Monday, March 28, 2011

Growing Up under Eyadema

Mara Jebsen writes in 3QuarksDaily about what it was like to grow up in Togo as President Eyadema was crushing the democratic opposition:

The thing I figured out even as a kid was that there weren't cameras like at the civil rights movement. No one could be brought to care, and so within a year, the dead were buried, hopes for real democracy in Togo suffered one of what was a series of thudding, horrible checks, and everything went back to the way it had been before. Except things felt creakier and heavier, and one could barely go an hour without thinking of that man.

Dancing in the Glory of Monsters--Review

Just finished Jason Stearn's book, Dancing in the Glory of Monsters, out this week. It is an absolutely magnificent achievement, compellingly readable, admirably clear, judicious and accurate, and, above all, faithful to the tragic, the surreal, the funny and heart-rending realities of the Congo.
A long appreciation will follow. In the meantime, go buy a copy if you haven't already.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Power and Its Privileges

So bombing Libya is a humanitarian undertaking designed to prevent massacres of innocent civilians. The anti-genocide gals on Obama's team engineered it, we are told, as if to vouchsafe the innocence of its intent. That we are not taking similar measures in other places in no way vitiates our project in Libya. After all, we cannot be everywhere.
But why Libya and not Cote d'Ivoire? As Corinne Dufka writes in Foreign Policy, the situation there is at least as harrowing. The number of people at risk is almost certainly higher: the Times reports today that seven hundred thousand refugees are on the move, dwarfing any numbers reported out of Libya. And yet we not only don't bomb, we don't even press terribly hard for the sanctions and condemnations that routinely follow stolen elections.
And why Libya and not Congo? Six million dead already; the war ongoing; our own responsibilities for the catastrophe, in multiple acts of omission and commission over fifty years, engraved in history books. And yet we don't even consider a dozen possible options to alleviate the suffering of the peoples of Kivu.
And why Libya and not Darfur? After all, the cause that originally joined Power and Rice and Clinton was to stop mass murder in Sudan, where, after a modest hiatus, reports grow of increasing attacks on Darfuri citizens. And yet surely attacking Libya diminishes whatever chance we may have had to respond aggressively to Bashir's continuing violations.
And come to think of it, why Libya at all, since the money spent on saving lives there could be spent to much greater effect on development assistance? Millions die from the routine diseases of poverty. It costs $140 a year to treat someone with AIDS; American generosity keeps two million people alive, but around the world some 20 million more go untreated. We could have bought medicine for seven million people this year with the money we have already spent on the campaign in Libya.
But William Galston assures me that these questions are philosophically flawed:
Suppose you’re a skilled swimmer walking along a beach. You hear a cry for assistance and observe someone struggling in the water a hundred feet offshore. Although it’s highly likely that you can bring the endangered swimmer safely to shore, there’s a small chance that you can’t, and a smaller but not negligible threat to your own safety. You also know that no one else can act with equal odds of success. Would it have been right to walk on by?

Since Kant, we have been familiar with the proposition that “ought implies can.” But in some circumstances, the reverse also holds: “can implies ought.” Our massive, ongoing investment in military capacity has a range of consequences for defense and diplomacy. It also has moral consequences. Because we can act in ways that others can’t, we are not as free as they are to ignore threats that we have the power to abate.

But still I wonder: why save that swimmer, and not the other one, over there; or those five, by the river bank; or those ten infants drowning in the eddies? And why is it we never bother to save those ten, no matter how often we pass by, how often we watch them drown?

A Word on the U.S. Institute of Peace

The Republican-controlled House came to power in 2010 on a pledge to cut the federal deficit. Unwilling for political or ideological reasons to reduce spending on any of the government's big expenditures on entitlements and defense, Republicans are trying to fulfill their promise by eliminating a variety of small programs that they have historically opposed. Among them is the U.S. Institute of Peace. In this piece, written in response to a defense of the Institute by one of its vice-presidents, I argue that the Institute is hopelessly compromised. Its claims to represent one of humanity's highest aspirations are inevitably belied by its need to secure funding from Congress. In the end, the Institute is really little more than a tiny cog in America's national security apparatus.

