In Washington D.C. on 14 June 2010 at the Diplomacy Briefing Series Conference on Sub Saharan Africa hosted by the State Department, one participant who identified himself as Calvin Hayes asked Secretary of State Hilary Clinton the following question:
“Given the challenges of political battles associated with leadership in Zimbabwe, how is the Obama Administration showing that the foreign aid given to this area actually meets the people and their local communities? Is there a comprehensive strategy to measure the efficiency of our appropriated resources, the accountability of our disbursements, and the sustainability of our efforts both in Zimbabwe and countries in sub-Saharan Africa? If so, can you shed some light on the strategy? ”
Clinton blithely responded: “Zimbabwe is a very difficult challenge to us and to our policy. It is a country that has been woefully governed and misruled for a number of years now. Congressman Donald Payne, who had to leave for a vote, is probably, in the Congress – is he still here – there he is – is probably, in the Congress, the most knowledgeable, strongest advocate for African interests.
And when he tried to go to Zimbabwe a few months ago – right, Donald? The Government of Zimbabwe would not let him in because they don’t want somebody who has his expertise and experience actually seeing for himself all of the difficulties that are now apparent in Zimbabwe. And it’s very sad. It’s a tragedy. And we are working hard with South Africa, with the African Union, with other countries to try to assist the people of Zimbabwe. We’re doing primarily humanitarian assistance.”
She further stated that: “So we are trying to walk a line between supporting the people, keeping the pressure on the Mugabe leadership and working with South Africa to try to get that message across. But I’m not going to stand here and tell you we have some perfect formula, because it’s extremely difficult to try to do what we’re doing and really make a difference for the people of Zimbabwe.” She added: “the President just renewed sanctions against 220 individuals and entities associated with the Mugabe regime…… I’ve had two meetings with Prime Minister Tsvangirai in the last year to try to send a message that we support reform in Zimbabwe.”
This exchange between the Secretary of State and Calvin Hayes is instructive. It not only betrays American frustration with the unmitigated failure of its Zimbabwean policy but also reveals the reasons for that failure. A number of themes call out for a robust address; and America would do well to pay attention to them.
The State Department’s Credibility Deficit and American Hyperrealism
It has been pointed out correctly that the secretary of state misled her audience by informing them that Senator Payne had been denied entry into Zimbabwe when in fact he had visited the country on at least four occasions in the period that the secretary of state was referring to. At the height of the Iraq debate (when America was desperate to sell its case for invading Iraq and the exercise had run into serious difficulties) the then Secretary of State Collin Powell laced his presentation to the United Nations with falsehoods, terminological inaccuracies and blatantly perverse hyperbole. There are several other relevant examples of the State Department and its senior officials resorting to misinformation in order to buttress their arguments.
Whether or not Secretary Clinton knew that she was peddling false information at the time she gave her response is not of material importance. What is important is the fact that she has deliberately chosen not to correct her assertions weeks after it has been exposed that she is dealing in lies and inaccuracies, and by so doing has relegated herself into the league of liars.
After Collin Powell’s failed attempt to pull off a gigantic confidence trick at the United Nations was exposed, he too never withdrew his presentation or acknowledged publicly that he had erred. Well, there have been loud murmurs that Powell was deliberately misled, but surely that is a feeble defense. A man incapable of distinguishing the difference between truths and improbabilities is not suited for high office.
Hilary Clinton’s reputation of subjecting the truth to cosmetic surgery by resorting to decorative phrases, extravagant exaggerations and outright lies preceded her to the state department. When her faltering presidential campaign had degenerated into terminal decline, she told the world of how she artfully dodged bullets and bombs during her trip to the Balkans. However, resourceful journalists soon exposed that nothing of the sort had happened as footages of a congenial Hilary walking in a tranquil environment were unearthed and published for all to see that the self proclaimed “artful dodger” was after all an artful liar.
It serves no useful purpose to taunt the State Department for its dealing in falsehoods. However, it has to be underscored that whenever such lies come to light, the fragile image of the department is further dented and sullied. By dealing in falsehoods the state department is not just show-casing incompetence but deliberately engaging in deception. It is indisputable that to some significant extent the US foreign policy is based on deception. It is thus bound to fail because lies have a short shelf life. Lies that dovetail neatly into US foreign policy have created a Credibility Deficit. The US needs both allies and surrogates to play the mid wife to its policies. By casting itself as a thoroughly dishonest interlocutor, the US has severely eviscerated its ability to attract reliable allies and surrogates, and consequently does not always receive the support that it requires. Many know that the US lied about Iraq and therefore sparingly support the US initiatives there. Likewise many are wise enough to see through some of the obvious US lies about Zimbabwe; and therefore no self respecting African is willing to be a surrogate of the US’s Zimbabwe policy. Unless the US addresses the Credibility Deficit, it will experience more frustrations in Africa.
How can the well resourced State Department get it so wrong? The answer lies in a phenomenon called hyperrealism. Jean Baudrillard, the French philosopher argued that the media’s preoccupation with filtering the information that it somehow force –feeds onto its captive consumers has transported us into a “hyperreal” society. Overreliance on filtered information has blurred the distinction between “reality” and its “simulation”. This is the pestilential malady afflicting the State Department, and indeed the whole discourse on the Zimbabwean Crisis.
