As the smoldering monument to asininity that is the Trump administration lashes out at any target sufficiently disliked to provide a moment’s distraction, the great institutions of liberal democracy are running for shelter. In recent days, the President has hurled unprecedented verbal abuse at the European Union, NATO, NAFTA, the G7, the UN Human Rights Council, the free press, the global market, the rule of law – almost every policy axiom those in his esteemed position typically take for granted. The response, of course, has been seismic, at least in its rhetorical scale. “Is Trump at war with the West?” a recent Washington Post editorial inquired, following the more assertive New York Times OpEd, “Trump Tries to Destroy the West.” It is a question that has loomed large in the consciousness of the commentary class since Trump’s election, from the mindless lip-politics of CNN (“Donald Trump is dismantling the West”) to the arch-conservative never-Trumpers (National Review writer Jonah Goldberg’s recent bestseller, Suicide of the West, made more Trump-specific in David Brooks’s “The Murder-Suicide of the West”), to militant captains of Western liberalism like Angela Merkel.
The media obsession with the defense of a proverbial “West” begs clarification: what is the West? The punditocracy can’t mean the word in its literal, directional sense, since they are clearly not referring to South or Central America, the most populous and fastest growing region of the western hemisphere. If they are referring to geography at all, then it must be an innuendo for what Carl Oglesby labeled the Global North, the cartel of deeply interconnected and extravagantly wealthy countries that, two hundred years ago, sat at the helms of enormous extractive empires. The Global North (that’s Western Europe, northern North America, and Australia) is an efficient bloc. They have shared in the liberal capitalist consensus since its inception, and they have established impenetrable institutions to defend their political and economic interests in the name of Worldwide Human Progress. It is this institutional bloc that Trump has been disgracing (out of pedantic self-interest, not ideology). It is this institutional bloc, used to American presidential compliance, that is crying out in self-defense.
But is the West defensible? We will find only confusion if we look to corporate media, or to a deranged billionaire who accidentally assumed the world’s most powerful office, for answers. Instead, it is worth examining the relationship of the West with the non-West. The institutions of the Global North interact every moment with the lives of the Global South, and they leave a record (to paraphrase the great historian Eduardo Galeano) carved in blood and fire. Every day a new vein of history bursts into light, exposing how brutal the Liberal World Order is – and always has been.
No case can be clearer than the destruction unfolding in recent months in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where, for the second time in just over a century, the forces of power left a people shattered, abandoned to contemplate profound horror with their limbs severed from their bodies.
One hundred and ten years ago, the land that now constitutes the DRC was the personal dominion of King Leopold II of Belgium, a consummate figure of the West’s institutional liberal decency. Leopold was internationally renowned for his “philanthropic” gestures on the African continent, and particularly noted for funding the (still-)celebrated exploration of Henry Stanley. He also used a private mercenary army to terrorize people of his Congo Free State into dangerous and humiliating labor in rubber plantations, extracting billions of dollars by permanently destroying the nation’s agricultural base and lining the pockets of American capitalists such as J. P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller. Before he relinquished control of the colony to the Belgian parliament in 1908, he had murdered 10 million people – placing him close to Hitler in the race for the title of history’s most atrocious mass killer.
As he burned all records of his rule before his surrender to parliament, King Leopold told his associates, “I will give them my Congo, but they have no right to know what I did there.” But the Congolese remember. Among the many macabre intricacies of his blood-capitalist regime, one stands out as a particularly gruesome trademark of his power: in order to save ammunition, Leopold ordered his mercenaries to provide a human hand for each bullet they used. As if desecrating the bodies of those they gunned down was not enough, Leopold’s troops frequently used up bullets poaching the Congolese wildlife; then, to avoid punishment, they would cut off the hand of a still-living human being and force them back to work. Many thousands, if not millions, of the Congolese who survived their plantation holocaust were permanently mutilated. Leopold seared a generation of handless workers into the nation’s identity.
The photographs of Adam Desiderio (released alongside Nick Turse’s groundbreaking report for VICE News on August 1) and Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi (in the New York Times), show women and young children from the DRC’s Ituri province maimed in the exact same way. They are among the 350,000 refugees of a sudden wave of violence that began last winter, as men armed with machetes and bows and arrows ascended on the northeastern region, leaving a trail of destruction visible from outer space. As of yet, there has been no reliable death toll, though nobody would be surprised by many thousands killed. Survivors and human rights observers have confirmed at least 93 separate massacres in which villages were torched, women and children were raped and butchered, and survivors were sent fleeing with their bodies hacked apart. Somehow, under the dull cacophony of Russiagate and Stormy Daniels, this unfathomable destruction of human life and dignity went almost unnoticed in the media of the powerful West, and the little attention it received has proven at best to misattribute guilt and at worst grossly inaccurate.
