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Dr El-Khairy, I Presume?

15 Jul

We’re on a roll now. On Friday, Omar became the fourth of us to ascend the greased pole of academic accreditation since we began cultivating this little corner of the internet. Forever more to be known as Dr El-Khairy, his burgeoning cultural insurgency notwithstanding. The work in question? American Statecraft for a Global Digital Age: Warfare, Diplomacy and Culture in a Segregated World. And who said it was good enough? Faisal Devji and Eyal Weizman, actually. So there. And I have promises in writing that he will be telling us more about it all real soon.

What We Talked About At ISA: The U.S. Military-Industrial Complex, Part 2

21 Apr

Part two of a post on my presentation at this year’s ISA. Part one is here.


So what would be the normative-political case for the Military-Industrial Complex (MIC)? As Ledbetter notes, the defence industry never had a shortage of defenders, proponents, beneficiaries, and apologists. Various critiques of the MIC notwithstanding, numerous American commentators are now firmly united in the belief that their country needs a large defence budget in order to protect and project its identities and interests in the world. According to Maddow, this collective belief had a lot to do with the discursive and institutional success of the infamous “Team B” reports on Soviet power, which so profoundly enthused Ronald Reagan and his administration, leading to the gigantic military buildup in the 1980s. Maddow’s assessment is worth citing at length:

The Think Tanks and Very Important Committees of the permanent national security peanut gallery are now so mature and entrenched that almost no one thinks they’re creepy anymore, and national security liberals have simply decided it’s best to add their own voices to them rather than criticize them. But like we lefties learned in trying (and failing) to add a liberal network to the all-right-wing, decades-old medium of political talk radio, the permanent defense gadfly world can’t really grow a liberal wing. It’s an inherently hawkish enterprise. Where’s the inherent urgency in arguing that the threats aren’t as bad as the hype, that military power is being overused, that the defense budget could be safely and wisely scaled back, that maybe this next war doesn’t need us? The only audience for defense wonkery is defense enthusiasts, and they’re not paying the price of admission to hear that defense is overrated.

But knotted into the right-wing discourse on defence spending is a number of corollary arguments that are associated with a variety of lefty positions in the U.S. context.  America’s mainstream media outlets rarely fail to acknowledge how the twinning of the country’s economic and armed forces not only creates high-skilled jobs, but also – and critically – keeps them in the country. The move is mainly rhetorical. Not only have successive U.S. administrations encouraged American defence industry to globalize, but there is also little evidence to suggest that defence spending creates more jobs relative to spending on, say, health care or education (see, for example, Pollin and Garrett-Peltier, 2011). I would suggest, then, that what lies behind contemporary pro-MIC arguments is, in fact, a creative and complex combination of certain economic theories, (realist?) beliefs in war (or the threat of war) as a manifest destiny of the international system, as well as an overarching (liberal?) commitment to a powerful, sovereign state capable of exercising global leadership (aka., a “force for good”, in still favoured New Labour parlance.)

Let us revisit the pro-MIC rhetoric from the era of “Team B.” In a footnote, Ledbetter directs the reader to The Lonely Warriors (1970) by John Stanley Baumgartner, who is described as “one notable true defender of the MIC.” Written by an expert in public management and business administration, Baumgartner’s book makes three arguments for the MIC: 1) defending the free world is a moral thing to do (“Sputnik is only one example of the reasons for MIC”); 2) by definition, defence is a big enterprise and all big enterprises (directly or indirectly, the MIC employs one in ten Americans) occasionally make big mistakes, especially when they respond to the murky and changing specifications set by the government (“the tiger” or “the monster”) and its contracting officers; and last, 3) “unconscionable profit” is not so unconscionable in comparative terms (profit on sales, profit on investment, price/earning ratios etc. tend to be below the industrial average).

