Just to Clarify: I’m Not a Pacifist

24 Aug

I have gotten some interesting feedback about my article called “Think Again: Nonviolent Resistance,” which was posted in Foreign Policy magazine’s August 24, 2011 online edition. The strongest reaction has been related to the assertion that “nonviolent resistance is the moral thing to do,” which is contained in the (somewhat unfortunate) tagline below the article’s title.

I say it’s unfortunate because it distracts people from the overall point I’m making, which is that historically, nonviolent resistance has been a more effective strategic choice than armed insurrection against authoritarian regimes. People think I’m saying that using violence is immoral, whereas nonviolent resistance is moral. The question I took on in the Think Again piece wasn’t whether using violence against Qaddafi’s thugs was moral or immoral. In fact, I don’t know if using nonviolent resistance is always the moral thing to do, and I am not very interested in that question in the first place.

Because of the tagline, I am afraid that I come across as a pacifist who looked for evidence that nonviolent resistance worked where it actually didn’t. It’s the exact reverse. I’m a utilitarian who spent four years developing a research design so that I could scientifically test the hypothesis that nonviolent resistance is more effective than violence. I was a skeptic. And I was surprised by what I found. Hence the “Think Again” part of the title.

I will go on record here as saying that I am not a pacifist. I am interested in what works. At times, I think that violence is both necessary and justified. However, based on my own research, these times seem to be extremely rare, very complex, and highly contingent.

As for whether nonviolent resistance could have succeeded in Libya, well, we’ll never know. But here are three points worth considering.

1). As I mentioned, the movement was fairly spontaneous, unlike the highly coordinated campaign in Egypt. As Peter Ackerman consistently points out, planning is an essential element to a successful nonviolent revolution. As with any battlefield, a nonviolent campaign requires extensive preparation. But as far as I can tell from news reports, Libyans began protesting in earnest around Feburary 15, perhaps inspired by events in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia. By February 19th, the movement became violent in response to bloody crackdowns by Qaddafi’s regime. Four days of civil resistance doesn’t give it a very long time to work. Just ask any Egyptian activist, who struggled for years before seeing Mubarak fall, or a Syrian oppositionist who has trudged along in dangerous uncertainty for the past six months. Again, I don’t fault Libyan fighters for using violence, and I do not call into question their bravery or moral fiber for doing so. I am just arguing that they did not fully exhaust nonviolent options before they resorted to violence.

2). The peaceful part of the Libyan campaign primarily consisted of protest activity. Such tactics are visible and disruptive, but also vulnerable to repression. There are a wide variety of tactics available to such movements that are lower-risk yet irritating to the regime, as I detail here. So almost always, nonviolent movements have options when faced with repression that do not involve selecting violence. The down side is that they take time to plan and coordinate. But choosing violence carries major risks to the movement’s ability to attract wide participation, which in turn can undermine the its ability to achieve sufficient noncooperation to disrupt the regime.

3). The success of the Libyan uprising will no doubt go down in history as a success for violent insurgency. But my point #2 notwithstanding, Juan Cole has argued that there was considerable civil resistance prior to the opposition’s overtaking of Tripoli. In an August 22 interview on Democracy Now, he said:

We’re seeing a revolution coming to its final phase. We’re seeing yet another popular cascade. The reason for which the freedom fighters could enter the capital so easily—many of them just walked in or drove in and came relatively quickly to the center of the city—was because the city had already overthrown the regime. Beginning Saturday night, working-class districts rose up, in the hundreds of thousands, and just threw off the regime. So they softened up the situation for the fighters to come in. And we’ve seen this picture before. This is like what happened in Tunisia and Egypt towards the final phases of those regimes: the capital city throws hundreds of thousands of people into the downtown area to demand that the dictator depart.

h/t to Stephen Zunes for this source.

Khaled Darwish’s op-ed in the New York Times today seems to corroborate this somewhat, although the sequence of events is a bit fuzzy. I have bolded potential evidence of noncooperation in the following passage:

I saw cars filled with families from the surrounding areas stream thickly toward the Souq al-Juma area and the Tajoura neighborhood east of it, over which the rebels’ flag of independence had been raised. Rebels had flocked there from Misurata, the western mountains and other liberated towns. Around noon, a convoy of Red Cross cars drove through the city, their flags raised.

I settled into an apartment in one of the buildings, to make sure that a sniper could not come in and get up to the roof. The night before last, young men had discovered a sniper in a recently abandoned apartment in the building across the street. He hadn’t hit anyone, but they made out where he was, then climbed up there. They locked the large iron safety door, with its chains and giant locks, and left him to his fate.

Around 1 p.m., I watched pickup trucks loaded with young men as they cradled the body of a martyr — God bless his soul — and called on people to pray for him. They headed toward the Sidi Buker cemetery, or maybe the Hani one. Those cemeteries used to be monopolized by Colonel Qaddafi and his dead; now they have been put to a different use.

Just as the rebels of Tripoli have broken the Qaddafi hold on the city, they have also broken the chains of the past. Our martyrs’ names will be written in bright letters on the record book of Libya’s unbroken history.

I heard the chants of “God is great” from children and women in the mosques as I flipped between radio stations like Radio Free Misurata and Radio Free Tripoli, now in our hands after fierce fighting. I was looking for the state-controlled station, which poisoned the minds of a generation that graduated not from college, but from the nightclubs of Bab al-Aziziya, the Qaddafi compound, to sing the blasphemous praises of that unholy exterminator of his people.

The shelling continued. I heard voices and saw plumes of smoke. I heard the planes high above, and some artillery from a direction I couldn’t identify. I heard that Al Sarim Street was full of the bodies of the dead, including women and children who had fallen to snipers’ bullets and were left in the street because no one dared approach.

I haven’t been able to find any additional corroborating evidence of mass civil resistance yet in the media, but if this is true, then nonviolent resistance had a pretty important part in the “endgame” of the Libyan revolution, and as such, deserves at least some credit for the opposition’s victory. You don’t hear that too much on the news these days.

Once more, for the record: I’m a guns and bombs scholar who found a fascinating and counter-intuitive relationship between the use of nonviolent resistance and the success of mass uprisings.

I am making a utilitarian argument, not a pacifist one.


I cross-posted some of these ideas about Libya at Waging Nonviolence today. Check out the post here.

4 Responses to “Just to Clarify: I’m Not a Pacifist”

  1. Tom Hastings August 25, 2011 at 7:09 am #

    May I mention that it is OK for a pacifist to make a utilitarian argument? I’m a pacifist and that makes me a more effective activist, but it shouldn’t matter whether a researcher is a pantheistic pacifist or a member of the military. Research is assailable or not. Accusing someone of data mining is only valid if it’s valid and needs just as much justification as does the research itself. And I can verify that Chenoweth was an extreme skeptic when she started looking at this. She read my work and dismissed it (I am not a researcher, just a writer and activist). Then she essentially set out to disprove many of our (pacifists’) assertions about what works and instead found results that buttressed much of our analysis. She was as surprised as we were pleased. And just for the record, nonviolence is obviously more moral and why is that a forbidden consideration? What Chenoweth has concluded is that all else being equal (except for secession movements), nonviolent FORCE is more powerful. Isn’t that a happy coincidence? It is time to stop sacralizing violence and getting hysterical every time someone notes that it isn’t a moral thing to do, in general.

    • rationalinsurgent August 25, 2011 at 7:54 am #

      Tom, thanks for your points. You are completely right that pacifists can be utilitarian, and that utilitarians can also be pacifists. At times, I feel compelled to set the record straight on my own views, not to dismiss pacifism per se, but rather to let people know that I had no dog in this fight at the outset. It seems to make it easier for them to listen.

  2. Tom Hastings August 25, 2011 at 9:27 am #

    Gene Sharp also is insistent upon leaving morals out of the discussion, though he is a pacifist. He came under criticism from the pacifists for leaving morals out of it, so if you study nonviolence, you can’t win!

  3. Larry Rosenwald August 27, 2011 at 6:27 pm #

    Some reflections, which I sent to Erica and which she suggested I post here (they were apropos of her _Foreign Policy_ article – I didn’t post comments there because the tone of discourse deteriorated pretty quickly . . . ); they’re largely in accord with the comments made by Tom Hastings.
    So . . .
    I looked at Erica’s blog and saw what she meant in saying she wasn’t a pacifist. For me at any rate, that wasn’t as clear in the FP article. If I’m understanding it rightly, Erica chooses not to call herself a pacifist because she doesn’t start from a categorical rejection of violence, from what she calls “a philosophical position that rejects the use of violence on moral grounds.” And surely most activists in the Arab Spring weren’t pacifists in that sense, they were, and she is, utilitarians, trying to figure out what would work.
    Right at the beginning of that section of the FP article, though, she seems to assocate pacifism with “‘peaceful’ or ‘passive’ resistance.” That doesn’t seem to me right; some pacifists are passive (a consequence, I sometimes think, of the seductive similarity in sound between the two words!), some pacifists aren’t. Moreover, having a philosophical or religious commitment to rejecting violence isn’t incompatible with being strategic, with wanting to figure out how power works – as in Gandhi’s case, as Erica rightly notes, but also in Martin Luther King’s, or in Gene Sharp’s, who was if I’m recalling rightly a conscientious objector before he was a scholar of nonviolence. It’s good to make clear that engaging in nonviolent resistance is possible for those not committed to nonviolence on philosophical grounds; but it’s also good to note that some of those who’ve engaged most successfully in nonviolent resistance have been people having precisely that philosophical commitment.
    I’m writing as a fundmentalist pacifist, to use a skeptical colleague’s favorite epithet for me, who’s also interested in what the facts reveal about the nature of action and power, and maybe my position is distorting my reading of that section of your essay.

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