Thursday, April 25, 2013

Pax Americana and Its Discontents

Current trends in the domestic politics of the United States have implications for the world. On major issues requiring bipartisan consensus for progress – welfare and social security reform, gun control, cutting the deficit and immigration – recalcitrant Republicans and Democrats are locked in an ideological impasse. The only area in which the US president has real latitude is in foreign policy. Presidents shackled by the restrictions of stalemated domestic politics can still look impressive and act imperiously on the world stage. Nowhere is this more evident that in the president’s power to conduct wars.

We may be approaching a time when presidents will orchestrate military engagements abroad in order to shore up their ratings at home. With domestic politics deadlocked, American voters may have no other means for evaluating their leaders than how muscularly they conduct themselves abroad.

In August 1998, President Bill Clinton, while facing intense congressional scrutiny over the Monica Lewinsky affair, ordered cruise missile strikes on terrorist camps in Afghanistan and Sudan in retaliation for earlier attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Some critics thought that Clinton was trying to deflect attention from the tawdry scandal threatening to submerge his presidency by appearing presidential and decisive on the world stage. They cited “Wag the Dog”, a movie in which the White House hires a Hollywood film maker to create a fake war in the media to divert attention from the president’s sexual peccadilloes. Clinton administration spokesmen denied that the president was trying to wag the dog.

The notion that an American president could stage an international incident for domestic political gain is not outlandish. We could yet see the assassinations of foreign nationals whether terrorists, rogue scientists or dissidents strategically timed to provoke an uptick in pre-election polls. This would simply be a logical advancement from the George W. Bush administration’s use of colour-coded terror alerts to frighten the American public into acquiescence.

Foreign wars conducted by special ops units and Predator drones can enable presidents to exorcise the “wimp factor” that comes from being unable to push their agenda through an implacable congress. Bitterly divided at home between Liberal secularists and conservative religionists, war-making may become a logical means by which a president conjures patriotic paroxysms and rallies his people to the Star - Spangled Banner.  

The last decade witnessed an unprecedented expansion of the president’s war powers and their disconnection from congressional oversight and democratic constraints. Liberals had hoped that Barack Obama would reverse the trend which began under Bush. But it has continued largely because politicians are rarely inclined to refuse more power and also because of the sense that an assertive presidency is needed as a counterweight to an intransigent do-nothing congress and to shepherd an evidently “confused” electorate which keeps sending divided governments to Washington. As Peter Beinart wrote recently in Newsweek, “Liberals may not be thrilled about the drone program, but they trust Obama’s judgment in a way they never trusted Bush’s. And… they want a president strong enough to impose his will on a Congress that they consider reactionary, corrupt, and dismissive of the public will.”

During the 2012 elections, Republican efforts to tar Obama as weak on national security as they typically do to liberal presidents simply failed to stick against the man who took out Osama Bin Laden and ordered more drone strikes in his first year than his predecessor did in his entire eight years. With presidents rendered impotent at home but virile abroad, thanks to the exigencies of the “war on terror”, the world has ample reason to fear American militarism. Because drones largely eliminate the need for boots on the ground and therefore the spectacle of flag-draped body bags arriving from foreign lands to public outrage, they offer a politically cost-effective way of waging war and attaining the tough guy image that reassures Americans that the president is keeping them safe. With their disregard for the niceties of sovereignty and international law, drones are the new symbol of US imperial omnipotence.  

It is worth noting that the debate in the US over the drone-assassination of Anwar al Awlaki, an American citizen, was about whether the president can order the termination of a US citizen. It is taken for granted that he can order the killing of foreign citizens. Indeed, the US can kill foreign citizens in their own countries as drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen indicate. The toll in “collateral damage” – civilians, men, women and children – is deemed an “acceptable loss.”

The international media, so often exercised about Arab terrorists and African warlords, its favourite pantomime villains, has little to say about the serial misdeeds of the biggest war-making power on earth. The very viable case for hauling US officials (Bush and Dick Cheney would be great) before the War Crimes Tribunal is simply laughed off. It is the most pungent indication that the international community is an unfair constellation and that might is still right. While western pundits fulminate over the election of Uhuru Kenyatta who is billed to appear at the Hague for alleged crimes against humanity, they side-step the fact that US and British officials are responsible for far more deaths of innocents in  Afghanistan and Iraq. It seems that wearing a suit and sitting in White Hall or the White House while ordering a war on the basis of fabricated evidence (as in Iraq), confers immunity from justice.

