Posted by: Steve Coplan | December 13, 2006

Arm the victims

That’s the advice of Philip Gourevitch in response to a question of how to prevent future genocides when he spoke recently at my shul. I don’t want to misrepresent his views, or confound with them with the isolationist argument that the US should let bloodthirsty foreigners engorged with atavistic hatred sort out their own battles (as exemplified by Bob Dole’s suggestion that the US arm Kosovars rather than intervene militarily). His point, rather, is a provocative way of illustrating that humanitarian crises are the side effect of a political conflict conducted through murder, where the root cause is that some groups are weaker than others. In that instance, the only way to resolve the crisis is shift the balance of political power. Protecting the unprotected through UN peacekeeping forces simply sets up a temporary buffer and in some instances, humanitarian aid can prolong a conflict when militias extract a ‘toll’ to allow agencies to feed refugees.

Although I’ll read everything I can with Gourevitch’s byline, I haven’t yet read his book on the Rwandan genocide. This isn’t because I don’t read books (although having a small child has ensured I read far less than I ever did) it’s because I’m a) Jewish and b) African, and feel historically and irredeemably negligent that I didn’t intervene in some way. After all Judaism teaches that “he (or she for that matter) who saves a single life saves the entire world.” But as much as I would like to believe it’s within our power as a collective concerned with preserving the thread of common humanity to save lives, in many ways I agree with Gourevitch’s assessment. And I believe the issue of clarity and confronting the brutal reality is compounded by the ineptitude of US foreign policy – as the single most powerful nation on the globe currently – as well as the illusion of a purity of purpose and the failure by the media to adequately educate the public on the poltical backdrop.

The audience at my shul were there because they wanted to hear how they could actively participate in some how altering the course of events in Darfur, or at least in making the Shoah more relevant to contemporary social thought. Unfortunately, the idea that we are essentially impotent as clueless external observers to influence statecraft and that past inconsistencies in US policies have limited its leverage were hardly palatable revelations. By inconsistencies, Gourevitch was speaking to the the vastly different responses to the potential for genocide in Kosovo, Rwanda and Darfur, as well as intentional neglect for countries like Haiti. As someone who has grown up outside of the US, the idea of a purity of purpose in US foreign policy has long seemed like a self-serving delusion. The US funded civil war in Mozambique and Angola in the name of countering the spread of communism, and the legislature had to step in to put economic pressure on the South African regime to roll back apartheid. In other words, US foreign policy has not always been on the side of the victim, and even where it has been the issue of strategic interests rather than noble ideals have determined which victims get the helping hand.

But to the essentially pacifist liberal sensitivities of the audience, the idea that the only course of prevention is to establish a new military balance of power rather than simply suspend for a some time the dangerous one through peacekeeping was definitely hard to swallow. To my mind, this is firstly a consequence of the Jewish experience that the victims are powerless and secondly that all the media covers is the humanitarian crisis, where we can’t help but want to act with mercy. The general inability of US media to adequately inform and educate the republic’s citizens is not just apparent in these dark corners of the world — it’s in informing the electorate on disastrous executive decisions, principally Iraq.  Because of a lack of context, Americans come to any of these situations with an almost preconceived notion: these people need our help, and they are victims  of those who swoop down on the weak. Rwanda’s genocide, Gourevitch believes, lies in the struggle for power after the introduction of multiparty democracy. In order to establish dominance in a fragmented political landscape, the extremists advocated a Tutsi-rein state with the benefit of acquiring land and goods in an agricultural society with the density of a semi-industrial state.  The Tutsis were installed as adminisistrators and civil servants by the Belgians, helping to entrench divisions that were more social than “tribal” or “ethnic” in the past.

But the situation is not beyond repair to my mind.  If anything, corporate media with a specific commercial agenda is declining (preciptiously, I might add) in influence, or simply cocooning its constituency. Despite the lack of critical coverage on the campaign in Iraq, the electorate saw it as a central issue. And it’s through channels like the blogosphere where many voters find their information. The problem is that there are very few professional journalists of the caliber of Philip Gourevitch, even though only a few are needed to turn the tide.  Politicians are always willing to find a new horse to ride. The interest in using the power of the US is there — the question is directing it in a transparent and rational fashion. Hopefully, if there is one positive outcome from the Iraq catastrophe it’s this: that’s there is a cold-eyed assessment of the role the US can and wants to play in the world.


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