I should say that I worked at the Institute for several years. I left on good terms, and I have no personal quarrel with anyone working there now. On the contrary: I like and admire many of the staff. But I became increasingly troubled by the contradictions inherent in its status as a government-funded agency purportedly devoted to a humanitarian ideal. The Institute's refusal, over the years I worked there, to do anything much about the Congo, where the world's deadliest conflict continues to unfold, struck me as a particularly glaring abdication. As a low-ranking "service" employee, I was not in a position to influence what the Institute did, although every few months I would email to general circulation yet another news story about the plight of the Congolese. To zero response.

The USIP, at its upper and even mid levels, is mostly staffed with former CIA, State, and Defense Department personnel, and its president is one of Kissinger's former acolytes. The $100 million earmark for its beautiful new building on the Mall was a favor from Alaska Senator Ted Stevens to J. Robinson West, a former energy official appointed to the chairmanship of the Institute by his friend, Dick Cheney. West now runs his own enormously lucrative oil consultancy; he and the Alaska "Oil Senator" go back a long way. The first major private gift to its building fund came from Exxon Chevron in honor of George Shultz, whom the Wall Street Journal dubbed the "intellectual godfather" of the Iraq war.[1] Shultz earned Chevron's gratitude in the 1990s by trading on his political contacts in central Asia to help the company win access to Kazakhstan's oil fields. The benefits to Chevron and the Kazakh elite were considerable, as was the damage to the local environment and to the health of the region’s inhabitants. The Peace Institute's presence on the Mall is, therefore, the DC-oil mafia's gift to itself, paid for by the American taxpayer.

It is only in that context that the Institute's commitment to peace can be understood. One can search its publications in vain for any critical discussion of U.S. torture, drone raids, or use of military contractors, let alone any questioning of the wisdom of US interventions abroad. The preponderance of its efforts over the past decade have focused on Iraq and Afghanistan, where it has defined its mission as "helping to win the peace." (The military having won the war.) With its appropriations under attack, the Institute has defended itself almost entirely in terms of national security: its president has warned of the importance of not scrimping on our defense; Generals Patraeus and Zinni have testified to its utility in our ongoing wars abroad; and Secretary Clinton tellingly described the Institute as a vital part of "our arsenal." Meanwhile, the Institute has almost entirely ignored conflicts that do not engage US interests: in the Congo, for example, where close to six million people have died in the deadliest war since 1945.

The Institute is, in brief, a tiny cog in the national security apparatus of the United States. It promotes no substantive agenda of its own; its mission as it defines it would be compatible with the goals of any administration--or indeed, with almost any regime in any part of the world. It would be more apt to call it the the  Institute for the Pacification of Natives in Places of Strategic Importance, but where's the glamour in that? Depending on how you feel about the American project abroad, there is nothing inherently wrong about the US having an institute devoted to the non-violent projection of American interests. The problem comes when the Institute’s defenders claim to operate under the banner of a higher cause. Should Congress defund the Institute, the stunning building it now occupies on the northwest corner of the mall will stand as a mute testimonial to the inherent contradiction between the cyclopic agenda of the state and the ideals its servants sometimes find useful to espouse.

[1] UPDATE 10/17/12: I wasn't entirely accurate about this: As with my confusion of Exxon with Chevron, it goes to show you the limitations of (my?) memory. He was not called the godfather of the Iraq war by the wall street journal's editorialists. He was called the "father" of the "Bush doctrine" of preemption by Wall Street Journal editorialist Dan Henninger.  See here and here

Saturday, March 12, 2011

And what about the Congo?

In The New Republic, Leon Wieseltier argues for US intervention in Libya:
If Muammar Qaddafi takes Benghazi, it will be Barack Obama’s responsibility. That is what it means to be the American president. The American president cannot but affect the outcome. That is his burden and his privilege. He has the power to stop such an atrocity, so if the atrocity is not stopped it will be because he chose not to use his power.
It must be lovely to live in a world where you believe these kind of moral imprecations have weight. I think the few of us who care about the Congo long ago abandoned that hope; when we ask that our country help Congo, we do so not as Jeremiahs but as little Oliver Twists, asking please for a little more.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Cost of Beauty

What with child miners in Congo digging bare-handed through the muck and Chinese workers committing suicide on the assembly line, a hell of a lot of suffering goes into the making of our pretty little devices.

Type "Girl," "Rape", and "Congo" in Google

And one of the pop-up ads on the right-hand side of the screen says:

Congo Girl: Cheap

Everyone Wants to Pay a Low Price.
Best Value for Congo Girl!

Maybe Google should do something about this?