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#Kony2012 from Advocacy to Militarisation

26 Mar

Although the attention spike and mainstream media attention on #Kony2012 has receded, not least thanks to Jason ‘Radical’ Russell’s own brush with infamy, the implications of muscular-liberalism-as-social-media-experiment continue to unfold. My feed at least continues to be peppered with anger towards Invisible Children from informed activists and scholars (although Norbert Mao, for one, takes a much more positive view and Jason Stearns makes a few qualifications of the anti-case worth reading). On Saturday, CEO Ben Keesey and ‘Director of Ideas Development’ Jedidiah Jenkins (formerly ‘Director of Ideology’: yes, really) released a short teaser video promising a sequel to #Kony2012 and declaring that the campaign was “working”. Staying stubbornly loyal to the understanding of foreign policy decision-making expressed in the original narrative, this was said to be because the people at the top were now being forced to respond to an issue they previously hadn’t cared about/known about, all thanks to the public pressure of predominantly young activist-citizens. The major consequence of this pressure being the introduction on March 12 of a Resolution in the US House of Representatives, sponsored by Jim McGovern (a Democrat) and Ed Royce (a Republican), to end Kony’s atrocities and bring justice to Norther Uganda. There’s now a Senate version of the Resolution too, taken by Keesey and Jenkins to dispel those loose accusations of ‘slacktivism’ against Invisible Children and its supporters.

But what does the Resolution actually ask for? Having reaffirmed previous declarations, it:

…calls on the Secretary of State and heads of other government agencies to undertake diplomatic efforts with partner nations focused on—
(A) expanding the number of capable regional military forces deployed to protect civilians and pursue LRA commanders; (B) enhancing cooperation and cross-border coordination among regional governments; and (C) promoting increased contributions from European and other donor nations for regional security efforts.

Now that’s a rather curious formulation of “diplomatic efforts”. Nowhere in the text is there any mention of the human rights records of the Ugandan or DRC armies, nor any suggestion that they are anything but (albeit junior) ‘partners’ in this military endeavour. The preamble makes repeated mention of ‘help’ to regional governments, and one line of text hints at problems (to “address shortcomings in current efforts”), but it is clear that these are deficiencies of coordination and military effectiveness, not of human rights concerns. The claims previously made in defence of the campaign (“we do not defend any of the abuses perpetrated by the Ugandan government or by the Ugandan army”) have rather evaporated in the transition to a formal Resolution, and Keesey and Jenkins make no complaint of that elision. Although recently rather keen to harness #Kony2012′s popularity, Human Rights Watch and others have long catalogued systematic abuses by the UPDF which match the Lord’s Resistance Army closely for brutality. The record of the FARDC (the army of the Democratic Republic of Congo) is worse still. Exact and proportional figures are hard to pinpoint, but there is no question that they are major (and quite possibly the main) perpetrators of rape, terrorism and atrocity in Eastern DRC.

All of this sets a brutal precedent. The vagueness of the call for action and policy detail, lost amongst the emotion ratcheting of being a ‘doer’ rather than a ‘sayer’, opened the door to any number of Liberal Saviour Hawk Military Industrial fantasies (to adapt Teju Cole). This is what groups like the Association of Concerned Africa Scholars warned of, a not-so-creeping militarisation of East and Central Africa. As apparently obvious as stopping Kony’s evil in a hail of righteous bullets cycles seems to Russell and Co., the cycle of insurgency and counter-insurgency tends to be draped at each stage in stark aggressions, with those regional military partners enacting their own ‘invisible’ massacres as they go.

Conspiratorial ideas of Invisible Children as a front for the US government aside, there is clearly a whole set of non-humanitarian interests at play here. I doubt there is any real appetite, and certainly very little capacity, in policy circles for any kind of escalation of direct US military involvement in the area, but then ‘support’ and ‘advice’ for regional allies and proxies has more traditionally been the mark of foreign policy. What those exponential click counts will translate into in policy terms thus remains open, but the signs aren’t great.

Book launch: A Liberal Peace?

