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Regime Change, Inc.

Peter Ackerman's quest to topple tyranny.

When the Rose Revolution began in the fall of 2003, there was little reason to hope for a happy ending. Twelve years earlier, the former Soviet Republic of Georgia had stepped from communism into civil war. The old Communist eminence Eduard Shevardnadze may have brought greater stability when he took over the government in 1992, but his corrupt rule also generated huge new pools of ill will among the populace. Some of this disgust manifested itself in small, peaceful street protests. But it was also expressed in aborted mutinies and failed assassination attempts on the despot, meaning that, over the post-Soviet era, the peaceful and the violent commingled, leading to bloody crackdowns.

As the Rose Revolutionaries, a group of liberal dissidents, prepared to campaign against Shevardnadze, their leaders vowed to introduce a new culture of resistance better suited to a nation that had lost patience with the cycle of uprising and repression. The movement would tolerate no guns. Its leaders studied the methods of American civil rights activists and dog-eared the writings of Harvard University researcher Gene Sharp, a theorist of nonviolent struggle. For a time, this strategy nurtured a fledgling movement with a few hundred adherents. But, as the movement grew, its grip on its followers became more tenuous. Demonstrations swelled into large, angry throngs that had no knowledge of the Nashville sit-ins and zero familiarity with Sharp. Once again, the threat of violence loomed. “Our revolution happened so quickly. Everything became spontaneous,” one of the movement’s leaders, Giorgi Meladze, told me. “That’s where the film came in.”

The film is Bringing Down a Dictator, a documentary that describes how the Serbian student group, Otpor, toppled Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. It had inspired and guided the Georgian democrats’ leader, Mikhail Saakashvili, now the country’s president. (Otpor, after all, had launched the bloodless revolution par excellence—a combination of clever marketing and deft courtship of the Serbian police.) And, as the Rose Revolution approached critical mass and mob violence threatened, the film took on an elevated mission. It became a prime vehicle for indoctrinating the growing crowds in the principles of nonviolent struggle. Every Saturday for months, the independent TV network Rustavi 2 broadcast Bringing Down a Dictator, followed by a segment in which Georgians would discuss the film’s implications for their own movement. In the ten frenetic days leading up to Shevardnadze’s collapse, the network increased the frequency of broadcasts. And, when Shevardnadze surrendered power without a bullet fired, the Georgians weren’t selfish in acknowledging credit. One leader told The Washington Post, “Most important was the film. All the demonstrators knew the tactics of the revolution in Belgrade by heart because they showed [the film].…Everyone knew what to do.”

Bringing Down a Dictator wasn’t produced by Freedom House, the National Democratic Institute, or any of the other familiar NGOs that promote democracy. Instead, it originated with Peter Ackerman, a financier who made his fortune working alongside junk-bond king Michael Milken. Ackerman evangelizes on behalf of a specific theory of regime change. He calls it nonviolent conflict. Unlike Gandhi, Ackerman’s affection for nonviolence has nothing to do with the tactic’s moral superiority. Movements that make a strategic decision to eschew violence, he argues, have a far better record of toppling despots than violent revolutions. He has outlined these views in two books he co-wrote and two films he co-produced. In 2002, he joined with a college chum, a public television executive named Jack DuVall, to create the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC). The Center has translated Ackerman’s material into eight languages, paid to disseminate it around the globe, and taught his techniques in seminars with activists from Iran, Iraq, and Palestine. Visiting Ackerman’s office over the course of several months, I witnessed a pilgrimage of activists from Central Asia hoping to glean nonviolent know-how.

The Rose Revolution—and the nonviolent movements it inspired in Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, and, to a lesser extent, Lebanon—represented a vindication for Ackerman and his ideas. And, in Washington at least, they needed it. According to his friends, when Ackerman began hawking the principles of nonviolent struggle to government bureaucrats and think-tank wonks three years ago, much of officialdom considered him a dilettante. His friend and admirer Azar Nafisi, the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, recalls, “I remember him talking to a group more politically seasoned. They were clearly thinking this guy is really off-base: ‘We’re talking about more serious stuff than you.’“ But, suddenly, the zeitgeist has turned in Ackerman’s direction. Now some of the same officials who dismissed him have become his boosters. The State Department has distributed his videos to anti-Castro dissidents in Cuba (a fact Ackerman didn’t know until the regime arrested some of these dissidents two years ago and charged them with possessing his films). When some of State’s desk officers don’t want to create international incidents by advising activists on how to overthrow governments, they gently suggest visiting Ackerman, who has fewer qualms about lending a helping hand.

