By Stephen Gowans
Hollywood director Steven Spielberg has withdrawn as artistic adviser to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing because China has failed to pressure Sudan to end the war in Darfur.
China is developing oil fields in the embattled region of Sudan and Spielberg wants Beijing to use its clout to end the insurgency in the west of the country.
Arguing that “Sudan’s government bears the bulk of the responsibility” for the humanitarian catastrophe in Darfur, Spielberg blames China for failing to do “more to end the continuing human suffering there.” (1)
“China’s economic, military and diplomatic ties to the government of Sudan continue to provide it with the opportunity and obligation to press for change,” Spielberg says. (2)
But while Spielberg wants China to use its influence in Khartoum, he has released no statements, of which I’m aware, to press Washington to use its influence to end the larger humanitarian catastrophes in Somalia and Iraq, both of which are directly attributable to the actions of his own country, and therefore should be well within the grasp of the US government to end.
China’s ability to end the Darfur conflict, however, is a far more uncertain matter.
Three of the five rebel groups fighting Sudanese forces in Darfur are unwilling to negotiate a peace, according to the UN’s special envoy to Darfur, Jan Eliasson. (3) This makes it difficult for Khartoum, let alone China, to bring an end to the conflict, unless ending the conflict means Khartoum capitulating and handing Darfur and its oil assets to the rebels and their Western backers. This, of course, would suit strategists in the US State Department, to say nothing of the US oil industry.
By comparison, ending the much larger humanitarian catastrophes in Somalia (with 850,000 displaced, Somalia has been called Africa’s largest and most ignored catastrophe) and Iraq (four million refugees and hundreds of thousands dead as a result of the US invasion) is directly within the capability of Washington. (4)
The US simply has to order Ethiopia, which it directed to illegally invade Somalia in December 2006, to withdraw. (5) If the Ethiopians balk, cutting off the rich flow of military aid Washington rewards the Meles regime with, will exert needed pressure. (6)
As regards the tragedy of Iraq, there can be no greater ameliorative act than immediate withdrawal of foreign troops. Withdrawal should occasion no fear of touching off a full-scale civil war. The Pentagon’s own research shows that Iraqis attribute sectarian tensions to the US military presence and ardently wish to see the Americans leave. (7) If a civil war were to ensue, it could hardly be worse than the suffering the US continues to visit upon Iraq in lost lives, mangled bodies, rampant disease, hunger and homelessness – far in excess of the tragedy in Darfur.
If China’s ties to the government of Sudan provide it with the opportunity and obligation to press for change, doesn’t Spielberg’s visibility, and his status as a US citizen, provide him with the opportunity and obligation to press for change where his own government has created far greater human suffering?
In the fall of 2002, Spielberg said he “could not not support” the Bush administration’s policies on Iraq (8). Today, he seeks to embarrass China over Sudan, another oil-rich country Washington seeks regime change in. And as far a Spielberg is concerned, the US-authored humanitarian catastrophes in Somalia and Iraq are best ignored. Are these the actions of a humanitarian, or of a chauvinist whose concern for the suffering of others stops at the door of, and indeed caters to, US ruling class interests?
(1) New York Times, February 13, 2008.
(3) New York Times, February 8, 2008.
(4) Displacement of Somalis, Washington Post, November 14, 2007; Iraqi refugees, The Independent (UK), July 30, 2007. There are a number of estimates of deaths in Iraq due to the US invasion: The Iraqi Body Count, 47,668; World Health Organization, 151,000; Johns Hopkins, 600,000; British polling firm ORB, 1.2 million (mid-range estimates.)
(5) US General John Abizaid visited the Ethiopian prime minister, Meles Zenawi, in November, 2006. Ethiopia invaded Somalia the next month. “The US provided key intelligence from spy satellites…CIA agents traveled with the Ethiopian troops, helping direct operations…US forces have carried out at least four attacks inside the country in the past 12 months.” The Independent (UK), February 9, 2008.
