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

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.

Obviously, the inclusion of rape among the actions constituting crimes against humanity is one of the greatest achievements of human rights advocates and no one should be excused for committing so vile an act against anyone even in wartime. So too is a military invasion of a hospital an inexcusable act. The point is the media environment in which reported events are readily accepted as truths or summarily discounted or received with skepticism based solely on an affective economy in which sympathies and antipathies are clearly aligned on either side of the conflict. Thus, before it was revealed that the Syrian lesbian blogger was actually in man living outside of Syria, the journalistic practice was to present any incriminating image from a ‘heroic’ Tech-savvy youth who uses Facebook, Twitter, or other social media against the unsympathetic regime as proof of the latter’s barbarism and/or ebbing legitimacy. So it is that the discussions of the creation, distribution (for example, via You-Tube), and interpretation of people-generated clips as symbols of the 2011 Spring will remain its hallmarks. The corollary to the related action is the preparation of Western constituencies for the inevitable: the interposition of the West in the MENA Spring as its necessary conscience and adjudicator of interests, values, and norms.

On this affected and affective terrain, it was predictable, if not inevitable, that the regime of Muhammar Gaddafi would fare worse than Middle Eastern regimes that figured prominently in Western strategic calculations. In a way, Libya under Gaddafi did too but in an antagonistic rather than supportive role. Given the longstanding involvement and entanglement with Libya, one would expect reporting to start with an initial skepticism about the motives, aims, and justifications of the intervening powers: France, Great Britain, and the US. These three leading members of the coalition against the Gaddafi regime have had continuous entanglement with Libya since the advent of the Gaddafi regime over a number of security-related issues. These include Libyan involvement in the downing of PanAm flight 103 over Lockerbie, the explosion of the French-owned UTA flight 772 over the Saharan desert, also attributed to Gaddafi, and the Reagan Administration’s bombing Libya to claim the right of access in the Gulf of Sidra.

To be sure, it is still possible to assign a neutral or positive value to the intervention in any MENA entity at the onset of upheaval. Yet, the history of Western entanglements in Libya should be obvious (or be restated), especially when the media cite the relations between the Gaddafi regime and African states as reason for doubting African neutrality in its approach to the conflict. This was not to be. The actual scenario that unfolded had two predictable parts. The first is one in which the media assumed neutrality and humanitarian motives on the part of the NATO coalition in order to shore up the legitimacy not only of the military intervention but all operational dimensions of the interventions, including specific targeting decisions. Conjointly, the media pointed to the multiple ways in which African states could be conflicted or were so compromised as to not be credibly neutral or objective in their attempted mediation of the Libyan crisis.

In short, the condition of possibility of the ideological justifications of Western intervention was and remains a unidirectional apportionment of blame in the political conducts of the domestic Libyan protagonists (Gaddafi bad; TNC good) but also the discrediting of any position that contrasted with Western objectives – for instance, mediation amounts to supporting Gaddafi or shoring up his power. The condition of possibility of this dualism is a reality of power that is apparent even to human rights organizations and humanitarian networks that are dependent symbolically and materially on Western power, money, and technology. In any case, the erasure of potential Western conflicts of interest necessarily underpins much of the discourses of supposed humanitarians, particularly among liberal cosmopolitan circles where historically human suffering everywhere has been highlighted conveniently to align with foreign policy.

Again, the reference to the past is not intended a priori to impugn official and non-official Western motives. It serves as caution to those who would align reason and rationality on the side of the West and passion and affect on the side of Africans in order to validate the wisdom of military intervention against the desire to foster new kinds of politics in Libya. Specifically, African leaders are no less credible as mediators because of past ties or associations of some member states of the African Union with the regime of Gaddafi. Nor did Western intervention become ‘indispensable’ because morally blemished Africans remained inactive. Such a view belies the fact for instance that, as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, South Africa endorsed Resolution 1973. That resolution also recognized that the actions of the Libyan government had been condemned by the League of Arab States, the African Union, and the Secretary General of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. A large number of African states, therefore, protested Gaddafi’s use of force, and the majority did not object to the establishment of the no-fly zone or the idea of an immediate cease-fire.

I know few people or constituencies in Africa that who would argue that the situation in Libya at the time of the insurgency was tenable or that it should have been allowed to persist. I also know few individuals who would pretend that an operation such as the one currently undertaken by the West could be carried out without mistakes or blemish. Yet, these are not arguments against global democracy and the reasonableness that is required to interpret international law, particularly UN Resolutions. Alas, no reputable media outlet provided a sustained investigation into why Africans might so stubbornly oppose Western intervention. In truth, Africans are accustomed to the tendency in the West to instrumentalize international processes in favor of supposed strategic interests. They are also accustomed to being blamed for the disastrous outcomes of Western interventions. One recalls a certain Congo crisis which was settled upon Western intervention, by the removal and assassination of Patrice Lumumba and the installation of Mobutu in his place. Thirty odd years later, Mobutu was forced to resign leaving Congo in a condition that observers liken today to a failed state, blamed in the media on African propensity to fight for resources (the story of dirty diamonds) and/or settle ‘entrenched inter-ethnic animosities’ through civil wars.

Africans are also accustomed to another certainty in Western interventions on the continent: this is that political reconciliation is required only when Western allies are on the losing end of political dynamics while a scenario of total victors and losers is preferred when the victors might be Western allies. Consider US foreign policy in Southern Africa. There in the 1980s, US allies – among them the apartheid regime in South Africa and anti-communist guerillas – seemed on the defensive and unable to gain power against progressive rivals: the Marxist regimes in Angola and Mozambique; the national liberation movement in Namibia, or SWAPO; and the African National Congress in South Africa. To buttress the position of its allies in the context, the US put forth policies such as Constructive Engagement toward Apartheid South Africa. The policy was built on the assumption that effective political settlement in South Africa required an ‘honest broker’ like the US to engage all parties – even in this case, a regime that was ideologically and politically bent on the total subordination of its local black population and the destruction of neighboring states.

In contrast, the US government and civil society groups – religious and businesses alike – provided money, guns, telecommunication equipments, and other technologies of war to anti-communist guerillas in Angola and Mozambique that refused to submit to electoral processes. Even as these groups failed to unseat their respective legitimate governments, the US pressured the latter into accepting political ‘compromises’ to crises created by the refusal of its own allies to participate in free and open elections organized by the departing colonial power: Portugal. The arguments advanced by the US then favored political inclusion in the interest of lasting peace, a position that comes close to the African position in Libya today. So it seems to an African observer of Western interventions in Africa that the strategic goals of those leading the interventions often supersede the internal domestic requirements of a viable constitutional order. In short, Western-friendly entities need not accommodate ‘unsympathetic’ opposing figures or entities: then, communists and, today, an assortment comprising Islamists and unfriendly autocratic ‘Arab’ and ‘Africa’ regimes. In contrast, friends of the West need not bother with democratic niceties as the price for peace. Enemies or adversaries do or they are eliminated from the scene in favour of friends.

The above formula has been the single most enduring constant in US interventions in Africa. It has also drawn a comparatively stark African aversion to the instrumentalization of international morality to ends that are anti-democratic in nature. To those who are undeterred by the idea that Africans may actually formulate coherent views of international morality, including an aversion to war, consider these facts. In 2003, even after dispatching Colin Powell to Africa to seek support for the war in Iraq, the US failed to enlist a single African leader in its efforts. This refusal came on the heels of great sympathy for the US following the 1998 US Embassy Bombings in East Africa and the attacks perpetrated against the US on 9/11. Further, for nearly four years, the US failed to find a single state among fifty three on the continent to host AFRICOM (the US military’s Africa Command) even though all African states endorsed the aims of US anti-terrorism programs. As of today, none of the countries enlisted in the US-initiated Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorism Partnership, all of them poor and dependent on US aid, has endorsed military intervention in Libya.