The State Department has begun paying attention to Ackerman for a good reason: His tactics are suited to the current political climate. The wars against Saddam Hussein and the Taliban have exhausted the U.S. appetite for forcible regime change. At the same time, the goal of promoting democracy in the Middle East and Central Asia remains. To be sure, there is a slew of NGOs that advise and finance democratic activists, but they specialize in working with movements as they approach full bloom—especially as elections near. In places like Iran, however, there are few vibrant movements to foster. That’s where Ackerman has found his niche.

A few months ago, I visited Ackerman in his spacious corner office at the top of a Pennsylvania Avenue building just up the street from the World Bank. Ackerman’s Prada parka and winter tan remind you that you’re not in tattered NGO-land anymore. You’re in the presence of wealth. (When he’s not thinking about regime change, Ackerman invests in start-ups like Fresh Direct, a service that delivers Umbrian olive oil and foie gras to New York City gourmands.) Ackerman, who looks uncannily like Jaws actor Roy Scheider, has a reputation for gabbing at considerable length. “I don’t know if you’ve had any success getting him to stop talking,” one of his acquaintances quipped. In our meeting, he maintained an implacable flow of theories, historical analogies, and business school jargon, swerving from the sixteenth-century French political theorist Etienne de la Boetie to obscure corners of Indonesian politics.

It’s a fitting conversational style for a man whose biography similarly twists and turns. By the time he graduated from Colgate University in 1968, he had already strayed from his middle-class Jewish roots, storming an administration building in protest and chauffeuring Stokley Carmichael around campus. But his flirtation with radicalism was brief. He felt more comfortable hewing to a conventional political path and became head of the College Democrats’ New York state chapter. College shaped him in another profound way, too. Studying comparative religion, he developed an interest in Christian Science and converted.

After Colgate, Ackerman joined a graduate program at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, where he met Harvard’s Gene Sharp, the academic who would become his mentor. Although Sharp’s stiff writing and soft-spoken demeanor prevented him from developing much cachet, his heterodox scholarship inspired a small but devoted following. At a time when Susan Sontag was visiting Hanoi and Che Guevara was becoming a t-shirt icon, Sharp challenged the romantic image enshrouding Third World revolutionaries. Marxists, he contended, misunderstood the nature of power. They asserted that oppressive regimes survive because they monopolize violence in their societies. But Sharp, borrowing from Hannah Arendt and Max Weber, argued that regimes can survive only if they obtain the consent of society. “Obedience is the heart of political power,” Sharp wrote. If even the most authoritarian regimes depended on consent for survival, it followed that citizens could topple them simply by withdrawing their consent.

Ackerman spent eight on-and-off years at Tufts refining Sharp’s thesis. Studying the ill-fated Russian Revolution of 1905 and Gandhi’s uprising against the British, he tried to discern why some nonviolent movements succeed and others fail. His answer wasn’t terribly surprising or complicated: Successful movements plan carefully and set limited, achievable goals.

Unfortunately, Ackerman obtained his PhD in 1976 during a deep trough in the academic job market. With bills to pay, he joined Drexel Burnham Lambert, an investment bank where he had once spent a stint as an assistant to the firm’s president. Intellectuals didn’t exactly fit Drexel’s culture, and his style rubbed some colleagues the wrong way. According to the journalist James B. Stewart’s book on Drexel’s fall, Den of Thieves, Ackerman was known by the moniker “the Sniff”—he had his head so far up his boss’ rear end. But Milken, one of the firm’s brightest stars, took pleasure in bucking the firm’s ethos and glomming onto unlikely whizzes. He recruited Ackerman to work as a trader in the firm’s Beverly Hills office.

