Return of the Peace Corps


Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (L) and United States Ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives Atul Keshap (R) attend the US-Sri Lanka Partnership 70th anniversary ceremony in Colombo on February 25, 2018. ISHARA S. KODIKARA / AFP

By Dr. Kamal Wickremasinghe

President Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe may not be the only people afflicted by the current political impasse. Several secret and publicly announced initiatives suggests that those in the American ‘fortress’ in Colombo are also distressed, and are working overtime attempting to preserve the status quo. It is ‘weirdly’ natural that they would be keen to save the product of their manipulation of Sri Lanka’s domestic politics that was started by the man who thought he ruled Sri Lanka, Robert O. Blake, continued by his successor Patricia Butenis and seen to its culmination by Michelle Sisson in 2014-2015. The current ambassador seems to have taken up the baton without a hitch.

The February 10 election result has obviously sent waves of panic through US diplomatic and intelligence contingent stationed in Colombo. It was widely reported that Ambassador Atul Keshap paid an early visit to President Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe. The purpose was to urge them to continue with the joint administration. Obviously, the neocons would be keen to ensure the continuation of the union they forged under US/UK/Indian sponsorship in 2015. The neocons have no ethical concerns about the wishes of the Sri Lankan public being at variance with their own and they would be quite prepared to jettison their much touted commitment to safeguarding and promoting democracy.

The purpose here is to look at the February 26 signing of a new bilateral agreement to re-establish a US Peace Corps programme in Sri Lanka. Peace Corps (PC) have been present in Sri Lanka previously, purportedly delivering education, health and youth development programmes, until the programme was terminated in 1998 due to alleged ‘political instability’. The expressed objective of the new missions to provide (American) English language training to Sri Lankan children. The particularly inauspicious timing of the announcement — apparently in response to a request made in 2016 by the yahapalana government — in the immediate aftermath of the electoral rejection of the yahapalana fraud and the timing of the planned deployment, beginning in late 2019, warrants careful analysis.

A full evaluation of the significance of the planned PC deployment in Sri Lanka in the current political context requires a review of the PC concept and its operation as a component of America’s neocon-devised global military and political strategy. It needs no elaboration that fundamentally, the US foreign policy is heavily militarised in theory, practice, and staffing. Over time, however, especially following the two wars, the tactics of the battle for global hegemony shifted heavily on employing new forms of non-kinetic means of warfare, based on the ‘soft power’ theory. PC that cryptically describes itself as ‘a data-driven organisation’ that co-opts with NGOs and other so-called ‘donors’ is an important part of this new gambit.

It also needs noting that America’s shift to the increased emphasis on means other than military force was based on the adoption of strategic information copied from two, more than 2,500 year old, great treatises from the East:Indian royal advisor Kautilya’s Arthashastra and the Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War’. Arthashastra became accessible to the British colonisers through its English translation, in 1915, by an Indian scholar named R. Shamasastry, librarian at the Oriental Research Institute Mysore. The Art of War was translated in to English in 1936 by Lionel Giles, Keeper of Oriental Printed Books and Manuscripts at the British Museum. An academic of Polish Jewish extraction, George Modelski who first worked at the Australian National University in the 1960s — later recruited to the Washington State University — was heavily instrumental in incorporating Kautilya’s strategic prescriptions to the American foreign policy theory that was taking shape in the 1960s.

The current neocon-devised American foreign policy and strategy is based primarily on Kautilya’s advice that the purpose of strategy is to conquer all other states on the pretext of building a harmonious universal empire aimed at upholding the timeless moral order handed down by the gods. Its modus operandi is based on Sun Tzu’s declaration that ‘to subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill’.

The American neocons are currently resorting to ‘war by deception’ as the strategy of their search for global supremacy, waged through a combination of diplomacy and intelligence, supported by the hidden component, known as PSYOP —defined in a 1984 Department of Defence Directive as: ‘planned political, economic, military, and ideological activities directed toward foreign countries, organisations, and individuals in order to create emotions, attitudes, understandings, beliefs, or behaviour favourable to the achievement of US political and military objectives.

