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.

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

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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