The West has based its policies on filtered information manufactured by the media, NGOs and other non state actors some of whom are phantoms existing merely in name. Whole governments and sometimes even academics in the west have formulated positions also based on filtered information, such as the perverse inaccuracies of Hilary Clinton. When it comes to Zimbabwe, the west, its media barons and many that unsuspectingly feed from its lap, now inhabit a world of hyperrealism that is grossly at variance with the reality in Zimbabwe itself.
It was predicted that Zimbabwe would descend into a genocidal conflagration that would dwarf the Rwanda calamity in scope and savagery. That did not happen. It was predicted that Zimbabwe would become the next Somalia, triggering western governments to engage in simulation exercises in preparation for rescuing their citizens; that too did not happen. A military coup was predicted, but that has not materialized. In 2000 it was predicted that the government would not survive until December. All these predictions were awry because they were based on a “hyperrealistic” analysis of the Zimbabwean situation.
It is a scourge to be black
Research shows that up to today the Rwanda calamity in which more than a million people perished has not received as much coverage as the Zimbabwe situation. Why is this so? Again the answer lies in information filtration. The reason there is so much hyperbole about Zimbabwe is that 12 whites perished in the initial stages of the land redistribution exercise. Discussing racism does not make one racist. Violence of any kind is deeply revolting and should be condemned; and the death of one man regardless of his ancestry is one death too many more so if he perishes at the hands of his fellowmen.
At the advent of the Inclusive Government some political activists of black African ancestry were in detention. The hope was that they would be released soon after the swearing in of the new government. When this did not happen, gentle murmurs and groans rumbled harmlessly in the foreign media and within the government itself. There never was talk of pulling out of government. Many months later, one Roy Bennet was detained on treason charges, within hours the frenzy in the media had reached a crescendo and black men; whose skin is jet black who had previously frowned harmlessly at the detention of fellow blacks for whatever reason; were boycotting cabinet and calling for regional summits to prevail upon the powers that be to save this man from the indignities that he might be subjected to. The reportage on Zimbabwe was deliberately filtered to mask this aspect.
When asked to articulate US policy towards Zimbabwe Clinton said, “I’m not going to stand here and tell you we have some perfect formula.” Everyone who has been to school knows that any action not based on a proven formula is basically an experiment. Put more bluntly, the so called “targeted sanctions” are an experiment. After ten years of this experiment the politicians have not been impoverished, but the ability of the government to respond to the needs of the people has been severely affected. Zimbabwe has experienced droughts, famines, and outbreaks of disease before. However, Zimbabwe has always mustered an adequate response to these challenges. The reason there was so much loss of life due to the famine and outbreak of cholera in 2008 is that the government’s ability to mobilize resources to fight these scourges was severely curtailed by the so called “targeted sanctions” whose effects are in reality not targeted at the politicians but at the general population. Faced with this perverse fact one ought to ask-Is it a scourge to be black and do black lives matter?
The Pavlovian Bell Phenomenon
Pavlov conditioned his dogs to associate the ringing of the bell with food. The dogs got so used to it that when the bell was rung they would automatically begin to salivate and bark even if there was no smell of food. The response of the dogs was no longer informed by fact but by the sound of the bell.
The greatest tragedy in the Zimbabwean Saga is the entrenchment of the Pavlovian Bell Phenomenon. The mere mention of the word Zimbabwe triggers the worst possible nightmares in the psyche of the West. The Pavlovian Bell Phenomenon has become a relevant metaphor for the Zimbabwean situation because it succinctly captures the calamitous habit of the West and some African collaborators to disengage and recoil from the sphere of reason action, and resort to choreographed and rehearsed actions not informed by fact. The West’s response to Zimbabwe is not informed by fact, but by the mere mention of the word and the nightmares that it conjures. Nothing demonstrates this more graphically than Clinton’s response to Calvin Hayes.
When Zimbabwe was mentioned, Clinton became animated. What are the facts? The targeted sanctions did not achieve the desired aim. They have neither occasioned the suffering of politicians nor resulted in regime change. They have achieved the unintended consequence of grievously afflicting the ordinary people. Years ago the US enunciated its policy of selective patronage characterized by working with chosen individuals and civil society in Zimbabwe; this has just enriched some individuals but has come nowhere close to effecting regime change. As for the assertion that, “We are working with South Africa”, nothing can be farther from the truth. The truth is that the US has been working on South Africa and some African countries in an attempt to turn them into surrogate states that can impose the US will on Zimbabwe at the prodding of the master. This policy has also failed. There is also nothing new with the current attempts to divide the Inclusive Government by identifying surrogate individuals and financing and sponsoring their ministries and their pet projects.
For the past ten years the West has with unremitting intensity sought to drive a wedge between individuals in the government (by placing some on the sanctions list and excluding others); between different political parties and between the government and the people. It was presumed that by driving such a wedge hard the people would revolt, and the government would collapse as things fell apart. Well, some things have indeed fallen apart (among them the US foreign policy), but not the government. There is nothing new, nothing creative and nothing ingenious about US policy towards Zimbabwe.
Zimbabwe has failed to conform to all the textbook predictions and to the desires of the West because instead of engaging with the facts, the west has betrayed itself into a Pavlovian Bell type response, itself to a large extent created and fed by media hyperrealism. When the Pavlovian syndrome sets in, one rarely changes tact even in the face of mounting evidence of policy failure. As long as this remains the case, Zimbabwe will remain a cryptic puzzle to the west.
By George Rugare Chingarande
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