If the neutral left is really neutral, why does it keep coming down hard on the West’s official enemies while ignoring the West’s henchmen?
By Stephen Gowans
Many left activists and progressives claim to be equally opposed to oppression, whether practiced by the friends of imperialist powers or their enemies, but are virtually silent on the well documented oppressions of such US client states as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Ethiopia, while exhibiting an uncritical zeal in denouncing the enemies of Anglo-American imperialism, often for crimes that have been exaggerated or invented to be used as pretexts for Western intervention and fulfillment of imperialist goals.
There is no better illustration of this tendency to profess principled neutrality while regularly exhibiting a pro-imperialist bias, than the current obsession with the alleged genocide in Darfur and the claims of unjustified political oppression in Zimbabwe, while a virtually unremarked series of crimes and oppressions is carried out by the US and British client government of Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia.
In an anti-guerilla war conducted in the country’s Ogaden region, “Ethiopian troops are burning villages, raping women and killing civilians as part of a systematic campaign to drive them from their homes.” Refugees say dozens of villages have been destroyed and have “accused the Ethiopian government of forcibly starving its own people by preventing food convoys reaching villages and destroying crops and livestock.”*
“A former Ethiopian soldier who defected from the army said how he had been ordered to burn villages and kill all their inhabitants. He said the Ethiopian air force would bomb a village before a unit of ground troops followed, firing indiscriminately at civilians. ‘Men, women, children – we killed them all,’ he said.”
The little-known conflict in Ogaden parallels the more widely known war in Darfur. The conflict began when rebels killed scores of Ethiopian guards and Chinese employees at a Chinese-run oil field. The government replied with a harsh crackdown.
“Human rights investigators are gathering evidence of widespread use of rape, with women reporting gang-rapes by up to a dozen soldiers. In some villages, men have been abducted at night, their bodies dumped in the village the next morning.
“While in Darfur, aid agencies have been able to establish camps and provide humanitarian support, they have been blocked from setting up operations in the Ogaden. The International Committee of the Red Cross has been thrown out and Medicins Sans Frontieres has also been prevented from working. Journalists trying to enter have also been banned – those that have tried have been promptly arrested.”
But while neutral leftists have worked themselves into a state of high moral dudgeon over Sudan’s counter-insurgency in Darfur, which “has been described by the US as ‘genocide’ and by the UN as ‘crimes against humanity’”, they have been virtually silent on Ethiopia, a recipient of US and British military and humanitarian aid.
“America’s top official on African affairs, assistant secretary of state, Jendayi Frazer, visited one town in the Ogaden last month.
“On her return to Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, she criticized the rebels and said the reports of military abuses were merely allegations. ‘We urge any and every government to respect human rights and to try to avoid civilian casualties but that’s difficult in dealing with an insurgency,’ she said.”
The West’s official enemies are never allowed the same latitude in dealing with their own (often US and British financed and instigated) insurgencies – a double standard backed by neutral leftists through their voluble condemnations of the anti-insurgency efforts of official enemies and comparative silence on those of Western client states.
“The US provides some $283m (£140m) in military and humanitarian aid to Ethiopia and has trained its military – one of the largest and strongest in Africa.”
Compare Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe with Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. For trying to invest Zimbabwean independence with real content (land reform and indigenization of the economy), Mugabe has been calumniated by British and US officials and the Western media as a strongman who will do anything to stay in power, from stealing elections to repressing the opposition. The elections Mugabe was said to have stolen were endorsed by the South African Development Community, an organization of neighboring states, and the opposition operates freely, despite being openly backed and financed by Western powers in pursuit of a regime-change, anti-independence agenda.
For doing the West’s bidding in the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia’s Meles is showered with US and British aid and was handpicked by Tony Blair to sit on Britain’s Commission for Africa, to lead the “African renaissance.” Neutral leftists say little about “the British Government’s – and the West’s – favorite African leader”, channeling their energies instead into calling on the US to intervene militarily in Darfur and in competing to see who can exercise the greatest stridency in denouncing the Mugabe government (contributing to the program of ushering Mugabe and his pro-independence policies out and the MDC and its pro-Western dependence policies in.) Somehow, the end result of all this is to put the West more firmly in control of Africa.