6 Feb

Tuesday 14th February 2012, 5.30pm-7.00pm

Westminster Forum, 5th Floor, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Westminster, 32-38 Wells Street, London W1 (nearest tube Oxford Circus)

Panel with Editors David Chandler and Meera Sabaratnam, followed by publisher’s reception

All welcome

The 1990s was a weird decade for all kinds of reasons. The dice that were thrown into the air as the Soviet Union retreated landed in a particularly intriguing configuration for those politicians, public functionaries and academics from wealthy countries and institutions concerned with ‘peace’ and ‘development’. Their missions, marginalised for decades under concerns for national (i.e. military) security, were quite suddenly elevated as symbols of the new world order and installed as defining foreign policy priorities of wealthy states. Continue reading

Killing is the New ‘Justice’: The Murky Morality of Target Killings

1 Oct

Today’s news of the killing of US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki by US drones sparked a much overdue flurry of criticism and questions on the ethics and legality of Obama’s death-by-drone programme in the war on terror. Awlaki, al-Qaeda’s alleged ‘chief of external operations’ in Yemen (an upgraded title he received posthumously by officials at the White House and the CIA – previously he was by reputation and status merely a radical Muslim cleric) is the first US citizen to have been assassinated in President Obama’s brand of the fight against terrorism. The drones programme is by no means a recent tool in the American war chest, nor has it been particularly reserved in its remit of eliminating specified targets in this interminable ‘war’ effort. What is new, however, is that the US has today eliminated one of it’s own citizens, without due process, stripping said citizen of his 5th Amendment rights and rendering him nothing if not unworthy of living. The fact that a public outcry against the extra-judicial assassination of a human being becomes audible (aside from the controversial killing of enemy #1 Bin Laden of course) only when a US citizen is concerned starkly highlights the normalised extra-judicial status of all foreign drone targets in the perception of the international public. The gloves that came off during the Bush administration are still off and killing as the new justice is beginning to supersede the norm against assassinations.

The norm against political assassinations has been in serious peril since the Bush administration first overtly conceded the strategic use of target killings, framed as a military act to weed out and eliminate high-level Al-Qaeda members, in 2002. This norm continues to deteriorate with Obama at the helm, who has stepped up the drones programme considerably since he took over from Bush junior in 2008. Today, there are roughly double the number of drone attacks per week in regions deemed terrorist hotbeds, specifically Pakistan. Since 2004, these drone strikes are reported to have killed between 1,579 and 2,490 individuals, whereby some analyses estimate the civilian casualty rate among these statistics to be as high as 20%. The vast majority of these deaths have occurred in 2010. While the policy originated as a programme to “capture and kill” a small number of high value terrorist leaders in the G.W. Bush years, the programme has expanded its remit considerably: up to 2,000 killings can hardly be described as a small number, no less if we accept that the total number of military leaders killed was a mere 35 since 2004.

Leaving aside the sovereignty issue that glaringly stares us in the face in a situation where the US decides to engage militarily within a non-war party, such as Pakistan or Yemen, this is a highly concerning development, as it represents not only the gradual erosion of the norm against assassinations but also the very acceptance of the ethics of the targeted killing of persons on a growing scale. Continue reading

Nothing Is Authentic Anymore: Disavowed Selves and the Lure of Realpolitik in ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ (2011) and ‘In The Loop’ (2009)

21 Sep

Know this: *great clunking spoilers ahead*.


The critical praise heaped on Tomas Alfredson’s version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy reflects more than the hunger of intelligent audiences for post-Inception thrillers. Nor can it be explained merely by the excessive parade of grand thesps (Benedict Cumberbatch and the under-rated Stephen Graham both wasted, the former with a sub-Sherlock performance and the latter with a paper-thin bit-part, given historical fidelity by bad hair alone). Its visual and affective qualities are seductive and occasionally beautiful, but then so is its submerged vision of espionage and realpolitik.