Most mainstream reports on the killings have characterized them as “ethnic conflict” or even “ethnic cleansing” – characterizations that, at first glance, seem reasonable given the fact that the killers have mostly been members of Ituri’s majority Lendu population, and the victims have been largely part of the region’s Hema minority. The narrative of ethnic violence based on long-standing conflict serves the West in two ways: it plays neatly into the outdated colonialist vision of squabbling African tribes causing their own downfall, and it shields from blame anyone more powerful than a farmer in one of the poorest regions of the Earth.
But, as international experts and local survivors observe, the ethnic explanation fails to explain why two groups that have long intermarried, shared land, and developed cultural traditions together would, out of nowhere, begin one of the most disturbing conflicts in the world today. A New York Times article this April, one of the better accounts of the crisis published in the West so far, reported that the perpetrators seemed to have access to weapons and radio equipment that would be nearly impossible to find in Ituri, and that the Lendu attackers have been joined by mysterious figures speaking languages from outside the region. In Turse’s VICE News piece, he says locals are convinced of an “invisible hand” pushing Lendu militias to action. He was told by Hema community leader Hadji Ruhingwa Bamarki, “There is no conflict between the two communities. We don’t understand why we’ve been attacked. Who is behind this? This is well-organized disorder.”
Only a few reports, VICE and the Times included, have drawn the lines to the embattled President of the DRC, Joseph Kabila. Kabila has clung to power through many precarious and murderous machinations since his father and predecessor, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, was assassinated by his own child soldiers in 2001. After having postponed the scheduled 2016 elections for supposed security concerns, he faces a vote in December that he seems unlikely to (democratically) win. In February, before the flood of refugees had even begun, the Kabila-nominated president of the National Independent Election Comission, Corneille Nangaa Yobeluo, warned that violence in Ituri could change the election calendar. Shortly thereafter, the bloodbath began in earnest.
It is more than just speculation to accuse Kabila of this latest violence – anyone familiar with the recent history of the DRC and the two successive Kabila regimes knows that such tactics are well within the dictator’s wheelhouse.
And this is where even the best observers have fallen short. So far, there has not been a single analysis in the Global North that takes into account the global political and economic forces that pushed Kabila into power, that maintained his rule, and that have made the Democratic Republic of the Congo the site of more violent loss of human life than any other country in the modern world. This is a tragic but characteristic failure of Western media – without such an analysis in accessible media, the layperson has no way of knowing that what seems to be horrendous but inevitable violence in a weak corner of the “uncivilized” world is in fact the result of our western institutions, the sinister underbelly of our precious “civilized” world order.
The seeds of this summer’s horrific murder and mutilation were planted by institutional darling (and recent best-selling novelist) Bill Clinton, who in 1993 sent CIA agents to support the pro-Western government of Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, just across Lake Albert from the Ituri province. With Agency supervision, the Ugandans trained the Rwandan Tutsi warlord Paul Kagame (who Clinton called “one of the great leaders of our time”). Kagame then invaded Rwanda with an army of child soldiers, triggering a backlash from the Hutu majority that killed 800,000 and was immediately labeled the “Rwandan Genocide.” Under international pressure to restore “order,” Clinton increased the flow of arms to Kagame and his militias, leading to a Tutsi takeover of the country in 1994. All the while, Clinton’s eyes, and the eyes of the mining corporations that backed his administration, were across the border on the Congo.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo is larger, by land area, than all of western Europe, and while it is one of the world’s poorest countries in terms of income, it sits atop an astounding $24 trillion in mineable resources – more than the GDP of the entire United States. In 1994, the country (then called Zaïre) was ruled by the deranged kleptocrat Mobutu Sese Seko, who had come to power in 1965 with CIA support but by the 90s, after decades of serving Western capitalists loyally, had begun to nationalize major parts of the Congolese economy. So when Paul Kagame invaded the Congo from Rwanda in 1995, claiming that Mobutu was protecting the perpetrators of the Rwandan Genocide, the Clinton administration was ecstatic. Since Kagame had already promised to allow the West unlimited access to Congolese resources, he could do no wrong. The media lavished him with praise, business leaders gave his regime over $500 million, Clinton guaranteed him political coverage, and his army of child soldiers slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Congolese civilians in their campaign to overthrow Mobutu. After Mobutu surrendered the country in 1997, Kagame installed one of the most vicious warlords to collude in his invasion as the new President: Laurent-Désiré Kabila.
