What's Left

March 4, 2003

Letting London Set The Agenda On Zimbabwe

By Stephen Gowans

Matthew Rothschild, editor of The Progressive magazine, once said that Washington is the media's foreign assignment editor.

If Washington complains of dictatorship and human rights violations in Iraq, the media focusses on Saddam Hussein. If Washington remains silent on the absence of democracy and civil liberties in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other oil monarchies deemed pro-Western, so too does the media.

The same is true of Kosovo. When Washington said Yugoslavia had to be bombed to prevent Serbs from ethnically cleansing the Serb province of ethnic Albanians, the media set to work documenting the stories of refugees who had fled Kosovo. But after the bombing, ethnic Albanians launched a program of ethnic cleansing against Serbs, Roma and Jews. Washington, and the media, said nothing.

In countless ways, Washington and its reliable ally London, set the agenda, and the media follows along. Worse, so too does the mild left -- progressives, liberals and anarchists who are all too happy to lead the ritualistic two-minutes hate of Washington's (or London's) latest foreign policy goat.

The mild left can be counted on to issue fulsome denunciations of Saddam Hussein, but not Saudi Arabia's absolutism, Pakistan's dictatorship, or Washington's human rights violations at Gauntanamo Bay. And the blatant abridgement of civil liberties in the United States and Washington's threats of war against North Korea command little attention from this group, perhaps because both involve people widely out of a favor in the US -- Arabs and Communists.

This isn't to deny that Saddam Hussein is a dictator who has little respect for human rights, or that Serb forces committed atrocities against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. But paying attention only to the thugs, dictators, and human rights violators that Washington and London draw attention to, while ignoring those Washington and London ignore, hardly seems what the political left ought to be doing.

And slavishly following the trail blazed by Western power centres blinds the mild left to an important question: Why these leaders and these countries?

What's more, accepting holus-bolus the charges Washington and London level against their targets is hardly recommended. The charges may very well be true, but then again they may be exaggerated, or they may be complete fabrications. It's not as if Washington and London haven't stooped to inventing tales to justify intervention abroad and it's not as if the media hasn't passively and uncritically accepted fabrications before. At the very least, progressives and liberals owe it to themselves to exercise a modicum of scepticism. And to ask a few questions, like "How do we know what's said about the target is true?"

When NATO wanted to intervene in Kosovo, it said that 100,000 ethnic Albanians had been killed. The media duly reported the figure without a lot of scepticism and many people backed the North Atlantic alliance's decision to bomb Yugoslavia as a result. But when forensic pathologists later searched the length and breadth of Kosovo they couldn't find all the bodies NATO said were there. In fact, rather than finding 100,000 bodies, or even NATO's later revised figure of 10,000 bodies, they found a couple of thousand, and it was never clear how many bodies were those of non-combatants killed by Serb forces as opposed to those killed by the KLA, the ethnic Albanian guerilla army backed by NATO. Some forensic pathologists left Kosovo in disgust, angry that they had been taken in by NATO propaganda. Newspapers that covered the story spoke sententiously about the truth being the first victim of war. And so it is. But even more broadly, it's the first victim of most interventions by one country into the affairs of another. Unfortunately, with each new war, and each new intervention, everyone forgets about how they were deceived the last time.

So let's take the case of Zimbabwe and ask a few questions, for there's no better illustration of the mild left's uncritically accepting the agenda set by Washington and London than that of how it has reacted to Robert Mugabe and his attempts at land reform.

To begin, the question of redistributing farm land from wealthy white farmers to poor blacks has been at the centre of Zimbabwean politics since Zimbabwe won formal independence over two decades ago, and was at the heart of the independence struggle. Land reform is a difficult question because it involves the issues of expropriation and compensation. Western capitalist governments are never, in the first, happy with the idea of private property being expropriated. And so it could be anticipated from the start that land reform in Zimbabwe would be a problematical issue, one that would sustain little support from London, and difficult all the more for Zimbabwe's straitened circumstances foreclosing the possibility of its adequately paying compensation to the minority that controls the county's best land if it went it alone.

For this reason, London was looked to for assistance, but it was insisted that land could be redistributed only if the owners agreed to sell.  Land reform, under these less than congenial conditions, proved to be a glacial process, and one guaranteed to foment considerable frustration, for while Zimbabwe had won formal independence, nothing of substance had changed, or was changing fast. Here was a minority, that, through control of the best farm land, was still in the driver's seat. And the majority remained either landless or settled on the least arable land. It's no surprise that veterans of the independence struggle and others took it upon themselves to hasten the process, a kind of socialism from below, much admired in principal, but condemned in practice.