The US established the infrastructure for the new mechanism in the form of its Foreign Service in 1924 and specialised intelligence agencies in 1940. The CIA was established in I946 with authority for covert psychological and political activities. The US Information Agency was created in 1953 for international dissemination of propaganda. In the currently on-going non declared wars against China and the Russia, these agencies routinely use mass communication-based PSYOP originating from a mix of correctly identified sources, completely misidentified sources and from ‘front’ agencies that are nominally independent of the actual source.

Tools used in peacetime psychological warfare include disinformation and active measures. Disinformation is defined as ‘government-sponsored misleading information deliberately passed to targeted foreign governments, groups or individuals, with the purpose of influencing elite or public opinion’. Disinformation differs from propaganda in that it is focused exclusively on foreign targets, and involves deceiving the target group. Active measures seek to acquire influence over an opponent's attitudes through the media, economic leverage, front organisations, and other seemingly innocent overt agencies with covert sponsorship.

Diplomats are the foot soldiers of the ‘war by deception’ and diplomacy is the political performing art that aims to shape and determine the perceptions and calculations of other states and peoples through information crafted to reinforce the belief that choosing a particular course of action preferred by the US would be in their own best interest. A classic example of this method was the American advocacy of their preferred outcome of establishing a separate Tamil enclave in the island by advocating to the government that accommodating the demands of the terrorist leader Pirabakaran was the only option available, since militarily defeating him would be unachievable. They subtly drove Sri Lankan politicians like Chandrika Bandaranaike and Ranil Wickremesinghe to internalise that belief, leading them to grant crucial concessions to the terrorist leader.

The rejection of the neocon model of a ‘unipolar’ world order by the Russian President Vladimir Putin and his dogged refusal to comply with their diktats has made him the target of PSYOP attacks at least since 2006 when he was elected president for a second term. The attack came by way of a Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) funded report titled ‘Russia’s Wrong Direction’ that suggested that Russia’s increasingly independent foreign policy and its control of vast oil and natural gas resources was a threat to America. None of the establishment newspapers, magazines or broadcast media ever published any opinion that deviated even slightly from the propagandistic narrative about Putin. Next a CFR task force concocted the absurd charge that Putin was ‘rolling back democracy’ in Russia. Twelve years later, the same charges are still being levelled at Putin along with the additional allegations that he meddled in the 2016 presidential elections, evidently for no avail.

Diplomacy is normally, but not always, overtly non-coercive and is covered by fake humility, respect, and pledge to preserve the dignity of target populations. Doublespeak — language intended to camouflage, mislead, distort, deceive, inflate, circumvent, and obfuscate with intent to deceive —distinct from euphemism,and actual inversions which state the opposite meaning are the tools of trade of American diplomacy.

The beginnings and record of the Peace Corps

The US Peace Corps evolved from a previous incarnation known as the International Voluntary Services Inc. (IVS), a CIA front formed during preparations for the war against Vietnam, in 1953, as a government funded Christian missionary NGO. Close to 200 IVS volunteers worked in Vietnam with the CIA. Exposure of the IVS necessitated the creation of a new deception in the form of The Peace Corps.

John Kennedy announced the Peace Corps idea during the 1960 presidential campaign, and established it by Executive Order on March 1, 1961, soon after election as president. After the 2001 September 11 events, President George W. Bush pledged to double the size of the organisation within five years as a part of his War on Terrorism. Barack Obama raised the allocation to USD 400 million in 2011/12. From 1961 to 2015, nearly 220,000 Americans branded Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) have been sent to 141 countries classified as ‘unstable third world nations’.

The US foreign policy administration is usually at pains to emphasise that the PCVs in service would never engage in intelligence gathering activities. After signing the Executive Order that created the PC, President Kennedy reiterated. ‘Our Peace Corps is not designed as an instrument of diplomacy or propaganda or ideological conflict. It is designed to permit our people to exercise more fully their responsibilities in the great common cause of world development.’ An analysis of the history of PCVs however, shows that the denial is part of deception designed to minimise risks to their physical safety arising from deployment at locations far from the protection of embassy premises. In fact, PC makes no secret of the fact that their top priorities are the health, safety, and security of PCVs and has enacted a new Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act in 2011.

The record of the PCVs suggests they are engaging in a game of high-stakes indeed: in the Dominican Republic in 1963, PCVs managed to operate through revolutionary overthrow of two governments over a two year period, despite the US suspending diplomatic relations and all other assistance to the country. The favourable relations with the new governments and their continued presence following the change of governments strongly suggested PCV involvement in fermenting events and remaining in the country for subsequent intelligence gathering.

In 1965, Indonesia ordered them out after 16 months of PCV operations. In 1966, Guinea asked PCs to leave. In 1967, Mauritania severed relations with the US, including the PCs. Pakistan and India also refused to renew approval of PC projects in their countries in the early 1970s. In 2012, PCVs were evacuated following a coup d’état. In 2017, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen asked the US to withdraw PCVs over accusations that US agents conspired with the Opposition leader Kem Sokha to overthrow his government. Peace Corps Burkina Faso programme was closed in 2017 and 124 volunteers were evacuated due to unspecified security concerns.

Lee Howard, the first CIA agent, who defected to the Soviet Union in 1986, was a PCV in the Dominican Republic and in Colombia (1972–74), later posted with USAID in Lima, Peru. He was posted to Moscow in 1980 as a CIA spy until defection to the Soviet Union in 1986 and was granted asylum there. The American Prospect magazine (February 12, 2008) reported a case of a PCVs asked by a US Embassy official in Bolivia to gather the names, addresses and activities of any Venezuelan or Cuban doctors or field workers there. The State Department’s response to complaints was that any such request was ‘in error’ and constituted a violation of long-standing US policy.

US pressure for developing countries to extend invitations for PCVs raises questions as to the motives behind their unrelenting interest in offering a service without a notable record of achievement in the development front as panacea for development ills. In 2016, during President Barack Obama’s visit, the US and Vietnam signed an agreement allowing the PCVs from 2018 to teach English in schools in the country’s two largest cities, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, following more than a decade of negotiations. In the next year, they plan to double the number of volunteers in Myanmar.

Rural people need to be awakened

The American interest in deploying so-called development volunteers at grass roots level in Sri Lankan villages so close to a scheduled general election (2019) raises many issues, especially due to the nebulous nature of the programme involved and its chequered history. The question needs to be asked as to how teaching English (God forbid American English at that) to Sri Lankan children becomes such an urgent priority over and above the more urgent needs such as increased nutrition and clothing. The question also arises as to why the Americans do not believe in handing over the resources to the Sri Lankan government who should be determining national priorities at the grass roots level. Such questions raise doubts about the motives of the proposal and it appears too high a strategic risk compared to the benefits to be expected in the short, medium or long term.

The track record of the US Embassy in Colombo in the 2014-2015 events provides a basis for considering most of their activities ‘suspect’. They have resorted to many undiplomatic interventions in country’s internal affairs through operations like backing the ‘common candidacy’ of Sarath Fonseka in 2010.

On top of all these concerns is the size of the new embassy complex they are building, amalgamating the old British embassy site. The new complex appears to extend from the Kollupitiya junction to the old Colombo Swimming Club area, covering the entire length of the front wall of the Temple Trees.

Those with a curious bent might also note that after the signing of the agreement with Vietnam, the then Director of the PC, Carrie Hessler-Radelet, was reported to have turned to Secretary of State John Kerry and said: ’You’ve waited for this for a long time.’ According to media reports, the same words were uttered by the current Acting Director of the Peace Corps Sheila Crowley to Ambassador Atul Keshap following the signing of the agreement with Sri Lanka at Temple Trees. As George W. Bush would have said, ‘too much of a coincidence to be a coincidence’.

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