As is so often the case, technology has a way of democratizing power and will do so yet again in this brave new world of imperial presidents and drones. It was when China and Russia joined America in the club of nuclear nations that she began to advocate nuclear arms control treaties. American officials will start preaching restraint in the use of drones once China and Russia carry out drone campaigns of their own. The Bush administration’s doctrine of pre-emptive war undermined America’s customary self-righteous sermonizing to other countries. US officials bleat tamely about the need for dialogue and restraint when China and Russia carry out bloody campaigns in Tibet and Chechnya, because they recognize that it is hypocrital to do so. Vladmir Putin gamely defined Russian operations in Chechnya as a “war on terror”, appropriating Bush’s terminology and implying moral equivalence between the two nations’ militarisms.

The problem with Pax Americana is that its imperial character cannot make the world more peaceful. After witnessing the Euro-American intervention in Libya which ousted Gaddafi, other nations took note. They watched as western nations violated a country’s sovereignty, aided an internal insurrection, bombed the country into submission, and saw to the killing of the country’s leader. They learned that Gaddafi had signed his death warrant when he signed away Libya’s weapons of mass destruction. This is why Iran and North Korea are unlikely to give up their nuclear aspirations; because they fear a power that has arrogated to itself the right to determine who rules other nations. Despite the war weariness in the west stemming from the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan, the potential for conflict in the Persian Gulf and the Korean Peninsula is quite high. 

Thus, Pax Americana by default, if not design, can only generate conflict in the world. It will continue to do so until two things happen – until the US resolves the contradictions that have paralyzed its domestic politics which in turn prompts her presidents to play “Captain America” and engage in imperial overreach. More importantly, there has to be a common plumb line for global justice that targets war criminals of every hue…Yes, including those that are to be found in White Hall and the White House.   

All Images Sourced Online.  

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Our Empathy Deficit

A curious thing happened last month. Terrorists blew up a bus in a Kano motor park killing and injuring scores of passengers and bystanders. Since the park was in Sabon Gari, the victims were thought to be Igbos and thus victims of Boko Haram’s plan to rid the north of Igbos and southerners. Wole Soyinka and J.P. Clark even suggested that Chinua Achebe’s death might have been hastened by the slaying of “his people.” Some polemicists declared the attack to be part of a pattern of anti-Igbo violence in the North. Debate along these lines ensued in the senate with media reports of frightened northerners fleeing the east fearing Igbo reprisals. Then the Kano State Government released the names of some victims of the bombings, a number of whom were apparently northerners. An awkward silence followed to enable us to reflect on the farcical level of discourse in the media and in the legislature.

Some people attacked the Kano Government for releasing the names and contradicting the preferred narrative of Igbo victimhood. That a number of northerners died in the bombing seemed to have rendered it a non-event. Disappointed Lagos newspapers could no longer publish sensational headlines about Igbos being slaughtered in the North. Their profit projections would have to be scaled down, at least until a more handsome number of southerners or Igbos in the North are slain. Overwrought “activists” could no longer belch out threats of reprisals and market themselves as “Igbo leaders.”

There was yet more buffoonery and opportunism on parade. Abia State Governor Theodore Orji who in 2011 fired non-indigenes (including Igbos) from the state’s employment called on Igbos in the North to return “home” since they were not safe. As though Abia, the hotbed of commercialized kidnapping where Orji moved from advocating capital punishment for the kidnappers to placating them with an amnesty offer is necessarily any safer for Igbos. It is unlikely that a politician that has been so brazenly prejudiced against “non-indigenes” could possibly protect the “returnees.”

The corpses were still smouldering from the bombing when some opposition politicians claimed that it had been carried out by the ruling party without bothering with the inconvenience of providing a scintilla of evidence. Some of them even used the opportunity to call on the federal government to issue an amnesty to the terrorists. To think that these hacks who would make political capital out of this tragedy, who could scarcely be troubled to issue condemnations of the act or condolences to the grieving, are now advertizing themselves as alternatives to the incumbent government. And this is leaving aside the fact that Boko Haram’s insurgency emerged from states mainly controlled since 1999 by opposition parties.   

 Whatever else the terrorists are doing, it goes beyond attacking specific ethnic groups. They are striking at physical and psychological fault lines with the clear intent of expanding their murderous campaign into an all out sectarian war. But in Nigeria today, outside of churches and mosques, it is really impossible to target crowded public spaces such as markets and motor parks with total assurance that the casualties will belong to one ethnic or faith community. In Kano, is it really possible to report a terror attack in public in such exclusivist terms? And even if this were the case, should it matter? Should the victims of terrorist attacks disclose their states of origin and their religions before we grieve their deaths? Does it matter whether the victim is named Abubakar or Nnamdi, Ejiro or Tersoo? Is it not tragedy enough that lives can be so cavalierly cut short? Can we not mourn the brazen assault on our collective humanity, close ranks in solidarity as human beings and call evil by its proper name?