Mugabe was lambasted for allowing the farm invasions to go ahead, and for not pressing the coercive forces of the state into service to protect the minority. Later he would begin a program of expropriation and land redistribution that has been almost universally condemned in Britain and the United States, no less so by the mild left, whose members complain the process is corrupt, and one that rewards Mugabe and his cronies.

Contrasted with Mugabe is Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the political opposition. If Mugabe has been demonized, Tsvangirai has been angelized. But there are unsettling questions about Tsvangirai and his MDC that have been avoided. For one, there's the question of who's backing Tsvangirai's forces. During the Kosovo crisis, Otpor, a Serb anti-Milosevic group gained much favor in the West because it was anti-Milosevic and used a language rich in references to democracy. But it was later revealed that Otpor had been trained and bankrolled by Washington, and so either wittingly or unwittingly had become an instrument of Washington's designs.  And there's plenty of evidence that the MDC is similarly supported by Western forces, to say nothing of  former Rhodesian groups, and so acts (either knowingly or not) as an agency of Western governments opposed to radical change in Zimbabwe.

But more important is the question of what the MDC does, or doesn't, stand for. What it does stand for is neo-liberal economics. What it is doesn't stand for is any kind of land reform program that's going to make a whit of a difference for ordinary Zimbabweans. All of which explains why the MDC has London's backing, but hardly explains why the mild Anglo-American left smiles favorably upon the opposition.

Equally puzzling is whether there is a serious program of land reform that would be acceptable to the West's progressives and liberals. It's one thing to lament the disruptions that attend redistribution, but quite another to suggest a solution. Unfortunately, pursuing a purely oppositional course, without specifying a way in which the central question of how to redistribute land is to be accomplished, endorses the status quo. And perhaps that's desired. It could be that the mild left is happy with the way Zimbabwe's agricultural resources are distributed, and, like Washington and London, is opposed to a more egalitarian arrangement; or perhaps it supports egalitarian distribution of land, but not to the extent that its achievement is messy. But it seems more likely that the issue of how to redistribute land in the face of a powerful opposition has never been contemplated; for the mild left has defined its role as one of criticism and opposition, which allows it to steer clear of the unsafe, tentative and perilous world of proposing achievable programs of radical change.

And so, in place of alternatives or support, we get the regurgitation of stories of dubious veracity that originate in Washington and London before making their way into the pages of The Times of London and The New York Times and then onto the listserves of the political left. Mugabe's redistribution program is starving Zimbabweans, we're told, even though neighboring countries, whose governments aren't redistributing land, are also contending with conditions of scarcity, and even though many of the expropriated farms grow cash crops for export, not domestic consumption. It may be that redistribution is exacerbating the problem (or not) but the story smacks of the propaganda Western governments foisted upon a naively trusting public during the Kosovo crisis. We owe it to ourselves and others to remember how we have been deceived in the past, and to exercise a little more scepticism this time.

Western governments, it should be acknowledged, don't intervene in other countries for moral or humanitarian reasons. Tony Blair doesn't denounce Robert Mugabe because he thinks Mugabe holds democracy and human rights in contempt. He denounces Robert Mugabe because he has a non-humanitarian interest in intervening in Zimbabwe and denouncing Robert Mugabe provides a justification (as denouncing Saddam Hussein provides a justification for supporting Washington's designs in controlling Iraq's oil and dominating the Middle East.)

That, of course, doesn't by itself mean that Mugabe is a democrat who doesn't trample human rights, but Tony Blair has repeatedly proved himself capable of stretching the truth and telling outright lies where it serves his purposes. At the very least, we shouldn't immediately accept what he, or any other Western government, has to say about the leader of a country the West has taken a negative interest in, even if media accounts echo the charges. (That's what the media does: echoes the words of people, like Blair, "who run the show.")

Finally, we should be clear that political change in the direction of greater egalitarianism, if it's serious, doesn't happen without provoking powerful conservative forces. Programs of vilification directed against any leader, group, party or movement are to be expected. There may be elements of truth in the charges--radical change can be a messy business, especially when opposed by powerful forces--and elements of exaggeration and fabrication are also to be expected. It doesn't help progressive causes if these realities are overlooked in favor of joining in witch hunts set in motion by conservative forces.

Recommended:

Gregory Elich's Zimbabwe Under Siege
Blair Adviser Wants Return To Age of Empire, Times of India

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