With Democrats in power (for now), powerful funders may be trying to tame or silence progressive peace activists
Dave Lindorff / Salon
(June 2, 2021) — During the four years of the Trump administration, resistance and even revolutionary talk were in the air as organizations with names like The Resistance and Our Revolution brought together liberals, Democrats of all stripes and Sandernistas, all opposed to President Donald Trump and to Trumpism in all its manifestations.
When it came to matters of war and peace, virtually everything Trump did internationally — his fawningly friendly relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, his Tomahawk cruise missile attacks on Syria, his coziness with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his ordering of a drone assassination of Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani, his massive military budgets — was criticized mercilessly by progressives, the liberal establishment and groups in the Democratic mainstream.
With the arrival of the Biden presidency, the dynamics have changed dramatically. Consider the liberal response to the Biden transition team floating Michèle Flournoy’s name as a potential secretary of defense. Instead of outrage at the idea of someone who had spent the previous four years helping arms contractors win business with the Trump Pentagon and who is an advocate for tough, even aggressive stances towards Russia, China and Iran, we saw an open letter of support signed by 29 key people active in the peace and arms-control arena.
Signatories included Joe Cirincione, former president for 12 years of the Ploughshares Fund, along with Tom Collina, Michelle Dover and Emma Belcher of that same well-endowed grant-offering organization. They were joined by the likes of Tom Countryman and Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association, Rachel Bronson of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Ilan Goldenberg of the Center for New American Security, Joan Rohlfing of the Nuclear Threat Initiative and others.
The letter declared that Flournoy was “the best candidate for the job” and that her “deep understanding of nuclear weapons policy and budgets” made her “ready to address” the issues with experience “from the first day in office.”
What these individuals and organizations represent are many of the big-money “peace” funding and lobbying groups in the country — groups with access to Democratic-aligned power centers in Washington that can now, through their financial clout and their access, lure more grassroots peace activists and their less well-funded and “plugged in” organizations into supporting the Biden administration and the narrow Democratic majorities in Congress — or at least throttling their criticism.
The idea of a Flournoy nomination ultimately foundered, in large part because some bolder antiwar groups and the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight highlighted her record of hustling for arms industry pay dirt after leaving her job as undersecretary of defense for policy during Barack Obama’s first term. That’s when, after turning down an offer to work under Trump Defense Secretary James Mattis, Flournoy took a senior adviser position at the Boston Consulting Group. There she powered that firm’s arms-industry advisory business from a paltry $1 million to $32 million in less than a year.
Flournoy went on to parlay her Pentagon connections into bigger money by co-founding WestExec Advisors, a “we’re-not-a-lobbying-organization, we’re-a-strategic-advisory-firm” outfit that offers national security business leaders “unrivaled … recent experience and unmatched networks in defense, foreign policy, intelligence, economics, cybersecurity, data privacy, and strategic communications.”
An EZ-pass for Tony Blinken at State
Interestingly though, while serious opposition coalesced among anti-militarism, anti-revolving-door people and groups in the Flournoy case, her WestExec Advisors co-founder Antony Blinken, nominated as secretary of state, sailed through his nomination and hearing process. This despite Blinken’s record as an enthusiastic interventionist while serving in the Obama administration as deputy national security advisor and later as deputy secretary of state, and despite his profiting off his connections as a WestExec adviser to arms makers after leaving office.
Even though he was teamed up with Flournoy as a fellow arms-industry influence peddler at WestExec, Blinken won effusive backing for his nomination as secretary of state in an email to Council for a Livable World members authored by people like former Rep. John Tierney, CLW’s executive director, and Matt Duss, the widely praised Bernie Sanders foreign policy staffer who has publicly fawned over Blinken. Likewise Faiz Shakir, a former aide to Sen. Harry Reid and Sanders’ 2020 campaign manager, who called Blinken a “solid choice” for the State Department job.
There wasn’t the same full-court press for Blinken’s nomination that there was in the push to get Flournoy the nomination at the Pentagon, perhaps because Blinken, a close associate of Biden, was seen as having the nomination in the bag. But the strong support of both these individuals, even from people with a history of progressive foreign policy stands, is noteworthy. Significantly, much of the support for Flournoy, and some of the backing for Blinken, came from groups and individuals associated with the Peace and Security Funders Group (PSFG), either as funders, like the Ploughshares Fund, or as recipients of PSFG member funds, like the Council for a Livable World.