The antithesis of Bond and Bourne, Tinker, Tailor offers up the almost forgotten Cold War as the stage for its intrigues. Although the voices are softer and the principals older, there is a more deadly game afoot. As Kermode comments, there will be large swathes of the audience who don’t know the political context at all. Not that it matters, since the detail (Hungary, the parallels with Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt et al.) are but window-dressing for the appeal of George Smiley (silent, menacing, magnificent Gary Oldman). Contra the brashness of post-9/11 global political allegory-fictions, we are gently ushered into an epic game of chess, played by men. Men whose tools are wit, logic and cunning. Men from an analog age who use little pieces of card to alert them to potential break-ins.

Our contemporary operatives, even those of clear intellect and cunning are, like Bob Barnes in Syriana, always eventually compelled to revert to Hollywood expectations (explosions, gun fights, fisticuffs) to bring matters to their appropriate climax. Not in Tinker, Tailor. At one stage Smiley and co. require small handguns but, although drawn, they are never used. Barring the quasi-orgasmic final exchange between Bill Haydon and Jim Prideaux, our other vivid encounters with slaughter and disembowelment are after the fact, still, frozen scenes, crowned by flies. As if painted by Goya. We gulp and turn away, but what beautiful mutilations!

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Looking Beyond Spring for the Season: Echoes of Time Before Tahrir Square

16 Aug

This is the fifth and last part in a series of posts from Siba Grovogui, Professor of International Relations and Political Theory at John Hopkins University. The first part is here; the second here; the third here; the fourth here. The series considers the character and dimensions of the tension between the African Union and ‘the West’ over interventions in Africa. As before, responsibility for visuals adheres solely to Pablo K.


It would be disingenuous to relate events in North Africa and the Middle East (or MENA) today without reference to the media. Here too, there are many possible angles to examine. I will focus on the institutional support that the media provide in shaping consensus in support of foreign policy. In this regard, so-called mainstream Western media and networks (BBC, CNN, Fox, RFI and the like) have played a significant role in generating domestic support for the Libyan campaign. The media find themselves in the contradictory positions of both providing sustenance to foreign policy rationales and reporting on government actions. In this role the media either wittingly or unwittingly assumed the position of justifying contradictory Western foreign policy aims while trying to satisfy the needs of their audiences (especially domestic constituencies and home governments) for information from the front. Consistently, the media often generate sympathy for foreign actors or entities that either support Western interests or have affinities for Western values.

This role is not without a cost, especially when foreign policy actions, including wars, fail to attain their objectives. When the outcome of foreign policy proves disastrous, Western media also have an inexhaustible capacity to either ignore their prior support for the underlying causes or to reposition themselves as mere commentators on events over which they had no control or could not prevent. Increasingly, these tendencies have spread around the world as evidenced in the techniques and styles that have propelled the Qatari-based Al Jazeera into prominence as key contender in the emergent game of production, circulation, and consumption of foreign policy-concordant images for their affective and ideological effects.

So it is not surprising that the backdrop and background scenarios for most reporting on the 2011 revolts in MENA are dimensions of Orientalism, of which they are many. But the most constant is one of autocratic ‘barbarism’. In this regard, the discourses and media techniques for creating and supporting sympathetic figures are just as constant (or invariable) as Western states rationales for intervention. The media-hyped stories of Oriental despotism that preceded Operation Desert Storm, when the US expelled Iraq from Kuwait, have provided the template. During that event, for instance, media feted their viewers with stories of invading Iraqi hordes storming through hospital only to disconnect incubators and let helpless infants die a slow death. These and many stories of heroic bids by US soldiers to prevent such barbarism were later discredited but not the other horrific stories which convinced US citizens of the need to wage war on Saddam Hussein’s occupying army. In the Libyan case today, one of the earlier images of the aura of impunity created by Gaddafi was that of a Libyan female lawyer who was allegedly raped by Gaddafi’s forces. There was also a reported event of military takeover of a hospital.

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Looking Beyond Spring for the Season: Democratic and Non-Democratic Cultures

13 Aug

This is the fourth part in a series of five posts from Siba Grovogui, Professor of International Relations and Political Theory at John Hopkins University. The first part is here; the second here; the third here. The series considers the character and dimensions of the tension between the African Union and ‘the West’ over interventions in Africa. As before, responsibility for visuals adheres solely to Pablo K.


