Tag Archives: military intervention

When Maddow finally goes too far…

TW: Syrian conflict, US imperialism

There’s an interesting post that’s made rounds on Tumblr as of late that talks about Rachel Maddow as being fundamentally an apologist for US imperialism and other forms of military aggression, who wraps herself in the cloak of queer liberation and democratic norms. It seems that never has this been more clear than in her most recently electronically available show, which she bookended with two very intriguing if unsettling pieces on the current push within the US for intervention in Syria.

First, she mentions how Obama has broken with previous policy (namely that of Reagan’s) by requesting congressional approval for the conflict before acting (at least, so far). This builds on her book, Drift, which in turn is a more publicly palatable version of her earlier academic work. In short, it’s at least a democratically investigated and analyzed intervention. To be fair, her original works made clear that democratic standards provided some checks on imperialist and interventionist drives within the White House, but there’s no rigid guarantee in that, so she conveniently fails to raise that issue.

Ultimately, she concludes the show on a similar note, asking her audience to imagine a US under the leadership of Obama’s 2008 rival McCain. She runs through the list of countries McCain has suggested we should be bombing, have invaded, or continued the Bush-era occupations of. The implication is clear – the democratic elements to political governance in the US have resulted in a less militaristic governance than they could have (twice even!).


(From here.)

In short, she’s framed the entire discussion around how this intervention (presumed to be inevitable in essence) constitutes a “better” interventionism. The actual ostensible goals – of detaining Assad, penalizing chemical weapons use on the international stage, or cutting short the on-going Syrian conflict – all become minor or nonexistent parts of the policy equation. “It’s not as bad as it could be” cloaks the entire show. Never mind whether we’re an empire, at least we’re democratic in our pursuit of global hegemony!

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An interesting comparison

TW: colonialism, military intervention in Mali

I have to admit, a lot of the time, I have to carefully consider whether I should keep following the Johannesburg Times on twitter, because of how much of what they write about and post there are interesting-but-not-very-important factoids like this. But often, their coverage for all its faults is the most detailed examination of what’s happening in South Africa specifically and the rest of sub-Saharan Africa generally that’s easily accessible and understandable to non-Africans like me. With a good amount of frequency, the Times will share a couple of articles that even if not particularly revolutionary themselves help put together an image of what’s happening in that part of the world.


(On the left, Mali’s interim President Dioncounda Traore while raising funds in Brussels, Belgium, from various EU member states and EU international bodies, from here.)

Sometimes that’s pretty infuriating, however. Take, for instance, this article on South African economic development and this one on aid to the Malian state. In South Africa at the moment, disparate political groups with different perspectives on what state policies should be are in the process of negotiating at length how their society can improve its lot, which is quite the tall order after centuries of colonial occupation. It’s likely that few people in the United States will hear about these debates, and the few like you and me who have are unlikely to have much detail to them – but part of that is because of the internal nature of what South Africans are debating. I don’t know that the country can be declared decolonized (and I do know that I shouldn’t be the one to do that in any case), but it seems that they’re moving in a positive direction in terms of popular negotiation being central to creating economic policies.

The situation in Mali seems to stand in stark contrast to that. In the wake of what could be seen as another chapter in an on-going and multidimensional internal conflict, the power center that appealed to outside assistance is now working to receive aid from individuals and organizations largely affiliated with the military forces that intervened on its behalf. Perhaps France specifically should provide the territories under the governance of the state of Mali with restitution for colonial rule, but it’s important to note that that’s not what’s happening now. What’s happening now, is that the government of Mali has successfully pitched to the EU Humanitarian Aid Commission and other such bodies the idea that the intervention on the basis of security will be for naught without basic economic stability in the region. The colonial framework that the intervention reinforced is being explicitly expanded through this request for aid.

Unlike South Africa, the government of Mali seems to have decided to farm out its economic insecurities, but at the cost of autonomy and arguably its democracy.

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Why no one is intervening in Syria (yet)

TW: killing of civilians; marginalization of Kurds, Palestinians, and Jews of Ethiopian ancestry; coerced sterilization

Yesterday, Amnesty International posed a question on twitter, or at least seemed to while promoting their most recent report on Syria. Their official account tweeted:

Amnesty International's tweet
(An Amnesty International tweet.)

That’s a fair question to ask, especially since, as the report claims, Syrians themselves are often asking it. It claims that one Syrian woman who the anonymous research spoke with wanted to know, “Why is the world doing nothing while we continue to be bombed to pieces every day, even inside our homes?”