Before Milken and his firm began their well-documented plunge, Ackerman made a killing. BusinessWeek called him the highest-paid of Milken’s minions. In 1988, he put together Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co.’s zeitgeist-defining leveraged buyout of RJR Nabisco. Ackerman pocketed $165 million from the $26 billion deal. When Milken ultimately took his tumble, Ackerman didn’t follow him. Unlike most of his colleagues, he had only limited dealings with the venal investor Ivan Boesky, so he never had the firm’s biggest cloud of insider trading hanging over him. Even though he contributed $80 million to Drexel’s settlement with the government, Ackerman walked away from the disaster with few scars and a net worth of about $500 million. The financial press began referring to his “Teflon” coating.

Just before the height of the Drexel scandals in 1989, Ackerman decamped to London. And, once in London, he decamped from the world of finance. He returned to his academic roots and holed up at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, where he boiled down his 1,100-page dissertation into a more accessible manuscript. There are many obvious reasons for this career swap: escape from the stench of Drexel, midlife crisis, a shot at redemption. (His wife, the novelist Joanne Leedom-Ackerman, hints at these anxieties in her book The Dark Path to the River, whose protagonist’s angst-ridden husband bears a striking resemblance to Ackerman.) But he also returned to Sharp’s teachings out of intellectual devotion. Sidney Tarrow, a Cornell political scientist who has studied Ackerman’s work, told me, “He genuinely believes in this, the same way that people believe in Marxism.”

Ackerman admits that the resulting book, Strategic Nonviolent Conflict, didn’t set the world on fire. “I had to give 2,000 copies to my best friends to sell the book out. I’d say to them, ‘What did you think?’ They’d say, ‘It’s sitting on my night table below my John LeCarre novel,’ which means, ‘Never speak to me about this subject again.’“ After his book’s publication in 1994, he quietly returned stateside to resume investing. But, to Ackerman’s surprise, the book acquired new life. Ackerman collaborated on a PBS documentary, A Force More Powerful, which aired in 2000, based on the book’s historical narratives of movements. The filmmaking bug infested him. He followed his debut with a sequel following Otpor, the anti-Milosevic student activists who attracted Ackerman’s attention when they began rigorously training in Sharp’s methods in 1999.

Otpor would become the textbook example of Sharp’s theories translated into praxis. The movement had united a querulous opposition, herding ultra-nationalists and social democrats toward a single obtainable goal: free and fair elections. They had intentionally scattered their followers across Yugoslavia’s provinces, not confining them to metropolises like Belgrade and Novi Sad. That way, the regime couldn’t easily stamp them out. And they had heeded Sharp’s chief injunction: They had cultivated the police and military. Otpor sent flowers to soldiers. Every demonstration used humor to convince police it meant them no physical harm. As Ackerman and DuVall wrote in a recent op-ed, “Regimes fall when their defenders defect.”

Ackerman and his collaborator, Steve York, won a Peabody Award for their chronicle of Milosevic’s downfall. And, soon after it aired, they began fielding requests for copies from dissidents. (Ackerman won’t say how he ships copies: “Let me just say, I have no inhibition using any method that’s nonviolent to get these movies to their destinations.”) When activists received the movie, they assumed that ICNC could help them replicate the Serbs’ feats. “They would come to us and ask, ‘How do we do the same thing, and how do we get training?’“ Ackerman says. Of course, NGOs like Freedom House and the National Endowment for Democracy have been in the business of training dissidents for years. But, following the example of other businessmen who have entered the world of politics, Ackerman brashly believed that he could invent a new, more efficient methodology for reaching the same old goals. He hired a small staff and began brainstorming how to overthrow the world’s dictators.

As with Ross Perot, his fellow entrepreneur-turned-politico, there are moments when Ackerman seems to drift into an alternate reality. Addressing a State Department group last year, he described a scheme for providing a communications infrastructure to North Korean dissidents: “Let’s say you drop 10,000 boxes or distributed [them] somehow in North Korea. The boxes contain the following: 100 feet of string, a balloon, a helium canister and microwave devices, radio devices that can communicate. Tie the string to the tree. Tie the other end of the string to the balloon. Attach the electronic device to the balloon, stick the helium canister in the balloon, break it. The balloon rises 100 feet in the air, and you have an unlimited number of transmission towers. Provide in addition the ability to transmit with devices, handheld devices—suddenly you have an interesting opportunity.”