It is not accurate to say that the African Union has been indifferent to the conflict in Libya. If there has been silence in Africa, it has to do with the extent to which the ‘maverick’ Colonel (Gaddafi) has angered some of his peers over the years by interfering in the affairs of such states as Nigeria, Liberia, Burkina Faso, Sierra Leone and others, with disastrous effects. Even when, as in Sudan and Uganda, officeholders have welcomed his entreaties, large segments of the populations have not appreciated them. Yet, regardless of their personal views of Gaddafi and their political differences with him, African elites and populations have yearned for a more positive, conciliatory, and participatory solution to outright regime change or the removal of Gaddafi preferred by the West. This variance, I surmise, comes from a positive understanding of postcoloniality that include forgiveness, solidarity, and democracy and justice, as exhibited in post-apartheid South Africa and post-conflict Liberia, Angola, Mozambique, and the like.

In opting for negotiated mediation and a new constitutional compact, therefore, the African Union (or AU) aimed to foster a different kind of politics in Libya – admittedly one that has escaped many of the states endorsing that position. As articulated by Jean Ping, the Secretary General of the AU, the Libyan crisis offered an opportunity “to enhance a self-nourishing relationship between authority, accountability and responsibility” in order to “reconstitute African politics from being a zero sum to a positive sum game” toward one “characterized by reciprocal behavior and legitimate relations between the governors and the governed.” Mr. Ping added two other dimensions to his vision. The first is an acknowledgement that events in Libya point to the fact that all Africans “yearn for liberty and equality’ and this yearning is “something more consequential than big and strong men.” The second is that Africa’s destiny should be shaped by Africans themselves based on an actualized “sense of common identity based, not on the narrow lenses of state, race or religion, but constructed on Africa’s belief in democracy, good governance and unity as the most viable option to mediate, reconcile and accommodate our individual and collective interests.”

Coming from a politician, these words may read like slogans. But the uniform refusal of the AU to endorse Western intervention tells another story. Continue reading

Looking Beyond Spring for the Season: The West, The African Union, and International Community

11 Aug

This is the third part in a series of five posts from Siba Grovogui, Professor of International Relations and Political Theory at John Hopkins University. The first part is here; the second here. The series considers the character and dimensions of the tension between the African Union and ‘the West’ over interventions in Africa. As before, responsibility for visuals adheres solely to Pablo K.


The oblivion of commentators to these possible African objections has been less than helpful to understanding the actualized Western intervention itself; emergent African ideas on democracy and security; and the actual place of international morality in international affairs. Underlying the African apprehension to military intervention is a long-standing tension between international organizations that represent Africa, on one hand, and self-identified representatives of the West, on the other, over the meaning of international community as well as the source, nature, and proper means of implementation of the collective will. The dispute over the meaning of international community and the collective will has been particularly salient in Africa because, as a political space, Africa has been more subject to military interventions than any other geopolitical space in the modern era. These interventions have reflected contemporaneous relations of power, permissible morality, and objects of desire: from proselytism to fortune-seeking, trade, extraction of raw material, and the strategic pursuit of hegemony. Indeed, it is hard to remember a time since the onset of the slave trade when there was no open conflict between the majority of its states and the West over some dimensions of global governance that implicated the notion of the commons or international community.