As near as I can tell, one of the most pressing problems with intervening in Syria is that doing so appears likely to ignite a conflict as complicated and multifaceted as the first “World War” was for Europe. And this time, that would be after almost a century of technological refinements in weaponry. On the other hand, the problem with inaction, unfortunately, is that it seems only to reduce the risk of that outcome – not actually actively prevent it.

Map of Syria and its neighbors
(Syria and its neighbors, from here.)

Syria has a geopolitical context – it shares borders with Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, and Iraq, as well as a narrow maritime border that wouldn’t be terribly in the case of an intervening force having to enter Syria without land or air support from any of those five countries. Syria also has close ties with Iran, which is also the neighbor of both Turkey and Iraq. Having listed all those connections, let me explain – that is an incredibly diverse slice of the world covered in a mere seven countries. Along with that comes an incredibly diverse slice of on-going international conflicts that have in the past threatened all of the states governing those seven countries with destruction. In short, Syria is at the heart of a powderkeg.

Just to run down the events that have happened recently in that corner of the world:

-The Israeli and Iranian governments have begun speaking as if they are on the verge of starting a massive international war, which could potentially draw US, Chinese, and European support and proxies into the fray in a massive conflict between the “West” and the strongest “non-Western” nations in the world. Intervention by Iran would be read as an advance against Israel. Intervention by Israel or the US would be read as an advance against Iran. The balance of power necessary to prevent that outbreak of such a conflict in part requires that no one intervene in Syria, if not the freezing of the situation in Syria where it is.

-Within Israel, extremist factions have successfully lobbied for even more extensive segregation between Jews and Palestinian Arabs, and the Israeli government has admitted to supporting the coercive sterilization of Jews with Ethiopian ancestry. These adds to the previous months of conflict and violence in Israel and Palestine, which has led to threats of another Intifada (active, potentially armed resistance by Palestinians) and highlighted the continuing conflict within Israeli communities over who qualifies as “properly” or “ideally” Israeli or Jewish. As a result, Israel seems particularly politically unstable at the moment and likely to make choices that are unwise in the long term.

-Turkey, which has long been plagued by undemocratic movements, has experienced a bit of panic over whether Islam has a growing political presence. This seems likely to herald both undemocratic restrictions on free religious expression and the growth of militant Islamism. This is pertinent to Syria as some of the opposition to the government is often couched in religious terms and much of the government’s violence is excused (as undemocratic acts in Turkey have been) as a preventative strategy against militant Islamists. Turkey, to some extent, finds itself fighting the same conflict as neighboring Syria, and is likely to have a stake in the outcome. That fact is complicated by the reality that Turkey has the support of NATO and much of the Western world in a way that Syria doesn’t and thus a trump card to play against Syria if the conflict is either willfully introduced into or accidentally threatens to spill over into Turkey. But Turkey also doesn’t want a destabilized Syria to serve as a training grounds and resupply territory for the increasingly intent Kurdish rebels.

In short, there are multiple ways for the conflict in Syria to ignite a broader religious conflict in the Middle East, to alter the ability of marginalized groups in Israel and Palestine to effectively protest their oppression, and to provide a means of militant Turks who want to guarantee the free expression of devout Muslims and Kurds within Turkey to militarily organize. The risks of intervention are not only that it will fail to actually improve the lives of Syrians, but that it will actively reduce the stability of almost every surrounding country.

But the conflict is already spilling into Iraq, with Syrian forces and anti-regime forces fighting in Iraq (and causing Iraqi civilian casualties). The Iraqi state is stuck in an even more reminiscent position of Syria’s government’s – as a Shia government finding itself in perpetual electoral and military conflict with various anti-government Sunnis. Both have at least some ties to Iran (although Syria’s are much stronger), and unlike Turkey, Iraq doesn’t have the means to have international actors demand that the conflict be prevented from spilling over. With all that in mind, the Iraqi government has started treating the Syrian soldiers injured in its territory. The field of conflict is broadening independent on Turkish, Israeli, Palestinian, and even Iranian interests in keeping Syria’s conflicts contained if not resolving them.

It’s worrisome to think that a better question for non-Syrians to ask themselves in the place of why they haven’t intervened in Syria is whether they will ultimately decide to intervene there and elsewhere in the future as the conflicts spreads.

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Maddows gotta Maddow

I’m currently traveling, so I’ll keep this quite brief. I’ll just point out that Rachel Maddow is doing an excellent news series starting this coming Monday on the way the US was led into the Iraq War under false pretenses. If her promo for it last night is any indication, it’ll be unfortunately all too relevant with regard to false or misleading information being used to legitimize a strike on Iran or Syria.


(The imaginary tunnel mockingly used to explain Romney’s comments during the debates last year that Syria is Iran’s “pathway to the sea”, from here.)