We’ve seen this kind of thing before — the use of grant funding and promises of “access” to power to restrain or neutralize a militant and critical activist movement. When the environmental movement began to take off in the 1970s, it demonstrated such dynamism and massive public support that even Republican President Richard Nixon felt compelled to head off critics by establishing the Environmental Protection Agency.
Corporate America, as represented by huge funding entities — many, like the various Rockefeller family funds and the Chevron Corporation, associated with the fossil fuel industry — responded by establishing in 1987 a consortium of funders called the Environmental Grantmakers Association. The EGA began meeting to decide how the major funders of environmental groups would distribute grants, and ultimately to influence the tactics and goals of environmental activist groups.
How a Funder Consortium Tamed the Environmental Movement
As Jeffrey St. Clair, editor and co-founder with the late Alexander Cockburn of Counterpunch magazine and author of the book “Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me,” puts it, “It was the power of the Environmental Grantmakers Association that made the greens easy to manipulate. It’s a phenomenon that replicates itself again and again.”
As St. Clair suggests, it appears that the PSFG, a strikingly similar organization to the EGA, may be playing a similarly influential and even dominant role when it comes to the U.S. peace movement.
Matt Hoh is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy. Until his resignation five years ago, he was a board member of Council for a Livable World, one of the larger national security/arms control organizations in the PSFG. Hoh says that while he has no inside information about the funding policies of the funding consortium or its members, “The assumption that the big peace and national security funding groups are taming the peace movement is a correct one.”
He explains: “When you have a bunch of organizations in a group like that, and some of them are really mainstream vanilla like Open Society, you’re going to see the whole organization and its member groups moderate their positions and their funding policies to the lowest denominator. These big groups, especially the ones that also act as holding pens for people in the foreign policy area who have to leave government employment when a Republican administration comes in, and use them as references when looking for government jobs under a new Democratic administration like this one, don’t want to be funding groups that mount protests in House or Senate committee hearings or try to arrest [former Nixon Secretary of State] Henry Kissinger for war crimes.”
Hoh says he recalls comments being made while he was at CLW about organizations receiving grants needing to “ease up” on their rhetoric or protest actions, but doesn’t recall that kind of conversation moving beyond CLW to the collective PSFG membership. But he also says, “I think the issue of putting pressure on activist groups has deepened over the last 10 years.” He adds, “The best evidence that there is pressure on activists to tone down is the way you’re finding so few leaders of groups that get funding from PSFG member organizations willing to speak for this article on the record.”
As pacifist David Swanson, executive director of World Beyond War, puts it, “People in groups that get funding from these big grant-making organizations have to consider that there could be a financial price to be paid for taking a militant stand against policies of an administration like Biden’s that the big funding groups like.” Mostly he says, the problem shows up as self-censorship, not as an actual verbal reprimand or loss of an expected grant.
“PSFG in the Peace Movement Is Like the American Petroleum Institute for Oil Firms”
One peace activist in a group that has taken strong stands against U.S. military actions that violate the UN Charter said: “PSFG as a trade organization of the big peace funding groups is like the American Petroleum Institute in the oil industry. If its members were private companies, some of what they do would be called antitrust violations. They can blacklist groups that don’t stick to the consensus position of supporting a Democratic administration.” A blacklist from the PSFG would be a serious threat even if it were not actually employed in practice. Merely thinking it might happencould be enough to keep most activist-driven organizations in line if they rely on grant support.
That’s not to suggest that all the member organizations of PSFG apply that kind of pressure. Swanson notes, for example, that his own organization has received funding from the Jubitz Family Foundation, a member of PSFG. He says that foundation has never wavered in its support for World Beyond War despite his group’s uncompromising opposition to all war and military violence by the U.S. as well as other countries, and regardless of who is running things in Washington.
One peace activist, meanwhile, complained that big funding organizations in the Funding Group like Ploughshares and Open Society create an environment where their grantees are invited into the fold as part of a community, and that community has to agree on policy. “The funders,” this activist organization leader claimed, “don’t want to supportrealprotest. Just do old-fashioned lobbying, support the Democrats, and you’re in the group. But organize a protest and you’re out.
“They carefully regulate who gets to go on retreats, who signs group letters,” this activist continued. “It narrows and divides the inside and outside crowd.” (One example of this was support within the PSFG circle for the possible Flournoy nomination, with those who were not supportive mostly remaining silent, and opposition coming largely from outside the organization’s umbrella.)
This activist continued, “The situation with the peace movement was horrible during the Obama administration. It got better when Trump was president, although you had peace groups that actually criticized Trump for pulling troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan. How can you call that position being for peace! In any case, now with Biden as president it’s starting to get horrible with the peace movement all over again.”
The issue of exerting control through the purse strings is reportedly at work when it comes to getting access to people in power. “If you want meetings at the White House or State Department,” reports one activist, “you’d better fall in line with the position of the Funding Group.” This source adds, “It’s so sad that time and again we see this division between groups that want to play by the rules and support the Democrats, and groups that are ready to challenge war no matter who’s in power.”
A staffer who works for one of the funder organizations in PSFG said they had not personally witnessed the group as an organization blacklisting any peace group for being critical of the current Democratic administration (or any other), but did say there were discussions among the organization’s members each year about which groups to fund. That kind of discussion, of course, as opposed to just coordinating grants to avoid duplicating grants to the same organization, can amount to just a subtler way to bring pressure by ensuring a kind of uniform policy.
In any event, the fact that leaders of all but one funded organization reached for this story were unwilling to have their names used while speaking critically about the funding groups or their collective organization PSFG — and that was also true of leaders of groups that are outside PSFG and do not receive grants from its member funders — demonstrates the power and influence of PSFG members and their money and connections in Washington.
Another leader of a national security-oriented group that receives funding from several members of PSFG offers another perspective, saying, “Especially in the national security space we’re in, there is a lot of careerism, with people moving in and out of government and think tanks and funding groups. And those people and groups don’t like appearing to be associated with oppositional organizations.”
The impact of the Peace and Security Funding Group’s financial leverage over antiwar and disarmament organizations is evident. Says one peace activist, whose group is not funded by any of the group’s funding organizations, “Look at Ploughshares and Open Society. They supported Flournoy for secretary of defense when she was being touted as the likely nominee. Almost none of the grantees of those two big funders criticized her. The Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft said a few mild things against her. Women Cross DMZ signed a letter opposing her. Cato wrote one letter too. But none of them appears to have put any major effort into opposing her.”
The PSFG’s critics point out that its member funding organizations pretty much operate within the Beltway bubble. The development director of one group that has sought funding for peace activism work over many years told me that the analogy between the PSFG and the Environmental Grantmakers Association was “on the mark,” adding, “While mainstream environmental funders have gradually moved toward funding grassroots groups working on the frontlines to keep fossil fuels in the ground, ‘peace and security’ funders in the PSFG have not been seeding grassroots peace efforts in the same way. Their funds continue to go to the security-may-bring-some-peace (for us) revolving-door people, rather than to the activists working to actually organize for peace.”
PSFG did not respond to Salon’s request for comment. The Ploughshares Fund, asked for comment, sent this response by email:
Our model of impact philanthropy includes, in part, tackling immediate policy opportunities through discrete campaigns, where we work with partners to develop an action plan, convene stakeholders, and support activities to achieve concrete policy outcomes. Grant recommendations, whether or not they are a part of these campaigns, are based on a variety of factors and are the result of a process that includes conversations, proposals, and other elements of due diligence.
We value our relationships with civil society organizations. We think that collaboration among a variety of groups and individuals helps advance our vision of a world where nuclear weapons will never be used again.
From the late 1950s through the early ’70s, with the Cold War and the Indochina War both in full swing, the U.S. peace movement was nonpartisan. Most activists weren’t interested in whether the president and the Congress were in the control of Republicans or Democrats. Whether under LBJ or Richard Nixon, the movement was in the streets and militantly opposed to both parties as they enabled war to continue. The peace movement had allies in Congress that it supported and who supported the movement, but even as some of its members may have supported peace candidates like Eugene McCarthy against LBJ or George McGovern against Nixon, the antiwar movement wasn’t in the pocket of the Democratic Party. In fact, as time went on, it was the Democratic Party that found itself in the position of trying to win support from the activists.
But we’re now in a situation where many ostensible “peace” groups seem tied to the Democratic Party while the Biden administration pursues militaristic policies towards Iran, Russia and China, and sits on its hands as Israel pounds a captive civilian population in Gaza.
There are plenty of explanations on offer for this pattern. But the role of “Big Peace” funding groups and a funding consortium like the Peace and Security Funders Group, as with the “Big Green” groups in the Environmental Grantmaking Association in earlier years, has to be seen as one of these.
Dave Lindorff is an investigative journalist who writes for The Nation, London Review of Books, Counterpunch, Tarbell, FAIR and the collectively-run news site This Can’t Be Happening! He won a 2019 Izzy Award for Outstanding Independent Journalism. Reporting for this article was funded by a grant from the ExposeFacts program of the Institute for Public Accuracy.
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