"If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin."
- Charles Darwin

Jul 25, 2007

Noble Victims

Western rhetoric and reality in liberal intervention

As highlighted in my Nov/Dec 2005 article in Wildlife Conservation magazine, the Democratic Republic of Congo remains the only refuge for the critically endangered bonobo. The specicide being carried out against our evolutionary cousins (which share with humans between 98.6% and 99.4% of our DNA) threatens to extinguish all traces of the population within our lifetimes.

As I reviewed in that article:

Referred to as Africa’s World War by the United Nations, the Congolese civil conflict directly involved eight African countries in a complex campaign over regional geopolitics and Congo’s vast mineral wealth. The war began on August 2, 1998 when President Laurent Kabila tried to expel the Rwandan military forces that had helped him overthrow the brutal dictator, and former US ally, Mobutu Sese Seko. The governments of Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda, who viewed the troops as vital to their protection, sponsored different rebel groups (the Rally for Congolese Democracy in the east and the MLC in the north) in an attempt to overthrow Kabila. In response, Zimbabwe, Angola, Chad and Namibia deployed their own troops to join forces with the Congolese army.

The result has been a “humanitarian catastrophe of horrid and shocking proportions,” says the International Rescue Committee aid agency, with estimates of 3.3 million people killed and many millions more displaced by the warring factions.
Now, according to a recent article in the UK Guardian, Western disregard for the suffering of the region and the potential extinction of the bonobos comes down to two basic lessons of Western geopolitics: 1) reserve your moral outrage for groups that have oil and 2) humanitarian concern will only be for those victimized by our official enemy.

The key difference between the two situations lies in the racial and ethnic composition of the perceived victims and perpetrators. In Congo, black Africans are killing other black Africans in a way that is difficult for outsiders to identify with. The turmoil there can in that sense be regarded as a narrowly African affair.

In Darfur the fighting is portrayed as a war between black Africans, rightly or wrongly regarded as the victims, and "Arabs", widely regarded as the perpetrators of the killings. In practice these neat racial categories are highly indistinct, but it is through such a prism that the conflict is generally viewed.

It is not hard to imagine why some in the west have found this perception so alluring, for there are numerous people who want to portray "the Arabs" in these terms.

. . .

Humanitarian concern among policymakers in Washington is ultimately self-interested. The United States is willing to impose new sanctions on the Sudan government if the latter refuses to accept a United Nations peacekeeping force, but it is no coincidence that Sudan, unlike Congo, has oil - lots of it - and strong links with China, a country the US regards as a strategic rival in the struggle for Africa's natural resources.
Let me say upfront that anyone who disputes that genocide is occurring in Darfur is guilty of despicable ignorance and that I have personally taken action to bring attention to this crisis. This doesn't mean that I fail to recognize the hypocrisy of Western liberals in their choice of humanitarian intervention and how these choices fit so neatly into categories approved by official policy.

As I argued in an earlier post, anti-Arab/anti-Muslim bias ignores the Western role in provoking and sustaining bitter antagonism for it's own geopolitical ends. British imperialist policy in Ireland (including military occupation of civilian populations, unlawful detentions and assassination of suspected terrorists) prolonged the terror tactics employed by some factions of the Irish Republican Army by increasing local support for such militancy against their British oppressors.

In the same way, American imperialist policy is now answering the jihadi's most fervent wish by declaring a war -- or rather, in our President's fateful words, a "crusade" -- against a population who have resisted Western expansion for 2,000 years (Roman emperors frequently reopened "the Persian campaign" whenever tensions were getting a little too high within their conquered territories). Those resisting Western expansion into Arab lands are not all extremists, terrorists or Islamic fascists, though a small minority are (mostly from Saudi Arabia, ironically, the closest US ally in the region).

Liberal critics have claimed that this is "excusing terror" (and yet somehow are able to reconcile their liberalism with such vulgar statements as "Muslims love oppression and iniquity and hate justice"). What this assessment dares to do is remove the cultural blinders of Western exceptionalism. We are a species with hierarchical and territorial tendencies who can easily be whipped into obedient lockstep to the cultural, political and/or religious dictates of authority.

This is apparent, not only in the Christian and Muslim religious dogma for which I have complete disdain, but also in the choices where liberal intervention is called for to help specific "noble victims". While 200,000 civilian victims of Arab violence justify our moral outrage, the millions of civilian victims from African violence do not. Also illuminating is that the desperate calls to help the women of Afghanistan were strangely silent prior to September 11th. Western policy -- whether supporting the mujahideen in Afghanistan or offering military support to the very Sudanese despots we now decry -- is an exciting trip down the memory hole.

Meanwhile our closest evolutionary relatives are about to be wiped off the face of the Earth. While clearly the victims of genocide in Darfur need our help, perhaps we could also transcend the narrow confines of official outrage to help the suffering in Congo for which the United States (and Pat Robertson) bear some responsibility. In the process maybe we can also prevent the decimation of an entire species.

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