Friday, June 10, 2011

Thanks but no Thanks Washington

Several commentators have recently suggested that America's influence in the Middle East is on the wane, which is welcome news to many in the region. The causes are multiple and many are self inflicted. As Radiohead famously sings in "Just", "you do it to yourself." We sure do. And the state of our media reflects our dire straits. In today's newspapers there are two very problematic articles demonstrating not only how Washington elites are out of touch with the ideas of the rest of the world, but also how our media is increasingly incapable of helping the rest of us bridge the gap. Perhaps the editorial pressures on journalists to be "neutral" presenters of "facts" prevent them from being able to critically analyze content. And perhaps cutbacks forcing a single bureau to report on entire regions, sometimes across continents, understandably renders it more difficult for them to put themselves into ordinary people's shoes. But the resulting coverage often frames everything through a normative lens without adequate respect for alternative perspectives.

For example, take an article in The Washington Post about the outgoing American Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his scathing criticism of European countries for not contributing enough to NATO operations. The report describes how Gates recently scolded our allies for not providing resources for the war in Afghanistan and operations in Libya, but the article fails to contextualize this claim, especially in regards to the former conflict. The war in Afghanistan was launched as a response to 9/11, which happened on American soil and not in Europe. While al-Qaeda may have made some vague threats against certain European capitals, subsequent attacks were launched by so-called homegrown cells and were largely in response to the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Which means that Europeans were punished for American led wars. Furthermore the legitimacy of the war was questionable. Many Europeans were not supportive of an all out war against an entire country for the actions of a foreign group operating there. The assumption that the conflict in Afghanistan is a just war, as President Obama ironically claimed during his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, is not a common held belief around the world.

So when Gates remarked that Americans will soon no longer be willing "to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense" he is being very dishonest when speaking about Afghanistan. Libya may be a different story, but if Americans want to wage wars under the auspices of NATO that are primarily in our own interests then we should not grumble when our allies do not want to cooperate. The fact that the article does not even consider the European perspective here is shocking and reads as propaganda for Gates' globally militaristic political project.

The second example is from The New York Times and is an article about the deteriorating economy in Egypt, generally reported from an elite perspective that assumes neoliberalism done correctly is the only logical or rational solution to Egyptian woes. The warning is clear: reinstitute neoliberal capitalism or disaster will befall your people. For example the reporters relate how: "Strikes by workers demanding their share of the revolution’s spoils continue to snarl industry, and business executives say the demands are becoming self-defeating. 'We increased wages after the revolution, and a month later the workers went on strike again and asked for even higher wages,' said Moataz El Alfi, chief executive of Americana, which runs fast-food restaurants here. 'They beat up the human resource manager, and we had to close down the factory,' he said. 'Everyone is jumping on the revolutionary wave and trying to reap extra benefits,' he added, 'and it’s become chaos'."

There is neither information in the article about the wage that these Egyptian workers currently receive nor the conditions in which they work. Indeed the workers are not given a voice at all and are instead dismissed as greedy and violent. Nor is there any information provided about the disparity between their lives and the executive's life. In fact there is little context about the situation in Egypt at all other than that the revolution was inspired by economic grievances over joblessness and inequality. But what does that mean for the majority of Egyptians? The article quotes several elites and academics who attempt to cheerlead for a neoliberal model without corruption, as if only the latter was the problem. But to their credit the reporters do at least give voice to two of the leftist parties promoting socialist and Islamist alternatives, albeit only superficially. Because as Joseph Massad argues in a recent op-ed for Al Jazeera, despite America's best efforts to impose unjust economic systems on Arab governments these alternatives are precisely what most of the revolutionaries are fighting for. In other words, the word on the street is "thanks but no thanks Washington".

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