And yet the political repressions of which Mugabe is accused are practiced ardently by Meles. Indeed, even if every charge leveled against Mugabe were true (and most are not), he would still be an angel against Meles.
Following Ethiopia’s May 2005 general election, which the opposition claimed was rigged, “security forces opened fire on protesters, killing 193 people.” Thousands of opposition supporters and leaders were rounded up and thrown in jail.
“More than 100 opposition leaders were put on trial for treason while the police crackdown intensified. Text messages, which had been used to organize the demonstrations in 2005, were banned.”
The state asked that the death penalty be imposed on 38 opposition leaders, including the founder of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council, a former UN war crimes prosecutor and the mayor-elect of Addis Ababa. The court rejected the prosecution’s recommendation, but sentenced the opposition leaders to life imprisonment. They were later freed, but only after the US intervened.
“Britain still gives Ethiopia £130m in humanitarian aid each year – more than any other African country,” while carrying out an unremitting campaign of demonization against Robert Mugabe and blocking Zimbabwe’s access to international credit.
How it is it that Meles, who has carried out much graver crimes than any Mugabe has been accused of, is showered with honors and humanitarian aid, while Mugabe is treated as Africa’s version of Hitler and his country is subjected to a campaign of economic warfare?
The answer lies in the reality that Meles acts as Washington’s attack dog in the Horn of Africa, invading Somalia to put down a pro-independence government, while Mugabe pursues an independent foreign policy and implements reforms to give Zimbabwean independence meaningful content.
How is that many left activists and progressives, though professing neutrality, channel much of their energy into campaigns deploring the official enemies of Anglo-American imperialism, while remaining virtually silent on oppressions carried out by US and British client states?
The answer has much to the do with the media and how left activists and progressives react to it. The news media are structured to report on what state officials say and do. To garner support for their policies, state officials make public statements on issues they want to draw public attention to, while steering clear of events they prefer remain unnoticed. Because Western state officials make frequent references to Zimbabwe, and few, if any, to Ethiopia, dozens of media news stories appear on Zimbabwe for every one that appears on Ethiopia. In this way, state officials, working through the media, are able to establish a public agenda, not only for the media but for the neutral left to follow – one which places Mugabe scores of rungs ahead of Meles, and Darfur much higher than Ogaden. Left activists and progressives talk about Mugabe and Darfur because the media do and the media do because Western state officials do. But neutral leftists hardly ever talk about Meles and Ogaden because the media hardly do, and the media hardly do because Western state officials almost never do (and don’t want to.) The result is that while professing neutrality, many left activists and progressives have been unwittingly recruited into agendas set in Washington and London.
These are the conditions that, in part, lead the neutral left to channel considerable energy into denouncing the official enemies of Western governments, while spending little time talking about or campaigning against oppressive regimes that receive Western aid and support. Neutral leftists are quick to denounce the military government of Myanmar (an official enemy) for its crackdown on a religious group, while saying virtually nothing about the military government of Pakistan (a client state) for an equally bloody crackdown on a religious group. Neutral leftists are acutely sensitive to the humanitarian crisis in Darfur (officially condemned), while saying virtually nothing about the much larger humanitarian crisis in Iraq (officially ignored) or the humanitarian crisis in Ogaden (also officially ignored.) Neutral leftists say virtually nothing about Meles Zenawi, a strongman accused of rigging elections who threatens political opponents with the death penalty, has invaded another country, and carries out crimes against humanity within his own borders (and is supported by the West) while spitting out contempt for Robert Mugabe, who has done none of these things (but isn’t supported by the West).
In all it does, despite professions of neutrality, the neutral left is pro-imperialist, not neutral. The moment its members devote half as much energy to railing against the governments of Egypt, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey as they do against Zimbabwe, the Taliban, north Korea, Belarus and Iran, will be the moment their claims to support neither imperialism nor its official enemies unconditionally become something more substantial than deceptive rhetoric.
* All quotes from Steve Bloomfield, “Ethiopia’s ‘own Darfur’ as villagers flee government-backed violence,” The Independent, October 17, 2007, http://news.independent.co.uk/world/africa/article3067244.ece