But the North Korean balloons are a daydream that he has hardly pursued. His most important plan relies slightly less on Willy Wonka methodology. For the last two years, the ICNC has developed a curriculum that can be taught to aspiring regime changers that helps them understand the topography of political power, systematically identify regime weaknesses, and develop strategies to exploit them. Ackerman hired Otpor leaders to write a first draft. In part, the curriculum is designed to be taught in seminars, some of which he intends to hold in distance learning centers scattered around the world. But Ackerman also plans to post it on the Internet as a downloadable PowerPoint document. “In its ideal forum,” Ackerman explains, “it’s a pyramid marketing scheme.”

To test and tweak his curriculum, Ackerman has thrown himself into live conflicts. He has arranged sessions in which Bob Helvey, another protege of Sharp and one of Otpor’s gurus, has trained activists from Iran, Iraq, and countries Ackerman won’t name. (Ackerman has vowed confidentiality to his trainees.) He sent another trainer to Palestine to spend twelve days creating a nonviolent vanguard to challenge Hamas. Ackerman claims to advise only activists who ask for his help. But there are a handful of cases where he hasn’t shied away from playing the part of impresario. Over the last few years, he has held conferences hosting activists from around the world—bringing triumphant veterans of the struggles against Augusto Pinochet and South African apartheid to meet colleagues from ongoing struggles, like those in Burma and Zimbabwe. Last summer, he brought activists from more than a dozen countries to a retreat in the Montreal suburbs for a week of solidarity and study. “We can’t say where they are from. But think of the 20 biggest assholes in the world, and you can guess,” he says. A government consultant who attended one of these events described it as the nonviolent movement’s answer to the Socialist International and compared it to comics in which superheroes join in a broad alliance. “I looked around the room and thought, ‘This is the Hall of Justice.’“

Of all Ackerman’s whiz-bang ideas, he’s most enamored with the development of a video game named after A Force More Powerful that allows players to practice their dictator-toppling skills virtually. On a winter morning, I went to a suburban Baltimore office park to play a beta version. Ackerman has spent $3 million outsourcing the project to a company called BreakAway Games, which helped produce the popular Civilization series. Its offices were creepily quiet. Rows of cubicles held programmers, many of whom worked with earphones. Not that there were many distractions to filter. All the shades were drawn. Glowing monitors and a few desk lamps provided the room with its only light. I crammed into one of the cubicles with the game’s two lead programmers.

To provide insights into the mind of the dictator, Ackerman sent Otpor veterans to consult with BreakAway, and you could see their influence in the game’s Serb flair. The opening screen showed a map of a generic Balkan country with towns named after Darko Milicic and other Serbian NBA players. I clicked on a town, providing an overhead view of buildings and streets. A message informed me that a student leader of my movement had been imprisoned. My immediate task, the game told me, was to free him.

A panel on the bottom of the screen showed four movement leaders. I clicked on an icon, triggering a flow chart that illustrated their organizational relationship. Another graphic showed the relative strengths and weaknesses of the leaders, each rated for intangibles like creativity and enthusiasm for the cause. On the side of the screen, a bank account showed my resources. At the moment, my movement didn’t look very strong at all.

For my first move, I had a range of options. I could send a leader to Washington to raise cash from NGOs, but that would cost valuable time. I could distribute flyers in front of the radio station, in hopes of winning the station’s manager to our cause. Unfortunately, the movement had a paucity of competent writers. To boost flagging morale, I could hold a rock concert. That, however, would drain my measly treasury. In the end, I quixotically sent a comrade to shout slogans in the face of the supreme leader himself. The game told me that the action had increased my movement’s visibility, which seemed good. Except the regime had also taken notice of us, making arrests and harassment infinitely more likely.