The great moral demand of our time is reverence for life. It means that when a bus is blown up, the ethnic origins and faiths of the victims should matter less than the fact that this is a demonic violation of our humanity. This specie of violence is what medieval jurists called hostis generis humani – “an enemy of humanity.” We should be affronted by these murders whether the casualties are Muslims or Christians, atheists or agnostics, Igbo or Kanuri. This is the ultimate barometer of our humanity. For in the final analysis, only God can verify the authenticity of our declared religious convictions; whether one is truly Muslim or Christian or neither. The only thing that we can be certain of is that we are truly human.

The only measures that can protect us all from the predations of reprobate elites and terrorists are those that are humanist and universal. In other words, there is no way of protecting only Igbos or only Fulanis. We share the same geography and eco-system; the same perils and opportunities and indeed the same future. Only the umbrella of a state that protects all can protect each. This is why attempts to sectionalize what is a human tragedy and claim a monopoly of suffering are daft. We are all victims and casualties of this omnivorous plague of violence.

To the extent to which we persist in entertaining sectarian narrow-mindedness and comfortable bigotries, we will remain vulnerable to terrorism and all the plagues of our society that are not restricted in their reach by our faith or ethnicity. The October 2010 Eagle Square bombing which was carried out by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta killed a diverse range of Nigerians – Muslims, Christians, Southerners, Northerners, Civilians, and security agents. Terrorist attacks follow this pattern because the perpetrators seek to maximize casualties and thereby sow fear – the dread of mass deaths in sudden acts of random violence – into the public mind. They usually cannot afford to be too specific or risk sacrificing spectacular casualty figures. This normalization of mass murder is a threat to all.

When politicians and religious leaders claim that only their people are being killed by Boko Haram to the exclusion of other victims, they are guilty of moral myopia. What they should be doing is casting the terrorists as enemies of the human race, killers of Nigerians of every creed and clan. They should be promoting empathy and solidarity, not monopolizing grief and using it as a moral bludgeon to inflict feelings of faux guilt on fellow sufferers. But hamstrung by a lack of empathy and moral imagination, too many religious leaders and politicians have resorted to rabble-rousing that only inflames sectarian passions and offers neither moral clarity nor healing.

What motivates a self-proclaimed Jihadist to kill Christians or a self-proclaimed Christian militant to kill Muslims is not primarily hatred for Christians or Muslims although these are factors. It is fundamentally misanthropy – the hatred of humanity – that is at work. The difficulty is not in killing a Muslim or a Christian but in taking a human life at all. Once that threshold is crossed, all else is fair game. The hand that can slay the stranger can, and will likely also eventually, slay kindred. Annihilating infidels is only preparation for exterminating apostates. It does not take long before those who have been raised to kill unbelievers begin to hunt believers who, in their view, do not believe accurately enough.  

This explains why violent crime flourishes after the cessation of hostilities in conflict-prone locales. Those who have tasted blood as ethnic combatants will likely do so again as gangsters and brigands. Violence is addictive and the god-like power of ending a life on a whim proves irresistible. This is why youths used as political thugs by politicians eventually turn to terrorism, banditry and murder for hire. It was veterans of the Aguleri-Umuleri communal wars of the 1990s that almost sacked Onitsha and Aba in an orgy of banditry in the early 2000s. It is a generation raised in an environment that turned a blind eye to the wanton slaughter of religious minorities as infidels and the destruction of their churches and homes in chronic bouts of religious rioting in the 1980s and 1990s that has produced the anarchist terrorist group that now slays Muslims and Christians alike. Violence tends to reproduce itself and it is this culture of misanthropic violence, no matter the cultural garments that it wears, that we must repudiate. 

What we should fear even more than the psychotic malice of terrorists is the loss of empathy that desensitizes us to tragedies as long as they are happening to other people that are not kin or fellow believers. It is empathy that enables us to keenly identify with the sufferings of others. The Bantu concept of Ubuntu which tells us that we are human through other human beings speaks to the notion of empathy and collective humanity. It tells us that we do not truly exist independent of others and that what ails one will shortly ail all. When we cease to feel the afflictions of our fellow beings, it is a sign that that we are losing our humanity; and that our society is becoming a jungle.  In such conditions, no one, regardless of ethnicity or religion is truly safe. 