(6) Stephen Gowans, “Looking for Evil in all the Wrong Places,” http://www.gowans.wordpress.com, November 20, 2007, http://gowans.wordpress.com/2007/11/20/looking-for-evil-in-all-the-wrong-places/
(7) Washington Post, December 19, 2007.
(8) In September 2002, Spielberg pledged support for the gathering US war on Iraq. “Film director Spielberg lines up with Bush war drive,” WSWS, October 3, 2002, http://www.wsws.org/articles/2002/oct2002/spie-o03.shtml
If the neutral left is really neutral, why does it keep coming down hard on the West’s official enemies while ignoring the West’s henchmen?
By Stephen Gowans
Many left activists and progressives claim to be equally opposed to oppression, whether practiced by the friends of imperialist powers or their enemies, but are virtually silent on the well documented oppressions of such US client states as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Ethiopia, while exhibiting an uncritical zeal in denouncing the enemies of Anglo-American imperialism, often for crimes that have been exaggerated or invented to be used as pretexts for Western intervention and fulfillment of imperialist goals.
There is no better illustration of this tendency to profess principled neutrality while regularly exhibiting a pro-imperialist bias, than the current obsession with the alleged genocide in Darfur and the claims of unjustified political oppression in Zimbabwe, while a virtually unremarked series of crimes and oppressions is carried out by the US and British client government of Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia.
In an anti-guerilla war conducted in the country’s Ogaden region, “Ethiopian troops are burning villages, raping women and killing civilians as part of a systematic campaign to drive them from their homes.” Refugees say dozens of villages have been destroyed and have “accused the Ethiopian government of forcibly starving its own people by preventing food convoys reaching villages and destroying crops and livestock.”*
“A former Ethiopian soldier who defected from the army said how he had been ordered to burn villages and kill all their inhabitants. He said the Ethiopian air force would bomb a village before a unit of ground troops followed, firing indiscriminately at civilians. ‘Men, women, children – we killed them all,’ he said.”
The little-known conflict in Ogaden parallels the more widely known war in Darfur. The conflict began when rebels killed scores of Ethiopian guards and Chinese employees at a Chinese-run oil field. The government replied with a harsh crackdown.
“Human rights investigators are gathering evidence of widespread use of rape, with women reporting gang-rapes by up to a dozen soldiers. In some villages, men have been abducted at night, their bodies dumped in the village the next morning.
“While in Darfur, aid agencies have been able to establish camps and provide humanitarian support, they have been blocked from setting up operations in the Ogaden. The International Committee of the Red Cross has been thrown out and Medicins Sans Frontieres has also been prevented from working. Journalists trying to enter have also been banned – those that have tried have been promptly arrested.”
But while neutral leftists have worked themselves into a state of high moral dudgeon over Sudan’s counter-insurgency in Darfur, which “has been described by the US as ‘genocide’ and by the UN as ‘crimes against humanity’”, they have been virtually silent on Ethiopia, a recipient of US and British military and humanitarian aid.
“America’s top official on African affairs, assistant secretary of state, Jendayi Frazer, visited one town in the Ogaden last month.
“On her return to Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, she criticized the rebels and said the reports of military abuses were merely allegations. ‘We urge any and every government to respect human rights and to try to avoid civilian casualties but that’s difficult in dealing with an insurgency,’ she said.”
The West’s official enemies are never allowed the same latitude in dealing with their own (often US and British financed and instigated) insurgencies – a double standard backed by neutral leftists through their voluble condemnations of the anti-insurgency efforts of official enemies and comparative silence on those of Western client states.
“The US provides some $283m (£140m) in military and humanitarian aid to Ethiopia and has trained its military – one of the largest and strongest in Africa.”
Compare Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe with Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. For trying to invest Zimbabwean independence with real content (land reform and indigenization of the economy), Mugabe has been calumniated by British and US officials and the Western media as a strongman who will do anything to stay in power, from stealing elections to repressing the opposition. The elections Mugabe was said to have stolen were endorsed by the South African Development Community, an organization of neighboring states, and the opposition operates freely, despite being openly backed and financed by Western powers in pursuit of a regime-change, anti-independence agenda.
For doing the West’s bidding in the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia’s Meles is showered with US and British aid and was handpicked by Tony Blair to sit on Britain’s Commission for Africa, to lead the “African renaissance.” Neutral leftists say little about “the British Government’s – and the West’s – favorite African leader”, channeling their energies instead into calling on the US to intervene militarily in Darfur and in competing to see who can exercise the greatest stridency in denouncing the Mugabe government (contributing to the program of ushering Mugabe and his pro-independence policies out and the MDC and its pro-Western dependence policies in.) Somehow, the end result of all this is to put the West more firmly in control of Africa.
And yet the political repressions of which Mugabe is accused are practiced ardently by Meles. Indeed, even if every charge leveled against Mugabe were true (and most are not), he would still be an angel against Meles.
Following Ethiopia’s May 2005 general election, which the opposition claimed was rigged, “security forces opened fire on protesters, killing 193 people.” Thousands of opposition supporters and leaders were rounded up and thrown in jail.
“More than 100 opposition leaders were put on trial for treason while the police crackdown intensified. Text messages, which had been used to organize the demonstrations in 2005, were banned.”
The state asked that the death penalty be imposed on 38 opposition leaders, including the founder of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council, a former UN war crimes prosecutor and the mayor-elect of Addis Ababa. The court rejected the prosecution’s recommendation, but sentenced the opposition leaders to life imprisonment. They were later freed, but only after the US intervened.
“Britain still gives Ethiopia £130m in humanitarian aid each year – more than any other African country,” while carrying out an unremitting campaign of demonization against Robert Mugabe and blocking Zimbabwe’s access to international credit.
How it is it that Meles, who has carried out much graver crimes than any Mugabe has been accused of, is showered with honors and humanitarian aid, while Mugabe is treated as Africa’s version of Hitler and his country is subjected to a campaign of economic warfare?
The answer lies in the reality that Meles acts as Washington’s attack dog in the Horn of Africa, invading Somalia to put down a pro-independence government, while Mugabe pursues an independent foreign policy and implements reforms to give Zimbabwean independence meaningful content.
How is that many left activists and progressives, though professing neutrality, channel much of their energy into campaigns deploring the official enemies of Anglo-American imperialism, while remaining virtually silent on oppressions carried out by US and British client states?
The answer has much to the do with the media and how left activists and progressives react to it. The news media are structured to report on what state officials say and do. To garner support for their policies, state officials make public statements on issues they want to draw public attention to, while steering clear of events they prefer remain unnoticed. Because Western state officials make frequent references to Zimbabwe, and few, if any, to Ethiopia, dozens of media news stories appear on Zimbabwe for every one that appears on Ethiopia. In this way, state officials, working through the media, are able to establish a public agenda, not only for the media but for the neutral left to follow – one which places Mugabe scores of rungs ahead of Meles, and Darfur much higher than Ogaden. Left activists and progressives talk about Mugabe and Darfur because the media do and the media do because Western state officials do. But neutral leftists hardly ever talk about Meles and Ogaden because the media hardly do, and the media hardly do because Western state officials almost never do (and don’t want to.) The result is that while professing neutrality, many left activists and progressives have been unwittingly recruited into agendas set in Washington and London.
These are the conditions that, in part, lead the neutral left to channel considerable energy into denouncing the official enemies of Western governments, while spending little time talking about or campaigning against oppressive regimes that receive Western aid and support. Neutral leftists are quick to denounce the military government of Myanmar (an official enemy) for its crackdown on a religious group, while saying virtually nothing about the military government of Pakistan (a client state) for an equally bloody crackdown on a religious group. Neutral leftists are acutely sensitive to the humanitarian crisis in Darfur (officially condemned), while saying virtually nothing about the much larger humanitarian crisis in Iraq (officially ignored) or the humanitarian crisis in Ogaden (also officially ignored.) Neutral leftists say virtually nothing about Meles Zenawi, a strongman accused of rigging elections who threatens political opponents with the death penalty, has invaded another country, and carries out crimes against humanity within his own borders (and is supported by the West) while spitting out contempt for Robert Mugabe, who has done none of these things (but isn’t supported by the West).
In all it does, despite professions of neutrality, the neutral left is pro-imperialist, not neutral. The moment its members devote half as much energy to railing against the governments of Egypt, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey as they do against Zimbabwe, the Taliban, north Korea, Belarus and Iran, will be the moment their claims to support neither imperialism nor its official enemies unconditionally become something more substantial than deceptive rhetoric.
* All quotes from Steve Bloomfield, “Ethiopia’s ‘own Darfur’ as villagers flee government-backed violence,” The Independent, October 17, 2007, http://news.independent.co.uk/world/africa/article3067244.ece
By Stephen Gowans
When Africa scholar Mahmoud Mandani looks at the slaughter and displacement of civilians in Darfur he notices something odd. The mass death of civilians in Darfur has been called a genocide, but slaughters of civilians of similar magnitude in Iraq and on a larger scale in Congo have not.
According to the World Food Program, about 200,000 civilians have died in Darfur, 80 percent from starvation and disease, and 20 percent from violence. Close to 700,000 have been displaced(1). This, the US government, calls a genocide.
But 600,000 Iraqis have died since 2003 as a result of violence related to the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq (2) and 3.7 million have either fled to neighboring countries or are internally displaced (3).
“I read about all sorts of violence against civilians,” says Mamdani, “and there are two places that I read about – one is Iraq, and one is Darfur … And I’m struck by the fact that the largest political movement against mass violence on US campuses is on Darfur and not on Iraq.” (4)
If Darfur is modest in comparison to Iraq, both are pipsqueeks compared to Congo. There, some four million civilians have been slaughtered over several years, largely as a result of intervention by US proxies, Uganda and Rwanda.
In Somalia, 460,000 civilians have been displaced by fighting sparked by a US-backed and assisted invasion by Ethiopia (5). That invasion was aimed at ousting the popularly-backed Islamic Courts Union, which had brought a measure of stability to Somalia. “In the six months the Islamic courts (governed Somalia), less than 20 people lost their lives through violence. Now, that many die in 10 minutes,” observes Hussein Adow, a Mogadishu businessman (6).
Why is there is a Save Darfur Campaign, but no Save Congo Campaign and no Save Somalia Campaign?
Mamdani says that people in the West don’t react to the mass slaughter of civilians but to the labels their governments and media attach to them.
“Genocide is being instrumentalized by … the United States,” he explains. “It is being instrumentalized in a way that mass slaughters which implicate its adversaries are being named as genocide and those which implicate its friends or its proxies are not being named as genocide.”
Mandani calls this “the politics of naming.”
The politics of naming isn’t limited to the question of which slaughters are named genocide and which aren’t. It applies too to the question of which regimes are called dictatorial, repressive and brutal (and so must be changed), and which are not (and so should be left in peace.)
Take the case of Ethiopia and Zimbabwe. Tons of printer’s ink have been consumed by Western newspapers denouncing Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe. According to the Western narrative, he is as a dictator who steals elections, represses the opposition and cracks heads to stay in power.
But Mugabe’s government, in view of concerted efforts from outside and within to overthrow it, is remarkably restrained. Archbishop Pious Ncube, one of the government’s most vociferous critics, recently called on Zimbabwe’s former colonial master, Britain, to remove Mugabe through military means. “We should do it ourselves,” he added, “but there’s too much fear. I’m ready to lead the people, guns blazing, but the people are not ready.” (7) (Imagine Noam Chomsky calling for a coalition of Russia, China, Venezuela, Iran and north Korea to invade the US to force Washington to end its occupation of Iraq. “I’m ready to lead the people, guns blazing,” he might say, “but the people are not ready.” How long would it be before Chomsky was hustled off to jail?)
Ncube isn’t the first government opponent to threaten a campaign of violence to oust Mugabe. And yet Ncube and others remain at liberty to call for sanctions, outside military intervention and insurrection to depose the government.
