scholar of Gandhian nonviolence and civil resistance, passed away this week at age 90. His life was dedicated to examining the ways in which nonviolent action achieves political change.

While studying Gandhi’s methods at Oxford in the 1950s, Sharp realized that it is not necessary to convert people to pacifism in order to organize effective nonviolent action. Many of those who followed Gandhi in the Indian freedom struggle did not accept his pacifist principles. They used his methods because they found them to be most effective for their strategy of winning independence from British rule.

This understanding of nonviolence as a superior method of political action was a key conceptual breakthrough. Nonviolent action is not only the right thing to do, it is also the most effective.

Sharp’s thesis on the superiority of nonviolent methods was later confirmed in the work of Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, whose 2008 book Why Civil Resistance Works provides empirical data showing that campaigns utilizing nonviolent means are twice as effective as those that employ armed struggle.

Sharp devoted himself to the study of nonviolent action as a pragmatic means of achieving change. He published many important books and pamphlets, including his three-volume classic, The Politics of Nonviolent Action (Porter Sargent, 1973) and Waging Nonviolent Struggle: 20th Century Practice and 21st Century Potential (Extending Horizons Books, Porter Sargent Publishers, 2005). His booklet, From Dictatorship to Democracy, published originally by his Albert Einstein Institution in 1994, was subsequently reprinted and translated into more than two dozen languages, including Arabic.

The youth leaders in Egypt who led the revolution overthrowing the Mubarak regime in 2011 read and received training in Sharp’s work. This prompted the New York Times to credit the bookish octogenarian scholar with creating the playbook for revolution, a claim Sharp denied although he expressed satisfaction that the revolutionists found his ideas useful.

Sharp’s ideas and insights live on in the work of the Einstein Institution, the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict and in the work of peace studies and civil resistance centers around the world. Let us commemorate his life by re-reading his work and renewing our commitment to nonviolent action for justice and peace.

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Secretary of State Tillerson recently announced that U.S. troops will remain in Syria even after the fight against ISIS ends. The military mission will include preventing the Assad regime from re-establishing control over rebel-held territories. This means the U.S. is taking sides in the bloody Syrian civil war, sliding ever more deeply into the quicksand of permanent war in the Middle East.

All of this without public debate or legal authorization.

Hats off to Senator Corey Booker and Professor Oona Hathaway for pointing out in the New York Times that keeping U.S. troops in Syria without the approval of Congress or the UN Security Council would be illegal. The same could be said for other U.S. military operations in the world today.

According to the U.S. Constitution, the authority to declare war rests squarely with Congress. That authority has eroded over the decades and was dealt a body blow by presidential war-making in Vietnam. In 1973 Congress passed the War Powers Act in a faint attempt to recover some of its constitutional authority. The law requires the President to notify Congress within 48 hours of sending troops into hostilities and to end military operations within 60 days if Congress does not declare war or authorize the use of military force.

This attempt to constrain executive war-making was steamrolled in the stampede to war after 9/11. Congress adopted an initial Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) allowing military action to suppress Al Qaida under the principle of self-defense. That thin authority has since been stretched, warped and distorted beyond recognition into a blanket authorization for permanent military operations without geographic or temporal limits. The U.S. is bombing Libya, Somalia, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan and has forces deployed in those countries and an unknown number of others.

Under the Charter of the United Nations, a treaty binding on the U.S. which the U.S. basically wrote, nations are prohibited from using military force in other countries unless in self-defense or when authorized by the Security Council. The outlawing of war was derived from the Kellogg-Briand Peace Pact of 1928, in which the United States and dozens of countries vowed to renounce the use of war as an instrument of national policy. Read The Internationalists by Hathaway and Scott Shapiro for the stirring story of how that prohibition emerged.

We know of course that political leaders often sign such documents with fingers crossed, but the prohibition against war is a legal fact and a sound principle.  It was established as a way of avoiding war and discouraging nations from sending troops across borders without authorization.

If we want to be a nation of laws, as we claim, a good place to start would be in obeying international prohibitions against military intervention. We’d better do it fast before we get bogged down in the chaos of Syria.

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Memories of the Master

Marcus Raskin died this past week in Washington DC. He was the founder and long-time director of the Institute for Policy Studies, the influential left-liberal think tank that was at the heart of the Vietnam antiwar movement and many progressive projects over the decades.

Raskin was my teacher and mentor for PhD studies and guided the writing of my dissertation, which became the book, Soldiers in Revolt.

In the years I was at the Institute, 1972-75, Raskin was constantly in motion, always organizing conferences and antiwar actions, meeting dignitaries and donors, endlessly fundraising, engaging in intense political and intellectual conversations with the leading thinkers and doers of the day. I knew how difficult it was for him to fit advising my dissertation into his packed schedule and was immensely grateful for his willingness to read and discuss my chapters and guide my studies.

I remember spending a lot of time in those days waiting outside his office. Often he would be late or called away to another priority. Then he would come rushing in, greeting me warmly, and quickly getting down to the business of scholarship, peppering me with probing questions about the research and writing.

Those were shining moments of enlightenment for me. He would question my assumptions and conclusions, agreeing with some and challenging others, and urge me to look into additional sources, always suggesting important works for me to read in political theory, international relations and national security.

Raskin was the classic scholar-activist, a concept he developed at length in his important book, Being and Doing: the scholar who studies for the purpose of social betterment, the activist who is deeply grounded in scholarship. I have tried to apply that model throughout my life and always share it with my students.

Raskin also played a critical role in guiding my career. He introduced me to the directors of SANE, the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy when they were searching for a new director. Several years after I became executive director of SANE, he became chair of the board of directors, and we worked together closely during the 1980s in building the movement to freeze and reverse the arms race.

We met almost weekly during those years, spending time on organizational matters but also discussing strategic and programmatic direction. We didn’t always agree. He was more interested in the broad vision of disarmament, calling for a renewal of the 1961 plan for general and complete disarmament, while I was more focused on achievable policy steps, such as a U.S.-Soviet halt to nuclear testing. But he was always supportive of the organization and my leadership and never wavered in his commitment to building and supporting a strong movement against nuclear weapons.

We mourn his passing, as always when the great ones leave us, but we also recognize and pay tribute to his monumental contributions. The master is gone, but his work lives on in our continuing struggle against the war system that dominates U.S. foreign policymaking.

Photo with Marcus Raskin

Marcus Raskin with Jonathan Hutto and me at the 2007 Letelier-Moffitt award ceremony.

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