Laurent-Désiré Kabila made the first grave mistake of his presidency in 1998, when he privileged Chinese investors over his original American backers. Immediately, and with the renewed backing of the Clinton administration, Kagame invaded the DRC for the second time, this time with far more troops. In almost no time, Kabila was dead, Chinese-backed militias from Angola and Zimbabwe had launched a counter-invasion, and, as competing warlords shredded the country, investors from the United States, western Europe, and China were switching sides at a dizzying pace to make sure they kept their stake in the enormous mineral wealth. 5.4 million human beings died, vastly more than in any conflict since World War II, though the western media (according to the late great Edward Herman) spent twenty-six thousand times less attention per victim than they did in the concurrent Kosovo War. And in the midst of it all, the new President Joseph Kabila stayed in power by leaping from faction to faction, slaughtering the most vulnerable, and, most importantly, keeping his country’s resources open to American state and corporate power. In this sense he followed King Leopold II, who once wrote to his subordinates that in order to quell international protests, all they had to do was “Open up a strip of territory clear across the Congo State from east to west for benefit of American capital…In this manner, you will create an American vested interest in the Congo which will render the yelping of the English agitators and the Belgian Socialists futile.”
The relationship between American capital and the Congolese regime is a matter of longstanding public record (we know very well Presidents Bush and Obama sold Kabila weapons, and that NATO troops stationed in the DRC as UN Peacekeepers have protected his government from various rebel factions). But American journalists, even good ones, blatantly ignore that relationship, which aggressively their proposed solutions. Nick Turse, in his VICE article as well as in his otherwise extremely insightful Democracy Now! interview on Friday, claimed that the latest massacres were impacted by President Trump’s decision to reduce the US’s participation in UN Peacekeeping missions. This is plainly absurd. Turse himself reports (courageously) that Kabila’s government is the most likely instigator of the violence. He should know better than most that, since the United Nations recognizes Kabila as the DRC’s legitimate head of state, the primary role of UN troops in the DRC has been to protect his government’s legitimacy.
We all bear witness to Kabila’s connection to Washington and Wall Street in our day-to-day lives. The regime, and their client warlords, depend heavily on child slavery to mine the huge majority of the world’s cobalt (part of the battery in my phone), tantalum (inside the computer I am typing on), manganese (also critical to batteries), coltan (essential to computer circuits), as well as vast quantities of tin and gold. Major American tech companies have insisted that they no longer rely on “conflict minerals,” and the Dodd-Frank Act demanded that they track and curtail their use of such resources. But on-the-ground reporters find that the DRC still provides much of their supply, particularly of critical manganese and coltan, while miners are still mostly children who are rarely paid more than a dollar per day. Though the media still goes to surprising lengths to avoid acknowledging their facts, the violence of the Congolese president is extremely pertinent in our own understanding of our power as Americans and consumers.
Illuminating this relationship (not only what happens in the Congo, but how I and my country relate to what happens there) should be journalism’s central role. But such illumination of course asks us to challenge our core values with difficult questions. How does the enlightened West continue to justify bankrolling the most murderous regime of the modern world, a regime that is very likely slaughtering the people of Ituri with machetes as we speak? Why do our great institutions – the free press, the United Nations, NATO, etc. – fail repeatedly to curb his crimes? Why did the press celebrate his rise to power, why did UN Peacekeepers bolster his authority, why do the G7 smother him with cash, why did NATO arm his militias, why are his millions of victims (who outnumber Syrian Civil War casualties ten to one) kept invisible to Western eyes?
The answers are inconvenient but simple: those very institutions can not survive without unspeakable violence against huge numbers of people, violence Kabila provides on the cheap. The West, counter to its self-aggrandizing narrative, did not achieve global hegemony through the heroic purity of its ideals. The economic development of western Europe and North America (and their contingent philosophical modernization) was a direct consequence not of merit or hard work, but of the brutal extraction of value (in food, in gold, in human capital as chattel slavery) from the Global South that they colonized. As de jure colonialism fell out of style in the twentieth century, that need for free plunder remained. Our civilization is balanced precariously on top of an economic system that can only survive if the powerful take what they want from the powerless without compensation. The media will never value Congolese lives as long as the people of the Congo stand between capitalism and capital, whether that capital is slaves, or rubber, or coltan.
Without machete-severed hands in the Congo, there are no Great Nations of Europe. There is no roaring success of twentieth century capitalism. There is no liberal world order. There is no West.
Is Donald Trump and his populist tsunami out to destroy the old world order? Of course not, but I wish they were.