I might end up live blogging that, so be sure to check my twitter Wednesday night to see if I find any parts of it worth repeating or elaborating on there.

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It’s colonial, get over it

TW: military intervention, neocolonialism

In the past couple of days, I’ve been seeing Bruce Whitehouse’s blog generally and his specific post on the various flawed narratives of what’s really going in in the French (and to a lesser extent West African) intervention in Mali. I made it quite clear yesterday that I don’t think asking actual Malians living in Bamako to comment on the conflict isn’t going to lead to a very representative understanding of how the conflict is understood by Malians in general, and I’m even more skeptical when it’s an anthropologist who moved to Mali later in life (although he is fluent in at least one local language, so props to Whitehouse).

Still, while his explanation of how the Clash of Civilizations going on is hardly the one many European and American observers have perceived is rather insightful, and he makes a lot of other good points, his leading and third ones are astoundingly bad. He starts out his debunking by saying that there’s not really much in the way of mineral resources in north Mali or Azawad, at least, and this is a direct quote, “of which I’m aware”. Oh, can you spot the problem with me, dear readers?

Yes, the majority of the gold deposits aren’t located in rebel-controlled areas, the actual extent of gas and oil reserves is probably not as much as hoped for, and there is a big uranium deposit in Faléa, in the southern, non-rebel-controlled part of the country. What isn’t true, however, is that that’s the only uranium deposit in the country, as the Malian government’s  website for their own conference on mineral reserves notes, there’s also the “Kidal Project, in the north eastern part of Mali, with an area of 19,930 km2” which is expected to further the reserves in Faléa along with the uranium in the Samit deposit. The Samit deposit, like the reserves in Kidal, is located in the rebel-controlled northwest, and “is thought to [contain] 200 tonnes” of uranium if not more.

As the website gushes over the mineral wealth in Mali it mentions what Whitehouse was aware of – the gold and uranium in the South, but also the scattered bauxite and iron ores in the center of the country, and what’s more the deposits of that incredibly pricey metal, copper, in the north. There’s also reserves of phosphates, tin, and zinc in the north that have proven extensive. Funny how none of those got a mention while the minerals that Whitehouse knows aren’t actually all that prevalent in the north did?

In any case, it’s clear that a government that could control the entire territory that Mali is currently recognized as controlling would have, should we say a diverse portfolio of natural resources to sell at profits? Unlike most export-dependent economies, the variety of resources in play would shield Mali from the short term but unpredictable threat of unstable global prices (well, except on copper, which again, is costly and just getting pricier).


(Looks like the Malian government had that same thought and foolishly said it out loud on their website for their conference on mineral extraction in the country. From here.)

Of course, that’s not just to the benefit of Mali, but also whichever country owns or even simply invests in the Malian mines. Speaking of which, is the fact that many of the French national hostages captured in the region were working for French mining companies another thing that Whitehouse and others who are certain this isn’t about resources or neo-colonial just aren’t “aware” of?

Ah, but Whitehouse has anticipated this sort of argument – after all, he explains, “Operation Serval was a last resort, whereas a few years ago it would have been the default option.” Because colonialism is definitely about how occupying forces feel about their actions, rather than their powers and impacts on the region they occupy and the world in general. Likewise, there’s an interesting belief here that colonialism was never interested in intermediaries or non-military means of exploitation. I’ve already talked about how in other corners of Africa, European powers ruled through local authorities which allowed them to avoid frequent and direct military confrontations, so let’s just call that point what it is – a wishful need for this to not be colonialism.

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Al Jazeera messed up bad

TW: military intervention

Do you ever read something that’s so shockingly idiotic that you can’t even comprehend it at first? Because that was my experience with this Al Jazeera article on the supposed high public support in Mali for the French intervention.

To sum up, let’s start with the obvious problem with asking Malians in Bamako what they think of an intervention in north Mali. For those following along at home, Bamako is part of south Mali, so labeling your poll of the nation’s capital, which is outside of the affected region, “Mali Speaks”, is more than disingenuous, it’s erasive. It treats the position of a few hundred Malians in Bamako as the presumed default for the entire country, even on issues that affect Bamako differently.


(A map of Mali and its major cities shows this apparently difficult to discern truth – Bamako hasn’t experienced the Touareg uprisings, islamist occupation, or French intervention. So, how are Bamako residents representative? Image made by Evan Centanni.)

How does the intervention affect Bamako differently? It’s more than a simple fact that the intervention has focused its military forces in other regions than were the capital is located, it’s also that the not terribly democratic regime situated in Bamako is being bolstered by the intervention. From its inception, the intervention in Mali has been linked to the idea of saving the south-situated Malian government, and the avoidance of the thorny questions about Touareg nationalism, to say nothing of asking why islamism has so quickly become so powerful in northern Mali or Azawad.

Speaking of Azawad, the question sent out to those few hundred residents of Bamako was very interestingly phrased in that it pretty much rules out any possibility of there being an independent state or autonomous region in the area. So, for the small minority of Bamako residents who might be interested in such a solution, there’s no way to quickly and succinctly text back to the Al Jazeera affiliate that sent out the original query explaining how their opinions on the issue don’t fit the question they were asked.

Did I say text? Yes I did, the survey is not only geographically restricted to the Bamako metropolitan area, but also requires an active response from respondents via text messages. Even the Al Jazeera article admits that the portion of the Malian population being drawn from by sending out text messages is only “more than two-thirds of Malians.” What’s more, access to a cell phone is probably a good indicator of socio-economic class, which in turn will probably be one of the experience that will inform a Malian person’s support for the existing government. Should we be congratulating them for at least not using internet-based telecommunications, which only 2.7 percent of Malians (or even as Al Jazeera admits, about 3 percent) have access to?

And yes, I mentioned earlier that this is all self-reported, and avowedly for secular Arabophone and Western media consumption. Who do you think, of the political factions in Mali, is going to most strongly value the opinions of those audiences, be the most interested in engaging with those audiences, and ultimately communicate with an Al Jazeera affiliate that identified itself as such when it sent out the text? People who might be among those that view Al Jazeera as pro-Western and pro-Gulf-States propaganda aren’t going to be terribly interested in interacting with the station or its affiliates, are they? And that’s before we even get into how self-reported data tends to lead to all sorts of distortions in statistics even without systemic biases, like a distrust in those gathering the data.

Between this and France24 (sorry only in French) asking whether the French government might use the internet to its advantage while intervening in Mali, I have to wonder, is this blameless bias, or is there intent behind this? Or can I really believe that two separate people in multiple cases typed in the same responses word-for-word, for the several sentences they sent back?

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The missed opportunity in Mali

TW: military intervention, civilian casualties

Last Sunday, the Malian government celebrating their advances back into the North and France’s President François Hollande declaring the French involvement in the area an untarnished success. The following day, both governments received an opportunity which they decided wasn’t worth it. For their rejection of it, they and the residents of northern Mali have already begun to pay the price, the full sum of which I’m not sure of.

The opportunity offered them was a statement released by the Moussa Ag Assarid, a spokesperson for the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). In it, he essentially stated that the Touareg rebels in the North, who have previously complicated Malian anti-islamist efforts, would be willing to be part of a unified front against the islamists alongside the Malian and French governments. The cost was pretty simple – they would be recognized as at least an autonomous region and legitimate representative of the disenfranchised Touareg population of Mali. To my knowledge, neither the French nor the Malian governments responded publicly to this offer, as they both clearly do not want to give the MNLA any sort of legitimacy, as that might threaten their existing deals over the mineral rights of the region.

Even with their optimistic statements on Sunday, with the war begun in earnest the usefulness of an ally rather familiar with the terrain and population of north Mali seems to have become more clear. The rally against the islamists was supposed to have begun in the city of Konna, but it’s starting to become clear that the islamists either never lost control of it, or quickly regained its territory. Likewise, the Guardian reported that-

“On Monday, the French military bombed Islamist bases in Douentza, 500 miles north of Bamako [the capital of the recognized Malian government], for the fourth day running. However, the fundamentalists were reported to have already fled the town.”

In short, that bombing campaign near exclusively hit civilians, rather than islamists, which is only going to prove anyone’s point that the French and Malian governments and military forces have other interests in the region besides claims to protect the civilians from the brutality of islamist rule.


(North Malian protesters demanding the liberation of predominantly Touareg cities in the region, almost one year ago. Originally from here.)

Perhaps having an ally who could have more accurately reported the presence of islamist militants in Konna and the lack of them in Douentza was something the French and Malian governments should have more carefully considered.

Of course, much the damage is already done, with the war-related sealing of the Algerian border leading to food shortages in the far North, and throughout the region most civilians fleeing out of the major cities to avoid the bombing campaigns (available only in French, sorry). While that might help them escape certain death, it tends to remove them from areas with much in the way of medical supplies, leading to currently unnumbered casualties.

In their actions, the French and Malian governments have made clear to the civilians of north Mali that they’re just as likely to brutalize them as the islamist occupiers. That might bolster recruits for the islamists, but I suspect that primarily the MNLA will see quite a groundswell of support. In either case, those governments have acted quite foolishly, and they might not know it yet, but they’ve already begun paying the price.

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