RATIONAL INTERVENTION

Posted in Rants on June 8th, 2009 by Ed

Americans aren't good at geography. Looking at the college-aged we continually see a legitimately terrifying level of ignorance about even the most basic concepts; 30% of 18-24 year olds can't the Pacific Ocean, 11% can't find the United States, and 70% can't find New Jersey on a U.S. map. Most of us, even people who have high levels of education, can't find our asses with both hands in our rear pockets. If we can't find Vermont I don't even want to imagine how well most of my countrymen would do with an African map.

Be honest. You're pretty smart. If I handed you a blank continent, how many countries do you think you could label? I'm guessing the average American would get South Africa (maybe) and that's it. Maybe Egypt. Maybe well-educated people could pick out two or three others. We do badly at this sort of thing, mostly because we consider most of the continent utterly irrelevant to global issues on the minds of most Americans. True, Africa makes it tricky; the 53-nation continent has three Guineas, two Congos, and some phonetic games (Niger vs. Nigeria, Gabon vs. Gambia, Mauritania vs. Mauritius) which thwart even the well-intentioned.

This is a long way of explaining why nobody gives a shit about Guinea-Bissau even though we should.

The interests of Washington and the Pentagon (including the rare instances in which they don't overlap) don't care about places like this. It's small, it has no economic value to the Western world, and it lacks immediate relevance to our boogeyman of the moment (Communism, terrorism, etc). Most people hear the name and think "Is that a real country?" much more often than "I wonder how their political crisis is being resolved?" We also tend to look at the problems of Africa as, as Red Sox fans would say, just Manny being Manny. Coups? Economic collapse? Famine? AIDS? Well, that's Africa for you. Just Africa being Africa. But if one could ever make a case for American imperialism, for "intervention" in the domestic affairs of a faraway nation, a place like Guinea-Bissau would be a good example.

In the past three months, G-B has taken several big steps toward becoming West Africa's Somalia – a lawless, ungoverned madhouse and magnet for international criminal activity. On March 2, long-time President/Whatever "Nino" Vieira was assassinated, an event which garnered Page 50 news coverage in the West. While G-B suffers from "Bigmanism" in its governance as much as the rest of Africa and Vieira was far from an enlightened leader, the murder of a head of state used to be cause for concern in Washington. Not so in this case. Nor did it trouble anyone when on June 5, three candidates for the upcoming election were murdered at the hands of the armed forces. As the nation's military is insufficiently competent (or equipped) to actually govern the country, their insistence on doing so is troubling.

It is troubling because this is how the seeds of international issues are sown. Had we recognized these warning signs in the Sudan twenty years ago, for example, it might not be the monument to genocide and terrorist safe havens that it is today. While dictatorship is common across the continent, what we're seeing here is a country in the first stages of complete collapse, the end result of which will leave them unable to control their borders or put up even the pretense of controlling what goes on within them. In time it will become a Club Med for terrorists like Somalia, a violent narco-state like Colombia, or a jumping-off point for civil wars and violence throughout the rest of Africa. The people "running" this nuthouse will need a source of foreign currency, and it ain't going to come from exporting bananas.

While the American record of propping up dictators in countries like this is far from exemplary, the international community could continue to prod ECOWAS into taking a more active role in maintaining the stability of West Africa's more troubled areas. If imperialism doesn't work (and it rarely does) the least we can do it support and encourage self-governance. West Africa is not entirely unstable; compared to Sub-Saharan and Saharan Africa it looks downright sane. We have to believe that there are solutions to these problems from an international perspective. Otherwise we ignore them, insisting that there's nothing to be done, and then in ten or fifteen years we act surprised when Guinea-Bissau has become a hotspot for the foreign policy malady of the day.

Yet if we could find five people, even in the State Department, who could locate Guinea-Bissau I'd be shocked. As the colonial French used to say, C'est l'Afrique.