The dictator slayer

By ADAM REILLY  |  December 5, 2007

If your politics fall somewhere between these extremes, though, this convergence of goals isn’t nearly as troubling. Milošević was a bad guy; Hussein was worse. Serbia is better off now than it was 10 years ago. And Iraq might have been, if Hussein had been overthrown nonviolently and by Iraqis. From this vantage point, the trouble isn’t that the government and various organizations in the foreign-policy firmament have started to heed Sharp’s wisdom. It’s that they still don’t heed it enough.

When I mention Helvey’s Budapest trip to Sharp, he says it was an independent affair, not an AEI project. He also mentions that, “years ago,” the AEI received small grants from the IRI and the National Endowment for Democracy, another government-funded group founded in the Reagan era. (Sharp didn’t note this in his open letters to Chávez and Meyssan.)

But Sharp isn’t apologizing. “We received no instructions — there were no restrictions put on our use of that money,” he says. “It was not used for any purpose contrary to our principles. And how else would [critics] prefer that money be spent? Would they prefer it be spent on something like the Iraq or Afghanistan wars? Those are the choices.”

Marović, the former Otpor leader, has a slightly different take on the subject of funding and influence. “I’m not going to say that no democracy promotion is compatible with US interests, or that democracy promotion isn’t a mask to cover US imperialism,” he says. “I don’t care. As long as we have a strong grassroots movement at home, it really doesn’t matter. Because we’re going to be the ones setting the agenda.”

After the fall
Sharp’s ties to Helvey raise one more important point. Perhaps, if the major proponent of Sharp’s work had been an impeccably credentialed lefty rather than a former military man, Sharp’s harshest critics wouldn’t find him quite so spooky. But his collaboration with Helvey bolsters Sharp’s own contention that nonviolent struggle isn’t just a feel-good hobby for idealists and pacifists (he’s not one himself). It is, instead, an intensely practical way to affect massive political change. “You don’t have to be a saint; you don’t have to be a mahatma,” he tells me. “Ordinary people have done these things.”

Finally, there’s the awkward matter of Sharp’s humble current circumstances. Working from home has its advantages, of course. But Sharp says he’s moved from Harvard Square to Newbury Street to Maverick Square for one simple reason: money, or the lack thereof. Finding funders for the AEI isn’t easy, he tells me mournfully.

Chalk it up to bad timing. During the 1970s and 1980s, Sharp’s most professionally fertile period, his own work wasn’t really in step with the academic or foreign-policy Zeitgeist. Things are different now. Peace studies is now considered a legitimate academic discipline. And the (largely nonviolent) fall of the Soviet Union launched countless nonprofits dedicated to democracy building, with George Soros’s Open Society Institute the best-known of the bunch.

Sharp, however, is winding down. He’s about to turn 80, for one thing. And the very individuals who’ve been inspired by Sharp’s work, in both the academic and practical realms, are now rendering it antiquated, at least to a degree. Where Sharp spent his career looking for universally applicable rules, his successors pay more attention to cultural and historical particularities; he wrote books, but his intellectual heirs make documentaries and design video games.

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