Foreign Policy

American coverage of the Lebanese Civil War was muted for much of its duration, owing to the low US military involvement. (lifted from the “collectivehistory” tumblr page)

War, Death, and indifference.

If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?

Who cares? That tree fell in an African forest, not an American one.

This past Wednesday, I covered for the Columbia Journalism Review a talk about war photojournalism at the Brooklyn Brewery. If you haven’t already, read the piece I wrote up on the event (don’t worry, I’ll wait).

One of the most interesting tidbits from the conversation between Steve Hindy and photojournalist Michael Kamber that I ended up leaving out of the piece–because it was a bit tangential to the main idea–came close to the end of the event. The answer was in response to a slightly lighthearted question asked of Steve–himself a former war correspondent–about whether reporters once had a bar to go at the end of the day and discuss the day’s events. (the question was asked by a reporter who had covered Iraq for the Times) Steve responded that the real difference between Iraq and the conflicts he had covered was the presence of Americans on the ground. The conflicts he had covered in the Middle East during the 70s and 80s ranked comparatively low on the American news agenda. As he put it, “who cares if the PLO and the Phalange get into a horrible battle in Beirut and 40 people die? There was no American there except us…in a way I was envious of the wars you guys covered because at least for a time, Americans were watching.”

This idea, that people only really care about wars when their own countrymen [and women] are fighting in them itself isn’t too surprising, and I’m not going to act like one of those slightly annoying types (see twitter) who feign outrage whenever this type of thing happens. If we take a more recent example, some pointed out after the Boston bombings that while only 3 people died in the attack that day, far more people died that day in Syria and other conflict zones around the world. As these critics pointed out, those other people died on the wrong day in terms of getting the world, and certainly the American media, to care about their deaths–the “hierarchy of death,” as a columnist for the Guardian put it.

If we look at the coverage of the recent Asiana Airlines crash in San Francisco, we’re seeing the same thing. Despite knowing the identities of two of the three deaths (a third death was announced earlier Friday evening, as of this writing), the media generally limited their coverage of the two who died, simply saying that they were both Chinese students who were coming to the US on vacation. Humanizing enough, but nothing like some of the heartfelt, textured portraits of the victims from the Boston bombings.

I mentioned earlier that I’m not necessarily outraged by this cold reality. Why? Simple. The media, with some exceptions, is a reasonably clear reflection of the audience they serve. People, for better or for worse, cope with the sheer amount of “bad things” in the world by limiting their reaction to those events to those they feel some sort of connection with, be it being from similar circumstances, places, or, in this case, nationality. It’s why, when a ship somewhere crashes, NPR talks about the Americans on the ship, and CBC talks about the Canadians on the ship. These outlets are reflecting the fact that their audience cares about those they feel the closest connection to.

Accidents like the Costa Concordia are excellent demonstrations of how international media first look to cover the fates of occupants from the outlet’s nation.

Now what can be said for this? In the abstract, it’s certainly fair to talk about the arbitrariness of national borders, the accident of birth, all that stuff. In an ideal world, people would care about the deaths (and lives) of people equally, regardless of nationality, socioeconomic status, or profession. But they don’t, and probably never will. (David Wong over at Cracked gives even more analysis on this idea of rationed empathy in his “Monkeysphere” piece) To the extent that people are hard-wired to think this way, and also to the extent that it is physically impossible to give the same prominence to every news story, it’s logical that the news media–even public, not-for-profit outlets–would reflect their audience’s interests. The unavoidable problem, in the end, is that worthy stories–like that battle in Beriut some thirty years ago–often get shunted to the inside pages because of this instinct.

Cover of the book

In which I review a timely critique of western policy in the third world.

The White Man’s Burden, by economist William Easterly, is a 2006 book that argues that western interventions in the third world (which he refers to as “the rest”), from self interested colonialism in the past, to today’s supposedly benevolent foreign aid and “humanitarian” military interventions, have done far more harm than good.

The first thing that will stick out to a potential reader is the title of this book. The use of the phrase “White Man’s Burden” itself may rub some the wrong way, partly because it implies that the author actually accepts the pretextual justifications for colonization that the phrase has come to symbolize. However, the author uses the term more for its symbolic and evocative value, and does make clear that many of the interventions he talks about were more beneficial to the west than to those who were supposedly being helped (this is a major argument he makes in the later portion of the book).

Easterly begins by contrasting the lofty speeches of world leaders and aid agency heads over the years, and introducing the division that really drives his thesis; the difference between Planners and Searchers. Into the former category he puts most members of aid bureaucracies, as well as typical western leaders. In the latter, more virtuous category the author puts those who find out what people actually need or want, and then try in an accountable and direct way to provide it.

