On #StopKony and the Role of Context

March 10, 2012

You’ve seen it, or at least heard about it, if you can access this blog: the 29 minute video about a central African warlord who began a guerrilla insurgency against the Ugandan government 26 years ago, an insurgency that devolved into a reign of terror against the civilian population of Acholiland.

Invisible Children, the organization behind both this viral video and aa2005 feature-length documentary on Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army, takes its name and its laser-narrow perspective on the LRA from what is arguably the most sensationally disturbing atrocities of the conflict in northern Uganda — the nighttime abduction, indoctrination, and conscription of rural children into the LRA, as well as the so-called “night commuters”, children who came into towns each night to escape the rural abductions.

The key, however, is that Uganda’s conflict has always been more complex than two white surfer dudes from San Diego (IC’s founders) could discover.  To take but one example, Kony wasn’t the only spiritualist leader preaching against the government in 1980s Acholiland.

More broadly, IC tells a very one-sided story.  And they didn’t need to! It is possible to be appalled at the LRA’s (former, more on that below) tactics, to even call them evil, while still condemning the Ugandan military and the regime of Yoweri Museveni for human rights abuses in Acholiland committed in the name of fighting the LRA.  To condemn the treatment of Acholiland by the central government that was a factor in Kony’s rise.

But IC doesn’t give that side. They barely bother to explain, at least in the 2005 documentary, what socio-economic and political forces at work in mid-1980s Uganda led to the LRA.

And as I hinted above, they do not update the story to the present day. Yes, Kony is still at large. But he and the LRA do not operate solely in Uganda anymore. They’ve moved on to neighboring countries most Americans still haven’t heard of: South Sudan, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  They are now one player among the many in the conflicts in each of these other countries.  Meanwhile, they may now only number in the few hundreds in Uganda, although estimates vary widely.

Now, it’s easy to understand why IC chose, for they did choose, to ignore all that.   Those two dudes from San Diego are filmmakers*, not historians of the non-West nor political scientists, and were not any kind of NGO worker prior to IC’s founding.   So they did what filmmakers do: they told a simple story, with an overarching narrative that had clear heroes and villains.

And Kony is clearly made into a villain, even demonized, in the 2005 film.  And nowhere in the narration and witness to the group’s atrocities is the emphasis on “one man, one story” even questioned.  For IC, context is inconvenient: the Ugandan government and the military are barely mentioned, and only in positive terms. The “solution” of essentially permanent camps of those Acholis deliberately displaced by the anti-LRA campaign is not mentioned.  And on and on. Real world conflicts have context: multiple perspectives, multiple actors, history, messy “solutions” possibly worse than the problem, and no completely happy ending.

It really does seem as though Kony is a villain in a vacuum to IC.  But that’s the thing.  If you want to see the inside of a vacuum, watch a Dyson commercial.   Out here in the real world, the Disney treatment doesn’t do real suffering and real complex problems any justice.

*I know a filmmaker, a filmmaker is a relative of mine.  And these, Senator, are two rather naive and disingenuous filmmakers.


The Democratic Republic of the Congo is the Capri Sun of Governments

March 3, 2012

“Juice and governments use adjectives to conceal the truth.” So says my friend, a Russophile who studied in Mubarak’s Egypt with me. Yet what is the truth? Zaire and ascorbic acid spiked sugar water? The perceptions constructed by careful language use are their own truth, their own set of facts, and they in turn have their own sets of consequences, whether in geopolitics or advertising.

Role Shifts and New Realities OR the Rise of the Belly-Dancing Prof

March 2, 2012

A professor in the School of International Service at American University once explained the Middle East by telling his students: “You must stick to your role.  It is Iraq’s role to balance Iran, Turkey’s role to be a secular bridge to the West, Syria’s role to be Iran’s Arab ally.  You must stick to your roles! Just as you would not expect me to get up on this table and start belly-dancing, for that is not my role!”

I never had this professor, unfortunately, but the story was well known because it sets out the long prevalent received wisdom on the latter 20th century Middle East:  these were cohesive nation states in the realist tradition who performed the function, the role, expected of them.  They did so to meet the expectations of the West and/or the Soviet Union, but more fundamentally these undemocratic regimes did it to preserve themselves in power.

Fast forward to 2003 and beyond.  What was the expected regional role of the new Shia-dominated Iraq?  The US had its expectation, but the Iranians had another, a critical difference from the old days when everyone agreed that a professor was a professor and not a belly dancer.  Saddam’s plans for Kuwait, or really the U.S. view of Lebanon’s civil war didn’t rise to the level of mirror version expectations seen for post-Saddam Iraq.

The Arab Spring has further complicated the picture.  Syria, as a whole solid billard ball in the regional game had its role, as did Iraq.  But both countries have been split open by unrest, and different subnational groups want what they want.  Iraqi Shias want to support Syrian Sunnis as fellow majorities long oppressed by Baathist sectarian minorities.  Nevermind that Iraq was the counterweight to Iran and Syria is for the moment still Iran’s Arab Levantine proxy.   That was Saddam’s reality, the reality that gave rise to Bin Laden, and Saddam and Bin Laden are dead.

The West’s established expectations for this region may in most cases be just as dead.  The U.S. and Ayman a-Zawahiri are now both supporting the Syrian opposition, in word if not fully in deed.   We may have to start expecting belly-dancing professors.   Stranger things have happened.

How to Solve a Problem Like N. Korea

March 1, 2012

We’ve been here before — the “no nuke progress in exchange for food” quid pro quo that we’ve been trying to hold the N. Koreans to for at least 20 years.

At least it seems the old song and dance works pretty much the same
under the young Un as it did under his father.  If the pattern holds, we just got the forces of globalization ~6-8 brinkmanship-free months to keep working on the DPRK like a nutcracker.

Do-re-mi it ain’t, but hope is in order, because this status quo can’t last.

Xi and the Sea (Lanes)

February 20, 2012

The presumptive next leader of the PRC just paid the U.S. a visit, and apparently the media here are quite taken with his more approachable, Chinese and American pop culture infused manner of communicating.

I think it is important to keep the substantive differences in the Sino-American relationship in mind, however.  The CCP isn’t going to let the yuan float or allow greater local political autonomy in Tibet just because the next head of the PRC references “Mission: Impossible” or other American cultural fare.

After all, this is a regime that has raised ‘pop culture as an opiate for the masses’ into an ironic art form


In other reviews of scenes from the world stage, Iran has both cut off oil shipments to the UK and France and threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz.   Clearly the IRI is angling for a nomination in the yearly Shooting Self in Foot Awards, but as I’m looking back at Operation Ajax via the excellent All the Shah’s Men, I can’t help but think that the more things change the more they stay the same.  Particularly in the Middle East.  Sixty years ago Britain was furious that Iranian nationalism dare stand in the way of its oil.

Now Britain imports no Iranian oil, letting it coolly and consistently push for greater sanctions.   If only the US could say fifty years from now that the Iraq war moved us on a similar path away from oil period.