The postcolonial era has not brought about any change to this situation. Since the end of World War II and the institution of the United Nations system, the plurality of African political entities have confronted self-appointed representatives of the West over the ethos of UN procedures (involving transparency and open access to the channels of decision-making) and the mechanisms of dispute mediation (including the determination of the principles and applicability of humanitarian interventions in a number of cases). One need only recall the political, legal, and military confrontations between African states and former Western colonial powers over Apartheid South Africa’s mandate over South West (which involved the legality and morality of colonial trusteeship); the French war on Algeria (which involved the legality and legitimacy of settler colonialism); the wars of decolonization in the former Portuguese colonies of Angola, Guinea Bissau, and Mozambique (which involved the principles of majority rule through open elections which communists might win); the unilateral declaration of independence by the white minority in Southern Rhodesia (which involved the principle of white-minority rule in postcolonial Africa); and the legality and morality of apartheid (which involved the principle of self-determination and majority rule). The underlying antagonisms contaminated deliberations throughout the UN system (particularly General Assembly proceedings) and involved all major issues from the Palestine Question to the Law of the Sea to other matters of trade and intellectual property. They reached a climax at the time of exit of the US and Great Britain from UNESCO, which was then directed by Ahmadou Mathar Mbow, a Senegalese diplomat and statesman.

These and other contests have shared a few singular features. One is a Western insistence on representing the essential core and therefore will of something called international community. In any case, the label of international community has often been reserved for Western entities in relations to others, who remain the object of intervention on behalf of the international community. This is to say that the term ‘international community’ has had political functionality in relations of power and domination in which Europe (and later The West) subordinated ‘Africa’. The relevant tradition can be traced back to the opening moments of the modern era, particularly during the ascension of The West to global hegemony. While it has undergone changes over time, the embedded imaginary of international community and its will have been built around artificially fixed identities and politically potent interests. Accordingly, the identity of the West, and therefore the international community, flows from a theology of predestination, formally enunciated as the Monroe doctrine in the US or the Mission Civilizatrice in France.

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Looking Beyond Spring for the Season: Common and Uncommon Grounds

8 Aug

This is the second part in a series of five posts from Siba Grovogui, Professor of International Relations and Political Theory at John Hopkins University. The first part is here. The series will consider the character and dimensions of the tension between the African Union and ‘the West’ over interventions in Africa. Responsibility for visuals adheres solely to Pablo K.


As I indicated in my last post, the decision by the African Union (or AU) to not endorse the current military campaign in Libya has been mistaken by many observers and commentators alternatively as a sign of African leaders’ antipathy to political freedom and civil liberties; a reflexive hostility to former colonial powers, particularly France and Great Britain; a suspicion of the motives of the United States; and more. The related speculations have led to the equally mistaken conclusion that the African Union is out of step with the spirit of freedom sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa (or MENA). The absurdity of the claim is that the only entity that imposed any outline of solution agreeable to Gaddafi has been the African Union and this is that Gaddafi himself would not be part of any future leadership of the country. But the AU has insisted on an inclusive negotiated settlement. The purpose of this series of essays is not therefore to examine the meaning and implications of the absence of ‘Africa’ on the battlefield of Libya, but to point to the larger geopolitical implications of the intervention for international order, global democratic governance, and the promotion of democratic ideals and political pluralism in the region undergoing revolution and beyond.

To begin, it is not just ‘Africa’, ‘African indecision’, and ‘African non-Normativity’ that are at stake in the characterization of African actions or inactions. Much of what is construed as ‘lack’ or ‘absence’ in Africa is also intended to give sustenance to the idea of the indispensability of the West – composed on this occasion by France, Great Britain, the United States, and tangentially Canada – to the realization of the central ends of the MENA Spring. The myth of the centrality of the West to the imaginary of freedom everywhere is inscribed in the name given to the events under description. In the US at least, the Arab Spring evokes many other ‘Springs’ all located in the West (including the 1968 Prague Spring or the 1989 collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite states). Likewise, ‘Jasmine’, the emblem of the Tunisian revolt has been advanced as evocative of the Ukrainian ‘Orange’ and other colour-coded European events. These allusions have justifications but they are seldom evoked comparatively to elucidate the originality and specificity of the MENA revolutions. In this latter regard, even the suggestion of an Arab Spring assumes that the majorities in the countries involved are Arab. This is not always the case in North Africa but Orientalism obliges!

The fact is that the ongoing revolutions in MENA are at once specific and universal in their own ways. Continue reading

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