The major problem with aid, the author contends, is that those in charge of the organizations that distribute it—from arms of the UN to the World Bank (where the author used to work) and various other Nongovernmental Organizations—like to craft overarching schemes to end poverty/AIDS/war in various countries that inevitably fail due to a lack of specific goals and inputs.

The next few chapters are a tightly argued series of statistics, case studies and loose anecdotes about the problems with interventions based off of large plans; scrums of aid agencies with overlapping efforts in a region that can’t be held accountable for results, and biases towards visible interventions that sound good in speeches instead of less visible interventions that would be more effectual (e.g. AIDS treatment vs. prevention), to name some. This section is the main portion of the book.

The last part of the book deals with less passive interventions; the incidences of colonialism and clumsy decolonization, and military interventions during the Cold War. This here is where the author makes his strongest case, partially because in both sets of circumstances the interventions were first and foremost self interested, with humanitarian concerns playing, at best, the role of rhetorical rationalization. Easterly deconstructs the ways in which broadly applied policies (US policy of supporting whoever’s fighting the Communist sympathizers) and a lack of on-the ground information led to western dollars supporting major human rights violators, or even worse, actually staying impartial in the rare cases in which one side was clearly behaving in a more reprehensible manner (the west in Rwanda).


However, the book is not perfect. In his conclusion section, Easterly admits that with all of his complaints about coming up with overarching plans in the aid community, he has none. Rather, he gives several reasonable suggestions on how aid agencies should function. However, one of the things that stuck out at me was when he addressed his earlier idea about focusing on the observable versus unobservable outcomes. He admits that basically no aid agency would give money to a program with less observable effects—essentially throwing money into an ether. But then he says that agencies should compromise and give money to tasks with observable effects and sufficient accountability. While all of this is fair, the entire section where he makes suggestions feels a bit like a cop-out.

That shortcoming aside, the book is a sharp read that will challenge your assumptions about how to better the world, an essential counterpoint to Kony 2012 type idealists and Cheney-style neoconservatives alike.

In which your writer reflects on a month of writing and shares his thoughts on Syria and reporting on an NYPD initiative.

The now previous day of May 30th marked a completely unimportant occasion in all manners aside from my own ego. This is the day that Another Note in the Cacophony surpassed a month of active publication. This of course is a nice moment for myself as I feared I would get tired of writing this in a week (as occurred with many a writing project in the past), and because this blog has actually gotten some attention in its microscopic—even by online standards—lifespan.

One of the pieces on here, my reflection on the slow-burning crisis at Bronx Science was republished by the New York based education blog Gotham Schoolsand prompted a response from the school’s administration,while a recent piece on media coverage of conflict gained attention from the media watchdog group FAIR. While I’m writing this blog more for my own health than for any of the small morsels of recognition I might stumble across, it is good to see that my content is appreciated. There are some interesting topics I have in the works for the coming month, which you will find out as soon as I get the out-of-the-blue idea to write about them.

But enough about myself. Here are some things that stuck out for me in the first half of this week.

Cheers: Public radio brings a new angle to an old story.

I came across an excellent piece on WNYC radio Tuesday (disclosure: I have done volunteering for the station) about the NYPD’s’ notorious practice of “stop and frisk”. That there is news coverage of the practice is not news; a Google news search of the phrase brings just over 3,000 results, but this story puts a  new spin on it. Reporter Ailsa Chang decided to illustrate the heavily skewed statistics of the stops by actually interviewing teenagers (would you believe that?) at two New York high schools.  It is a story that is conceptually simple in hindsight but does a major service in illuminating the issue. The first teens we hear from are at Stuyvesant high school, an elite public institution that uses the same entrance exam as my own alma mater Bronx Science. That school is mostly Asian and Caucasian, and none of the students the reporter asked experienced any stops. Statistics bear out the anecdotes, as the area around the school received 20 stops last year. The reporter then went to a almost exclusively black and Hispanic high school in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, one of the few parts of New York that still can be considered fully “dangerous”. There students told of being stopped two to three times by police, with a member of the reporter’s own focus group going as high as seven times. The story also came with an excellent overlay map (prepared by the station’s newsroom staff, it seems) of police stop raw data by census tract in the city.

Among parts of the city that I have experience with(living in and going to school), there are hotspots of police activity/harassment in the Amsterdam Houses, a housing project in my old neighborhood of the Upper West Side (perhaps because of its well-off surroundings, the project is much cleaner and safer than your stereotypical public housing complex). Walking though the projects from my apartment building on my way to and from the Lincoln Center subway station, I did notice NYPD vans almost permanently parked on the walkway. Another hotspot was around the campus of Martin Luther King Jr. high school, another mostly minority school across the street from both the opera houses of Lincoln Center and a prestigious arts school.