In the meantime Africans will remain camped in a metaphorical global Tahrir Square. It is from there, in the public spaces allowed for legislating on behalf of the collective will, that they have succeeded best. In 1960, for instance, the Afro-Asian coalition that emerged from Bandung was sufficiently alarmed by events in Algeria, Vietnam, and the Portuguese colonies of Africa to endorse UN Resolution 1514, acknowledging the right of colonial populations to self-determination. This was the beginning of a quiet revolution at the UN. It was followed by the decisions of Ghana, Guinea, and Egypt (under the rubric then of the United Arab Republic) to dispense with Security Council resolutions in Congo. The most important of these revolutions was the appeal by African states to others to denounce the 1966 ruling by the International Court of Justice favoring colonial arrangements in South West Africa. In response, the UN General Assembly voted massively against the positions of both the Security Council and the International Court of Justice, while revoking the South African mandate over South West Africa, instituting in its place a ‘mandate’ under the UN Council for Namibia. Similar instances of delegitimization exist today in African perceptions of the legality of decisions by the International Criminal Court. The seeming arbitrariness and politicization of the recent indictments of a number of African leaders has once again led the African Union to collectively decide to ignore the ICC’s decisions. The AU’s solution for Libya, together with the emergent African attitude toward the ICC, suggest a continuation of an often-ignored public battle from the continent to restore a modicum of equality, justice and reasonableness to international interventions.

My concern stems from the fact that, in politics as in law, it is axiomatic that states are unequal in their endowments and capacities. But this should not be an argument against global democracy and the reasonableness that is required when interpreting international law, particularly UN Resolutions, to maintain a semblance of legitimacy in the international order. The dissenting opinion of Judge Kotaro Tanaka of Japan in the South West Africa case of the International Court of Justice might be helpful here in explaining why one would object to the current intervention in Libya. In contemplating the fate of international customary law in the postcolonial world, Judge Tanaka took inspiration from the New Haven School when he opined that “different treatment is permitted only when it can be justified by the criterion of justice.” According to him, “one may replace justice by the concept of reasonableness generally referred to by the Anglo-American school of law,’ but he insisted that the criterion for reasonableness does not logically lead to arbitrariness. In short, even a doctrine of reasonableness, which is required of entities that may disagree, does not do away with the question of the (lack of) legal basis for differential treatment in global politics of both the Libyan regime under Gaddafi (which is at the center of the crisis under consideration) and African states (for daring to aspire to a negotiated settlement in the hope of nurturing a different kind of politics in post-crisis Libya).


3 thoughts on “Looking Beyond Spring for the Season: Echoes of Time Before Tahrir Square

  1. Really interesting and thought-provoking post, like the others in the series. Many thanks.

    I have three points to add pertaining, unsurprisingly to the authors of this blog I’m sure, regarding the ICC in the context of this post.

    First, with regards to the West’s former dealings with Libya, it is important to remember that the UN Security Council ensured that events in Libya prior to February 15 2011 could not be investigated. This both bent the politics of the Resolution in a particular direction which inevitably benefits the West (see a brief list of dealings in context of the ICC’s intervention here: http://justiceinconflict.org/2011/03/14/the-west-and-libya-the-politically-imposed-limits-of-justice/) (sorry for the plug!) and surely was a violation of the Rome Statute (which can legally investigate issues back to 2002). The primary effect of this politically-imposed jurisdictional limitation appears to be, in line with this post, to shape the narratives regarding Libya and its transition in favour of Western states. It is notable that, despite having followed the Court’s work in Libya from the beginning, I have never seen a Western media source interrogate this jurisdictional issue in the Resolution.

    Second, media sources also never properly interrogated the widespread belief that the referral was “unanimous”. It was, of course, unanimous on the surface. However, as evidenced even by the statements of UNSC member-states (attached to the Resolution!), there were deep-seated concerns. Notably, numerous states, including Gabon, declared reservations and their desire for a calibrated approach to peace and justice in Libya.

    Third, I think that the the author’s view that “The seeming arbitrariness and politicization of the recent indictments of a number of African leaders has once again led the African Union to collectively decide to ignore the ICC’s decisions” is far too simplistic a view of the attitudes of African states towards the Court. It also seems to privilege the AU – the “collective” voice of Africa – above the views of individual states. Surely Tunisia, which recently deposited its signature of the Rome Statute, can’t be said to “ignore the ICC.” Neither can this be true of South Africa or Uganda which have said it would arrest Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir regardless of what the AU says.

    Thanks again for the post!


  2. Pingback: Looking Beyond Spring (Grovogui) « AUTONOMIZANDO

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