(All Images sourced online) 

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Globalization and Its Hypocrites

Since the 1885 Berlin Conference in which western nations carved up Africa among themselves, the relational dynamic between both regions has stayed the same. Africa remains a resource farm exporting primary products to the west and importing manufactured goods. Even after decolonization, the continent remained the site of resource extraction and structural adjustment programmes designed by western –dominated international financial institutions. Throughout the cold war era, western nations installed puppet dictators in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, to guarantee their control of natural resources and keep their countries from the communists’ clutches.
U.S. and European farm subsidies, which clearly violate the gospel of free trade, have helped to decimate Africa’s agrarian economies. The unfair economic relations between the west and Africa are further fortified by existing economic conventions that effectively subvert the continent’s potential for industrial growth and perpetuate her status as a dumping ground for foreign goods.  Even so, western envoys continue to lecture poorer nations about the civilizing virtues of unfettered markets and trade liberalization.
Western experts often talk about how failed states led by corrupt despots have become terrorist havens. They ignore other salient factors – errant colonial cartography in Africa and the Middle East, the subversion of African and Middle Eastern publics by western intriguers to prevent nationalists or Islamists from coming to power, the legacy of resource extraction, unfettered deregulation, and the inequities built into globalization which have degraded the sovereign capacities of the said failed states.
            The most significant consequence of these policies has been the epic flow of migration from benighted third world enclaves to the rich first world. This was triggered by the repression and recession that western-backed dictators inflicted upon their countries. During the late 1980s and 1990s, the trickle became a deluge. Denied economic opportunities that would have been provided by large scale industrialization, poor third worlders followed the bread crumbs to where the opportunities were. The magnetism of the markets proved irresistible. It is profoundly ironic that migration is now altering the complexion of first world nations.
The recent implosion of Anglo-Saxon capitalism has triggered a severe bout of cultural hysteria. In Britain, the unspoken reason why the Conservatives, Labourites and Liberal Democrats are competing to craft the most Draconian immigration laws is the fear that Britain, so historically tolerant of immigration, is losing her sense of collective identity. In the post 9-11 world, and particularly after the 2005 terrorist attacks on the London underground, the notion that some British citizens might feel a greater allegiance to obscure Imams in Pakistan than to the Queen is deeply disturbing to the guardians of the realm. The ideal of a multicultural Britain is dissipating in a climate of creeping recessionary xenophobia. There is a sense that British identity which has always been a tenuous veneer overlaying the older Scottish, English, Welsh and Irish allegiances, is being frayed by the relentless influx of foreigners.
In Continental Europe, right wing demagogues have stoked similar panic over “Eurabia”, the supposedly imminent overrunning of the continent through stealthy overpopulation by Arab Muslims. This is far from reality but bigots are not inclined to let facts get in the way of populist fictions. 

In America, the already robust immigration debate has been inflamed by projections that she will shortly cease to be a white majority country and become a nation of minorities – Hispanics, African-Americans, Asians and others. Some pundits despondently attribute Barack Obama’s reelection to the emerging “post-white” electoral coalition. Rightwing scare mongers warn of America being seized from her white owners by liberals consorting with subversive foreigners. The lingering rumours in some quarters about Obama’s birthplace and the belief that he is a foreign-born Muslim reflect this paranoia which rightwing politicians habitually play on.
But why should immigration be so frightening to western nations? In the global order they have long advocated, it should not be strange that for political and economic reasons, Africa and the Middle East will export labour in prodigious proportions to the first world just as crude oil and other natural resources flow in the same direction and just as jobs have moved from the first world to China and India (via outsourcing). 

After all, the logical end of globalization is a borderless planet in every sense; a world of infinitely expanding diasporas. Why should western countries worry about the coherence of national identities when nations are, in globalization’s orthodoxy, obsolete chauvinisms? Aren’t we all supposed to be global citizens now? National borders are a relatively recent innovation; a mere blip in humanity’s long history of free-ranging migration. Why should giant transnational corporations be global citizens but not intrepid people seeking their fortune from far-flung places?
It is incongruous to insist upon the mobility of capital as western leaders have done for decades while raising barriers against the mobility of labour. So what if migrants depress wages and deprive locals of jobs? This is exactly how market forces are supposed to operate. Why is economic Darwinism ideal for poor nations but not for Charles Darwin’s country?
If western nations can dictate policy to African countries, then the latter should protest the illiberal immigration policies being adopted by the first world as unfair trade practices and violations of the spirit of globalization. In preaching capitalism and democracy worldwide, western nations have implied that the quest for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is a universal human right. Surely, the logical extension of this doctrine is to permit people seeking life, liberty and happiness to go wherever these treasures are evidently domiciled. Indeed, why can’t we all just jet out to any country that catches our fancy without the nuisance of travel documents? After all, the natural corollary of free trade is free migration.
This is what globalization means. Unless, of course, globalization is a relative term – a protean theme that merely fits the prejudices of its proponents – and therefore has a different meaning in Davos than it does in Delhi or Dakar. 

All images sourced online.