Other “warm” areas (the stops are so heavily skewed towards Brownsville and Bed-Stuy blocks that most other notable tracts in the city show up as moderate areas by comparison), blocks of Harlem (despite the area being far safer than reputed), and areas in Manhattan Valley (where the gifted middle school I attended shared a building with a—you guessed it—low income minority school). Surprisingly, the area around Bronx Science—the span from the Jerome Avenue Reservoir to Grand Concourse, is the dull shade of beige on the map—representing stop numbers in the mid to low double digits—that most populated areas of the city have. This is despite the not-so-subtly raised fears by many prospective BS parents about the “safety” of the neighborhood. A great map to compare stop/frisk incidences with would be the locations of housing projects in the city. There would likely be a strong correlation.

Jeers: CBS This Morning asks failed military strategist Donald Rumsfeld about military strategy. In the Middle East, no less.

There are too many things wrong with the way this segment turned out.

I tuned in again the past morning to the respectable CBS This Morning, a several month old experiment by the network to create a morning newscast that isn’t full of bullshit. While the program does have strong reports, I was dismayed by an early guest on today’s edition, Donald Rumsfeld. Even worse was the setup; while a picture of his last book was in the studio background, the “peg” for the interview was the situation in Syria. Specifically, what a certain leading western nation should do about the situation there.

My problem is twofold; the fact that he is on television and held up as an expert in the first place mildly disturbs me, but the other is that there was little criticality in the questioning, even on his Syria advice. To use a courtroom analogy, he was treated by the hosts (Charlie Rose and Erica Hill) like a prosecutor would treat a bland but vital prosecution witness in a trial (an upstanding family doctor, perhaps), when he should have been treated like the defendant him/herself. Sure, I don’t expect a whole Anderson Cooper style Keeping Them Honest segment badgering him on Iraq WMD intelligence, or them to go all Frost/Nixon on him, but at least recognize that even as a military strategist Rumsfeld’s Iraq record should discredit him alone, let alone the plausible claims of the invasion being illegal under international/UN law.

Final thought: Syria rhetoric and the west as savior.

I leave for today with some more thoughts on Syria. I’m not a foreign policy expert, which is why this blog wisely talks about it only through the lens of media coverage. That said, I am struck by the sort of rhetoric we keep hearing on the subject. That we “can’t stand by” while innocents are massacred/slaughtered (it’s always those words). Here is former presidential candidate and Republican foreign policy mainstay John McCain saying that in as many words on CNN several months ago.

This is staggeringly awful logic. The fact that bad things are happening in the world does not compel America, or anyone in the west, to do anything at all that “our” own interests do not also force us to do. This whole “we have to save them” logic is, if one takes it to the reductio ad absurdum, a modern version of the “White Man’s Burden”, to a “t”. Let’s just think about all of the bad things in the world that have happened where the west was content to issue declarations and diplomatic cudgels but not use military force—there are too many to count, though it is instructive what the earlier mentioned senator had to say about the situation in the Cote d’Ivoire last year. I’ll spare you a full summary, but this was one in which the US intervened diplomatically and the French—the West African nation’s former colonial occupant—only bothered to use force when they remembered that they had their own citizens under threat in the country. That interview was several months after the crisis began, and he told Howard Kurtz of Newsweek/Daily Beast last year that:

“While McCain opposed the U.S. military actions in Lebanon and Somalia, he is sympathetic to humanitarian missions—and would even consider sending troops to the war-torn Ivory Coast if someone could ‘tell me how we stop what’s going on.’”  

(emphasis very much my own)

I flag this passage for two reasons—and it proves my point twofold. First it shows that US military actions motivated by humanitarian reasons are not always considered worth supporting by those who tend to champion them. That proves my “willing to allow terrible things to happen” point. But more importantly, McCain’s lack of knowledge on “how we stop” strife in the Ivory Coast goes to a deeper problem with western “humanitarian” interventions. It’s that if western leaders do not know what they are doing (or have a cadre of intelligence analysts who are on the ball), they inevitably make the situation worse. Again, too many places for me to discuss here, such as arming a certain Afghan unit of Mujahedeen a few decades ago.

So go on cable news and stir the pot for Syria intervention if you must, but don’t tell us we can’t sit by. The west is more than willing to sit by in many instances, and even interventions that are truly motivated by the best of intentions tend to make things worse when the commanders have not done their research.

%d bloggers like this: