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Zimmerman: The Western Saviour Complex

May 26, 2012

“Take up the White Man’s burden —
Have done with childish days —
The lightly proffered laurel,
The easy, ungrudged praise.
Comes now, to search your manhood
Through all the thankless years,
Cold-edged with dear-bought wisdom,
The judgment of your peers!”
-Rudyard Kipling, The White Man’s burden, 1899

The strange case of the Kony 2012 phenomenon is a chance to reflect on the complex relationship between those of us in the so-called First World and those of us in the so-called Third World. The organization Invisible Children got massive attention for this latest campaign and their intentions may have appeared to many observers as completely benign and admirable at first glance. They were creating global awareness of the atrocities committed by a brutal warlord in Eastern Africa and stating that they wanted to see Joseph Kony face justice. It all seemed noble, but on closer inspection and in light of how things turned out, people started questioning the real motives beyond it.

One of the results of the campaign was an announcement by the Obama Administration to keep American military advisers in Uganda. The bizarre naked meltdown of Kony 2012’s main organizer, Jason Russel in the street in San Diego raised some eyebrows but the most telling incident involving Kony 2012 was when the now famous video was played before an audience in Lira, a town in Uganda where Kony committed some of his worst atrocities. The audience was made up of the very people the Kony 2012 campaign purported to be trying to help yet by the end of the showing the audience became frustrated and lashed out at the members of the organizations, even pelting rocks at them and demanding they leave.

What exactly went wrong? Some of the campaign’s critics cite the fact that Joseph Kony is not even present in Uganda anymore and that sending military advisors to Uganada is a completely useless move. A major critique leveled at Kony 2012 by many is the lack of context and the presence of patronizing language. This campaign, many argued, was a new manifestation of the Western Saviour Complex.

What exactly is the Western Saviour Complex? If I had to come up with a definition for an encyclopedia for it the line would go something like this:
Western Saviour Complex: the deeply embedded notion that any problem in any part of the world can, or even must be solved by Western countries. Historical examples include Columbus bringing Christianity to the “Indians” and America bringing “democracy” to Iraq.

Every colonial project during Europe’s period of colonialism seemed to be justified by some language or another. There were people who spoke out against colonialism in Europe and in the Americas but ever present was the argument that it was ultimately in the subjected people’s own interest to be governed by outsiders. Even among liberals one can sometimes sense the language of a perceived natural order involving the Western states play a role not unlike that of a traditional patriarch. Nowadays these are the voices that claim to be progressive yet they may support international policies that are not so enlightened in the long-run.

In some such opinions Canada’s military presence in Afghanistan is seen as beneficial, or that the ouster of a democratically elected leader in Haiti was necessary for the sake of Haiti’s progress. Others may come from organizations that seem well-meaning at first glance but often carry with them a mentality that view their own selves and their actions as the only solution to people’s complicated problems thousands of miles away. This mentality, whether raw and blatantly obvious or more subtle, is the long-term product of an ideological phenomenon that has its roots in the colonial period of Western Europe.

Let’s start this examination with the role of governments on the international arena. Our first question is: what really guides the actions of most nation-states? The realm of international politics is one where strategy is the most important factor. When nations take actions, whether political, financial or military, they always do so with their strategic interests in mind. Countries with large economies, and often strong military power to back it up, naturally have the most clout on the global scale. When nation-states like the United States, our struggling global superpower, or rising giants like Russia and China, take actions it is fair to say that the concerns of the respective powers that be in those states are what drive their respective international policies. Media often treats the actions of Western states with a double-standard when compared to others. (It is also arguable that mainstream media in non-Western countries often may have similar projections of exceptionalism and/or ultimately present the interests of individuals or organizations with power, but in this article I focus exclusive attention to the particular phenomenon of the deeply rooted Western saviour mentality of the former colonial states.)

In mainstream media here in the Western world, largely including mainstream Canadian media, our reasons for moving on that international chessboard are motivated not by the quest for resources or hegemonic influence like other states, but are driven by a desire to do good in the world. This is a Manichaeism world-view, which is an outlook on the real world as a singular battle of good vs. evil with absolutely nothing in between.

Speaking of a dangerously morally simplistic worldview let’s discuss a bit on George W. Bush and his legacy. When President Bush II invaded Iraq he cited three major reasons that we are all too familiar with now. The first was to prevent Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s then President, from making Weapons of Mass Destruction. It was false. The second was because the secular Arab Nationalist regime of Saddam Hussein was apparently best buddies with Osama bin Laden’s fanatical Wahhabi sect of Islam group Al Qaeda. This one also turned out to be false although it should have been obvious for any one who actually takes time to read up on the very complicated realities of the Middle-East. Finally, the last reason, and the one that Bush and company stuck to until the end, was that the reason for the invasion was for the sake of liberation for the Iraqi people. This line was given to the public repeatedly by the war’s supporters, including former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Tony Blair who insisted even after the initial reasons were proven false that removing Saddam Hussein was “the right thing to do.”

It was simply accepted by so many that the war was necessary and was overall done in the Iraqi people’s best interest. Liberation from a ruthless dictator, they argued, could only come through war. The Iraqi people could not overcome the tyrant on their own. It’s hard to forget the arguments being made at the time and it seems somewhat stranger now in the era of the Arab Spring when people in the region have successfully (in some cases) removed their dictators themselves.

Can anybody really believe these arguments? Do the few supporters left of the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the United States and coalition allies honestly believe that the motivations behind the invasion were based on compassion? For a clearer answer we have to look past the rhetoric and focus instead on actual actions and results. Look at, for instance, the actions of the United States during the 1991 Gulf War, the first time America attacked Iraq. The first President Bush showed an apparent sign of solidarity with Iraq’s people on February 15 of that year when he told them to “take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside and then comply with the United Nations’ resolutions and rejoin the family of peace-loving nations.”

After the cease-fire declared on February 24th and the Iraqi government brutally repressed the uprising resulting in thousands of Iraqi deaths, President Bush stated on April 2nd that he had not “not misled anybody about the intentions of the United States of America.” He went on to say “I don’t think the Shias in the south, those who are unhappy with Saddam Hussein in Baghdad or the Kurds in the north, ever felt that the United States would come to their assistance to overthrow this man. (…) I made clear from the very beginning that it was not an objective of the coalition or the United States to overthrow Saddam Hussein.” It is especially telling when it is revealed that the initial line of supposed solidarity that went out was really to keep Saddam’s army occupied in Iraq so the United States would run into less opposition from Iraqi troops in Kuwait. The Iraqi people who opposed the government were thus used for strategic purposes and the slaughter was immense in both Iraq’s predominantly Shia South and Kurdish North.

Actions speak louder than words although words can be utilized to use people for strategic purposes. The words are nothing but superficial statements made to justify every action taken by the powerful to convince people that they are always on the side of right in the great simplistic battle of right and wrong. Again, actions and actual results speak louder than words ever can.

The idea that it is the role of Western states to save the people of the “third world” seems like a subliminal pre-acknowledged consensus in many circles of Western society. Many people in power seem to favour using that language. In Canada it seems very common as of late, particularly in regard to the long U.S. backed occupation of Afghanistan. Back in 2007 when the New Democratic Party (NDP) was calling for the withdrawal of troops Prime Minister Stephen Harper said not to “abandon Afghans.” Here the assumption is made that the military presence once more is one of complete benign intentions. Rhetoric was made by Conservative Members of Parliament and Ministers of not leaving Afghanistan’s women to a horrible fate. The women of Afghanistan in particular, considering the misogyny of the pre-2001 Taliban government, are a favourite rhetorical tool for supporters of the war.

Of course the Western world, all save a few including MP George Galloway from the UK, was willing to turn a blind eye on the mujaheddin, precursors of the Taliban, when they were used to drive out the Soviets. The right-wingers and some liberals using the language of women’s rights may push for the continuation of the military occupation in Afghanistan, shutting down the voices of actual Afghan women, such as Malalai Joya, citing that if it wasn’t for Western intervention that they would (apparently) be killed, effectively silencing the sources of dissent on the basis of them coming from women. From the Western Saviour’s point of view the Western forces are in Afghanistan to protect women, therefore women in Afghanistan who speak out against the occupation are wrong to do so. Can someone truly be for women’s rights if they use rhetorical tactics like these to dismiss the courageous women who do speak out on the very basis that they are women?

I recall one time speaking to a co-worker about the mission and my reservations towards the military presence of Canadian troops there. His response was: “I think that country has been screwed over so much it needs some help.” There it is present again, the idea that exists among so many people in this part of the world that our motivations can only be beneficial to people in those other parts of the world. The idea of “we know what’s best for them” is so prevalent that there seems to be no real debate about it in mainstream discourse.

And how is Afghanistan? How much have we done for them? A recent report from Amnesty International presents a less than rosy picture. Half a million Afghans are now homeless due to the intense fighting between NATO forces and the insurgency and about 30,000 Afghans live in makeshift tents outside of Kabul in deplorable conditions. Unemployment and addictions to opiates has reached unprecedented levels. This insurgency made up of former Taliban, but also of Afghans who simply resent foreign presence in their country, is also ironically partly funded by NATO’s presence. Certain rural routes in Afghanistan are filled with insurgent and tribal fighters unfriendly to Western forces, but the military pays local (sometimes Taliban) militia safety payments in order to allow convoys full of supplies for troops to travel these routes unmolested. This money paid by Western powers goes directly to funding a brutal insurgency that only exists to resist the foreign military presence to begin with. In this case the only thing we are bringing is more war and helping to entrench a cycle of violence in Afghanistan. So much for liberation!

On top of all this the women of Afghanistan, the supposed reason why American, Canadian and European troops are stationed in Afghanistan, are not faring much better than they were under the Taliban. A report from 2011 cited that 87% of women had experienced physical, psychological and/or sexual abuse. All this has taken place under a Western-backed government made up largely of warlords that have virtually legalized spousal rape and recently backed a decree that officially states women to be subordinate to men. Ten years we have had our troops stationed in Afghanistan accompanied by relentless propaganda from both conservatives and liberals alike about our mission being to “free the women of Afghanistan”. We have a simplistic understanding of the reality in Afghanistan. It was not always as it is now. War, first external and then internal, was what brought it to its current state and it is nothing short of incredibly naive to believe that militarizing a society further will solve the problems.

This brings us to our next example: Libya. This is a recent story and the dust is still settling, so to speak, on the situation in this North African state and since Colonel Gaddafi’s killing the issue has largely disappeared from world media. The uprising began largely peaceful and, like the Arab Springs in Tunisia and Egypt, may have truly been an expression of the peoples popular will against what was largely considered an authoritarian dictatorship, but things became more muddled and less clear cut, as they often do, as it went on. The United Nations, led by the Western states, but also including some support from Russia and China, backed Resolution 1970 that called for “a no fly zone” over Libya and for “the protection of civilians”.

There emerged an armed force opposing Gaddafi called the Libya Free Army which became the National Transitional Council once the rebels gained territory and began governing. The resolution stuck at first but the United States and other NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) states took actions beyond their initial mandate and directly intervened through aerial bombardment and assistance to the Libya Free Army. There is a debate to be had on when nations can intervene in the case of situations such as this one, but, as I am about to explain, the decision of NATO leaders to go beyond their international mandate led to disastrous results on the ground for many civilians in Libya.

The images of Colonel Gaddafi being lynched by the NTC has been broadcast around the world by now. People may feel mixed about if it is truly justice was what happened, but there are many other images we seldom, if ever, saw on our television screens. Although respected international human rights organizations called for an end to Gaddafi’s regime and for the protection of Libyan civilians, shortly after the civil war officially ended they seemed to be telling a slightly different story than the one we were told beforehand. Amnesty International, one of the most respected of these groups, cited that there was no concrete evidence that the Libyan government committed large-scale acts of killing against protestors. Amnesty only had media reports to go on for news on Libya before the invasion but now that Gaddafi was dead they had more access on the ground. The government, they found, did repress initial demonstrations, but the investigation cites that “there is no proof of mass killing of civilians on the scale of Syria or Yemen,” nor was there evidence of anti-aircraft guns being used against crowds, nor was there proof that black sub-Saharan African mercenaries were used by Gaddafi. This investigation also criticized Western media for portraying the conflict as one-sided and clear-cut. Most of the political parties in Canada continued to support the mission though, even the historically anti-war NDP.

When the NTC (National Transition Council) took Tripoli and other cities in Libya there emerged news of massive lynching campaigns against black Africans due to the rumours of Gaddafi hiring black mercenaries. The majority of those killed were sub-Saharan African migrant workers who had come to Libya in hopes of supporting their families back in their respective sub-Saharan countries. It is also reported that black African women were raped in refugee camps by rebels. The aerial bombardments by NATO have been found to have killed many civilians as well. The role of NATO going beyond its mandate led to these developments on the ground and it is nothing short of terribly ironic that a resolution that was made to protect Libyan civilians may have ended up killing so many of them. The dust settles on Libya and the story may be clearer in time. On this subject, a friend and staunch activist (@humhum83) captured much of the sentiment with the outcome when he once put it to me: “The NTC is shady at best.”

Where does this leave us? From the cases I have mentioned above (and there are so many other examples both historical and contemporary) what does this say about the role of the Western Saviour Complex? It is something very real and very present in the discourse of so many in the Western world, this idea that sprung from the colonial era and has survived in different forms throughout our neo-colonial era in this globalized world. Is there a place for people from the so-called First World to do anything positive for people in the so-called Third World? We hear of non-profit groups in the West wanting to go “introduce” organic farming in parts of Africa for instance, despite the fact that Africans have been practicing organic farming for thousands of years. If anything, perhaps people in Africa could teach people in the West on that subject.

There are, however various NGO’s and solidarity activists that arguably actually do make a positive difference in their contexts. Many of these groups are formed of people who are not only well-intentioned, but also well-informed of the contexts in which they work and are capable of showing some humility in their work. In this day and age the entire world is becoming more intertwined and interconnected on so many levels. It is worth asking how one can become a truly useful member of the global community who truly stands alongside other peoples from elsewhere in their struggles. A first step for anyone interested in such an undertaking would first examine the phenomenon of the Western Saviour Complex, question one’s assumptions about one’s own society and other society’s and their respective contexts.

This article is not meant to give a solution of how to become involved globally active for Western individuals or groups but to simply examine one of the major obstacles, that is, this prevalent mentality that does more harm than anything else. There are no clear answers to the world’s problems, but if one wants to form an opinion and contribute anything positive in other parts of the world then very first step to listen to others before speaking. A little humility can indeed go a long way.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 27, 2012 9:17 am

    Very important article. Always critical to remember how we act in echo of our historical predecessors.

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