Ackerman has tremendously high hopes for this game. When A Force More Powerful is released this fall, the ICNC plans to distribute it gratis on the Internet. It won’t just be translated into foreign languages. It will be configured to fit specific local circumstances. For example, a Belarusan teen might play a version with instantly recognizable Minsk street scenes. The flunkies of his dictator, Aleksandr Lukashenko, would be the very same goons who have staved off regime opponents for a decade. Ackerman has designed the game with such specificity because he believes it will light the imagination of dissidents. Over lunch, he told me, “This game should help activists discern what goals they should [set] and in what sequence. It will help them determine what tactics they should take.”

The idea of a regime-change video game is easy to laugh at. Ackerman seems to understand this. That’s why he has outsourced the project to BreakAway, a firm that also designs artificial intelligence-run war games for the Pentagon. A BreakAway flack handed me flyers touting video simulations that allow sailors to execute counterterrorism operations and drivers to steer convoys through insurgent-infested terrain. A Force More Powerful borrows extensively from templates that American battlefield commanders use to develop strategy. It demands that players outline their plans in detail before executing maneuvers, which is really the primary point of the game: to put activists in a strategic mindset where they stop improvising and reacting.

In other words, the game may be intended to inspire movements, but it tries hard to avoid the impression that revolutions are easy. It rewards players for setting modest objectives—like winning the confidence of radio station managers and freeing jailed comrades—before focusing on the grand prize of regime change. The programmers have also injected an element of randomness into the game. You can play it three times with the same strategy and obtain three different results. Dictators, after all, aren’t known for their moral consistency or steady behavior.

When A Force More Powerful is finished, it will be translated into Farsi. “Imagine if you had 10,000 Iranians playing this game,” Ackerman told me, pausing to allow the implications of his pronouncement to sink in. And, if the game doesn’t inspire a revolution, Ackerman has several ideas for pushing the country in that direction. Three years ago, his films were translated into Farsi, with a voice-over from Nader Sadighi, a well-known newscaster from pre-revolutionary times. For a brief moment, if you received the Los Angeles-based Iranian satellite networks, you couldn’t avoid Ackerman productions. “One day, a station might broadcast a segment on Poland; the next day, you’ll be watching Channel One and see a segment on Chile,” Sadighi told me, referring to episodes from Ackerman’s first documentary on nonviolence. Ackerman’s films became the talk of Tehran—touted in student blogs and condemned in the hard-line paper Baztab.

More recently Ackerman has stepped up his involvement. He worked with Bob Helvey to train IranianAmericans, many of whom worked for Reza Pahlavi, the son of the deposed shah. Azar Nafisi has introduced him to the Iranian human rights community. And the ICNC has made some preliminary contacts with the referendum movement—the most broad-based and promising of the opposition coalitions, uniting monarchists, communists, and Islamists behind a simple demand for a vote on the regime’s future. According to his friends, Ackerman and his circle have begun to kick around creative ideas for challenging the mullahs. What if every Iranian withdrew money from the ATMs at once, overwhelming the country’s financial system? What if they boycotted state-run industries? Ultimately, he envisions events unfolding as they did in Serbia, with a small, well-trained, nonviolent vanguard introducing the idea of resistance to the masses. These ideas may not have gone very far yet, but they have caught the attention of the Iranian government. Last year, the Ministry of Guidance brashly called Ackerman’s office, requesting copies of his videos and writings. “I guess that’s one way to do intelligence,” Ackerman jokes.

If Ackerman hasn’t yet been able to make more headway, it is because he has slammed up against the same reality as the Bush administration. For all the noise the White House has made about aiding the forces of democracy in Iran, those forces are maddeningly hard to find. The regime has crushed and demoralized many of its best-organized opponents. Without any quick and easy routes to regime change, Bush has focused on stopping Iran’s nuclear program. Until a better policy emerges, Ackerman’s program provides a useful interim approach. His style of movement-building requires a relative pittance. It makes no promises about quick results, acknowledging that the climate within Iran might take years to reach a revolutionary state. And, if there’s no thriving movement, it offers a playbook that can help build one from scratch. But, for all this realism, he begins with the most idealistic assumptions. When Ackerman finished explaining his Iranian approach to me, he cocked his head at an angle. Even though he makes silky presentations, he sounded almost frustrated, as if he couldn’t believe that the rest of the world didn’t appreciate the obviousness of his ideas. He exhaled deeply. “Just because it looks hard doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying.”