Ethiopia, on the other hand, is a cipher. It receives little coverage from the Western media, and even less attention from people who routinely denounce the Sudanese and Zimbabwean governments from the left.
That’s odd, for the Ethiopian government has all the flaws the Zimbabwean government is said to have that arouse so much moral indignation.
Ethiopia “jails it citizens without reason or trial, tortures many of them, and habitually violates its own laws.
“The government was … severely criticized for a 2005 crackdown in which tens of thousands of opposition members were jailed and nearly 200 people killed after elections in which the opposition made major gains.
“Ethiopian officials … have expelled many foreign journalists and representatives of human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.” (9)
Disputed elections, crackdowns on the opposition, expulsion of journalists: this resembles the charge sheet against Mugabe. So why isn’t Melawi as thoroughly excoriated as Mugabe is?
A July 9th Reuters’ report says, “Ethiopian prosecutors demanded the death penalty for 38 opposition officials convicted of trying to overthrow the government, treason and inciting violence.
“The officials were convicted last month of charges relating to violent protests over disputed elections in 2005 that the opposition says were rigged.
“Nearly 200 people were killed in clashes between protestors and security forces over the vote.
“Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said he regretted the post-poll violence, but blamed it on opportunistic rioters and an opposition conspiracy to topple him by force.”
I read the Reuters’ article to a friend, but replaced Ethiopia with Zimbabwe and Zenawi with Mugabe. There seemed nothing out of the ordinary to her. And indeed, it’s likely that most people in the West would not have detected the deception. It meshes with the Western narrative on Zimbabwe. If you’ve been reading Western press accounts, you would expect Mugabe to round up the opposition (whose leaders have long threatened the violent overthrow of the government), charge them with treason, and seek their execution. But he hasn’t.
Had he, a storm of indignation would have swept the Western world. Yet Zenawi does the same, and no politician works himself up into high moral dudgeon, no calls are made for sanctions or Western military intervention, and no emergency meeting of the UN Security Council is convoked. Just a solitary Reuters’ dispatch. Why?
The answer is that Ethiopia is fully within Washington’s orbit, acting as a reliable proxy enforcing US geopolitical interests in the resource-rich Horn of Africa. Zimbabwe, by contrast, pursues the opposite tact, implementing policies that seek to free itself from Western domination and to frustrate US imperial designs on the continent.
Zimbabwe indigenizes its agriculture and economy; Ethiopia intervenes militarily in Somalia at the behest of Washington, to restore a US-puppet government.
Weeks before Ethiopia invaded Somalia, US General John P. Abizaid flew to Addis Ababa to arrange for Zenawi to unleash the US-trained Ethiopian military on Somalia. Washington even went so far as to shelter Ethiopia, whose military relies on equipment made in north Korea, from penalty for violating UN-sanctions against north Korean arms sales. Ethiopia needed to import replacement parts from north Korea if the invasion was to go ahead without a hitch. Washington, which championed the sanctions, said “go ahead.” (9)
Numberless people are being manipulated by Western governments and media, their outrage harnessed to achieve geopolitical goals that have nothing whatever to do with human rights and democracy, and everything to do with the question of who gets to control the oil spigot, mining concessions and vast tracts of fertile land.
Mamdani calls those caught up in the Save Darfur Campaign innocents. The same could be said of those caught up in the dump Mugabe campaign.
1. UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ estimate, cited in The Guardian, June 20, 2007.
2. Johns Hopkins study, published online by The Lancet, cited in The Guardian October 12, 2006.
3. UN High Commissioner for Refugees, cited in Workers World, February 15, 2007.
4. Interview with Mahmoud Mandani, Democracy Now! June 4, 2007.
5. According to the UN High Commission for Refugees (Guardian, June 20, 2007).
6. Quoted in the The London Times, cited in Party for Socialism and Liberation, July 3, 2007.
7. The Sunday Times, July 1, 2007.
8. The Globe and Mail, May 29, 2007.
9. The New York Times, April 8, 2007.