Saturday, January 13, 2007

Reporting and building the new "new world order"

Several colleagues have recently come back to a theme that has preoccupied a lot of people since 9/11: the docility of the US media in the face of policies that were manifestly mistaken or based on lies and whose long-term consequences were predictable, had anyone had the courage to predict. (Neutralizing this basic intellectual capacity seems to have been a permanent feature of the current administration's strategy, who even today claims a monopoly on prediction, the latest example being the justification -- via the utopia of a unified, stable Iraq -- of the coming "surge").

About a week ago I read an article by René Lefort in the Nouvel Observateur concerning the situation in Somalia. Having seen the news items in the U.S. press about the pursuit of "key members" of al-Qaida in Somalia -- articles in which no recent historical background was offered -- I was pleased to discover a journalist who could fill me in on a bit of context. What a difference when compared to the accounts in the U.S. press, where the Ethiopians were the good guys and the Somalians (because they had allowed themselves to rebuild their society from the ground up under the tutelage of Islamic Courts) were the bad guys. Now it may well be that since 9/11 the idea of Islamic Courts conjures up in Washington the idea of Taliban and/or al-Qaida (= evil), but the facts put forward by Lefort indicated that this wasn't the case at all. Lefort made some effort to explain the political and social logic behind a movement that had been increasingly successful in restructuring an anarchic society that had been effectively left in the hands of warlords, to the detriment of everyone else, including the clans (the basis of Somalian social organisation) and the nominal government, with no power or authority or historical basis. To keep the story short, Lefort recounts that the U.S. encouraged Christian Ethiopia to invade Islamic Somalia promising and supplying US military support, accompanied by specific actions against the culprits who provided the ultimate pretext for the invasion: 3 presumed members of al-Qaida (and this presumption dates back to 2000, when Clinton was president)!

Now if Ethiopia's invading Somalia reminds me of anything, I'd have to say it's Saddam's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 (for which there's good reason to believe that the US initially gave a tacit blessing) and which provoked a strong international alliance intent on establishing a "new world order". But let's not talk about double standards, since the the "war on terror" does away with all nuance, providing a much simpler key to the new "new world order" of the future.

There's obviously much more to the Somalia story, so I thought I'd look at what the US press had to say now that things were seriously hotting up. Lo and behold, in the best, most thorough and "analytical" articles, there are only the vaguest hints about the actual historical context. Hints that do more to hide the historical facts than to reveal them. The rest is about who is against whom, and what religion or state they represent. Nothing about the political evolution of the country over the past 15 years, its social structure, its specific traditions, the status of Ethiopia, the intricacies of US strategy, etc. In short, it's treated somewhat like a sports story, an account of who's winning or which team is rising in the standings.

The Washington Post offers the most "thorough" article I've been able to find in the mainstream US media (the NY Times remaining far more superficial and the LA Times -- usually fairly analytical -- only giving the equivalent of a "box score" in sports). For those interested, here's the WP link.

The Guardian doesn't do much more, though they align some interesting facts about recent events in the Ethiopian-US dialogue. Still, they seem not to want to know about any context not furnished by the Pentagon. The Independent doesn't do much more, but the Times finds another ruse for avoiding the issues: developing the travelogue approach, highlighting local colour and the semi-modern folksy reality of the locals (including their links to British popular culture!). The conclusion is consistent with what we know about the situation, but the article gives no indication of why it is so in terms of context.

So where can we find some more thorough analysis that corroborates many of details of context in the Lefort article? Try the Toronto Star.

This article by Thomas Walkom offers a range of detail that Lefort didn't mention and generally conveys the same message, laying out the longer-term political implications as well and drawing parallels that help illuminate our understanding of US foreign policy and where it's taking us.

Two things emerge from this:
  1. the US mainstream press is still beholden to the administration and the Pentagon and seems unwilling even to suggest that there are other angles of interpretation of what amounts to unprovoked acts of military invasion (as I say, to be compared to Saddam invading Kuwait),
  2. US foreign policy has taken on a knee-jerk regularity of encouraging and allowing destruction and murder -- but even worse, the dismantling of local social infrastructure -- whenever there's a vague reason to suspect the "harboring" of enemies, even if the number of those enemies can be counted on one hand.
This last point seems to me to sum up the difference between the pre-9/11 political world and the post-9/11 one. What used to be seen as a problem for criminal justice (the model used in Britain to combat IRA terrorism) has been transformed into a pretext for regime change, nation-building and "regional remodeling". Read some of the quotes from US authorities about how they consider themselves responsible for defining what kind of government Somalia should have and who deserves to be a part of it. As the Toronto Star points out, the parallels with Iraq and Afghanistan seem obvious.

The final lesson in all this: read the Canadian press whenever you have doubts about the thoroughness of what the press in any of the "coalition of the willing" countries offers you.

And the final lesson for us interculturalists: don't take seriously any news article that doesn't lead you towards an understanding of the society itself, however superficial (you can always learn more). Politics abhors sociology because it fears social reality. The pattern of cultural blindness behind political and military action is, as the Toronto Star hints, one that is being repeated in many different places, but because mere political/military solutions no longer have the lasting power they once had, we're plunging ever more deeply into cultural conflict. It isn't a clash of civilizations, but an organized power struggle.. and it's getting more and more frightening.

No comments: