Nigeria and the Obama Administration

Nigeria and the Obama Administration           


Howard Adelman

This past Sunday, John Kerry traveled to Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, to meet President Goodluck Jonathan and show solidarity in Nigeria’s fight against Boko Haram, the radical Nigerian Islamist movement that developed a highly militant program in 2009 since Obama took office. The visit comes just after Islamist Boko Haram fighters captured the north-eastern Nigerian town of Monguno 146 km north of the strategically-located northeastern Nigerian city of Maiduguri. Boko Haram then attacked Maiduguri itself, the capital of Borno State, its population already swollen by thousands of IDPs who had fled to the city. Boko Haram had failed to capture the city in its last assault in December 2013. This latest attack was repelled by a mixture of Nigerian troops and “volunteers,” reinforced by air strikes against Boko Haram positions.

In his press conference, Kerry stressed the importance of the scheduled February national elections being peaceful and setting “a new standard.” He elaborated: “We are prepared to do more [to counter the threat of Boko Haram], but our ability to do more will depend to some degree on the full measure of credibility, accountability, transparency and peacefulness of this election.” Though America has been supplying not only advice, but military training and equipment to help the Nigerian government in its fight against Boko Haram to “professionalize the response of its security forces, including to respond to crime and terrorism,” it has always been with a caveat emphasizing “human rights, civilian protection and adherence to rule of law at all levels.” No such qualifications seemed to have accompanied the supply of Navy Seals to fight the Lord’s Resistance Army.

I am puzzled. Truly puzzled. America has 150 special forces Naval Seals in landlocked Central African Republic (CAR) and has authorized the deployment of 150 more to try to eliminate Joseph Kony when Kony has only 200 followers left and when he is cornered by four African armies. Though America also insists it is fully in support of Nigeria’s fight against Boko Haram in north-eastern Nigeria, the U.S. cut off the resale by Israel of helicopters to Nigeria, helicopters ostensibly crucial to the fight against Boko Haram. Boko Haram, though not directly involved in any war against the West and has no official relationship with other militant Islamicists, openly identifies with Al Qaeda and Islamic State, sometimes imitating their tactics. Boko Haram is part of the loose international network of radical Islamic forces at war against the U.S. and the West. In contrast, Kony is the leader of an exhausted idiosyncratic and isolated Christian militant sect that poses no danger to the U.S. Further, Boko Haram is estimated to have 9,000 fighters, not 200.

I need your help in puzzling through this seeming paradox, but I will make an initial stab at it, first by elaborating on American policy towards Nigeria in its fight against terrorism. Sunday, I will provide some background on Boko Haram itself and recent developments in Nigerian history. Only then will I attempt to answer more fully my initial puzzle.

America’s vetoing of the helicopter sale was explained in terms of “consistency with U.S. policy interests.” Further, the veto was procedurally correct since “requests for one country to transfer U.S.-origin defense items to another country” require American approval in accordance with the U.S. Conventional Arms Transfer Policy and American norms are stricter than the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms to which Israel, de facto, subscribes that restricts transfers “where there is imminent risk that arms might be internally diverted, illegally proliferated and re-transferred, or fall into the hands of terrorists or entities and states that support or sponsor them.”

Third, there were allegations of human rights abuses committed by Nigerian troops. Amnesty International in its August 2014 report claimed to have both video footage and testimonials that suggest that the Nigerian military has been involved in war crimes. American aid is dependent upon and emphasizes “human rights, civilian protection and adherence to the rule of law.” The regulations on arms transfers forbid them when retransfer is to a recipient “who would [not could] commit human rights abuses or serious violations of international humanitarian law.” However, well-founded allegations of human rights abuses by the Ugandan army did not prevent the U.S. from supplying the Ugandan army with equipment, training and seconded training forces.

But what were the policy interests? Human rights? U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, James F. Entwistle, had signaled last October that American was concerned that arms transfers could affect “the human situation.” The U.S. requires that, for the sale of military equipment, such as the Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopters at $40 million each, “the risk that significant change in the political or security situation of the recipient country” must be taken into account lest the sale result in “inappropriate end-use.”

Is the American State Department worried that the government of Nigeria is so precarious that there is a danger of a takeover by Boko Haram, at least of the three northeastern states of Nigeria? Then, the helicopters could fall into Boko Haram’s hands. But this merely replaces one paradox with another. That is, we can supply Uganda with arms because the government is strong and the LRA is now so weakened that it poses no real challenge to Kampala. On the other hand, the government of Goodluck Jonathan in Nigeria is apparently so weak, militarily at least, that giving Nigerian troops helicopters is too risky. Or is the veto of the Chinook helicopter sale a shot across the bow to signal Israel that such cancellations are at the President’s discretion? Is Obama signaling that he could stop military transfers to Israel itself?

In other words, if your country is strong and your enemy is very weak, the U.S. will supply weapons. But if the government is at all precarious and the enemy is strong – the very reason the government desperately needs the weapons – then that is a situation where America cannot and will not risk supplying weapons. This Catch-22 on the surface seems so absurd as not to be plausible. But is it?

America has a large training program for Nigerian forces in its fight against Boko Haram. However, Barak Obama in his address to the United Nations on the threat of Islamicism stressed education and enlightenment rather than the use of force. “The ideology of ISIL [Islamic State] or al-Qaida or Boko Haram will wilt and die if it is consistently exposed and confronted and refuted in the light of day.” Without asking how exposing, confronting and refuting Islamicist ideology can help or even be critical in the fight against radical Islam, in particular, and against Boko Haram in northeastern Nigeria, does such a policy square with the military support the U.S. does provide Nigeria for its fight against Boko Haram and this emphasis on enlightenment?

A partial explanation may be economic not humanitarian or military. In 2008, America imported almost a million barrels of Nigerian crude per day, 44% of Nigeria’s oil exports. Nigeria was the fifth largest supplier of oil for the U.S. market, slightly down from the over a million barrels average per day imported between 2004 and 2007. Because of the shale revolution and the move back to self-sufficiency in oil for the U.S., the U.S. now produces almost 10 million b/d with a large portion from its Bakken, Eagle Ford and Permian Basin fields. This has totally upended the 2001 Cheney report which defined Nigeria as a core national security interest because of its production of oil and American reliance on those oil imports. In the first quarter of 2014, imports of Nigerian crude by the U.S. continued to decline from the old norm of 90 million barrels per quarter to just over 25 million. Then they fell off the cliff altogether. For six weeks, between July and mid-August of 2014, the U.S. did not import a single barrel of Nigerian crude. There was a similar story between mid-October and 7 November. The oil trade between Nigeria and the U.S. is no longer one of “follow the money,” but the reality that there is NO money to follow.

Just recall that in December 2000, the U.S. National Intelligence Council of the CIA predicted that Africa would be supplying 25% of America’s total oil imports by 2015. What a transformed situation! Asian imports have picked up some of the slack, but only some, and at a much lower per barrel price. And the economic drop has not only come from the fall-off in oil exports, but also from the rapid decline in national receipts for bids for exploration blocks and the drop in large sums traditionally invested in oil infrastructure – drilling platforms, pipelines, loading facilities, production machinery, transportation, etc. Instead of West Africa replacing the Middle East as the number one exporter of oil to the world as predicted ten and even five years ago, instead of posting significant production increases, West Africa, and Nigeria in particular, has posted production declines. This has meant not only a significant decrease in income to the federal Nigerian government, but also that the U.S. has lost the ability to strong arm Nigeria using the oil import card. As a result, the U.S. may have had to fall back on the military export card.

But that too has a back side. In the 1990s, when American policymakers foresaw increased dependence on oil from Africa, and, therefore, demarcated Africa as a primary national security interest, the U.S. dramatically increased its military involvement in Africa. As the need for African oil – though not necessarily other resources – has declined precipitously in the last five years, America has been preaching African military self-sufficiency. More particularly, whereas the U.S. provided military support to undemocratic and repressive regimes in Nigeria, the U.S. now declines to do so unconditionally. Just when its economic leverage is lowest, America has increasingly used its 2004 expansion of its 1997 Africa Crisis Response Initiative (ACRI), renamed as African Contingency Operations Training and Assistance (ACOTA), as leverage. However, the U.S. no longer has the same justification that U.S. military aid was needed to secure its oil supply.

However, U.S. security assistance is also provided to Nigeria through ACOTA, the Anti-Terrorism Assistance program. Is this not sufficient incentive for the U.S. and its war on terror, particularly against radical and militant Islam?

In the beginning of the Obama administration, the emphasis was on the Niger Delta, the source of Nigeria’s oil. The U.S. was concerned with the rise of terrorist and separatist forces there. On 12 August 2009, during her trip to Africa, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Nigerian Foreign Minister Ojo Maduekwe that the U.S. supports the efforts of the “Nigerian Government’s comprehensive political framework approach toward resolving the conflict in the Niger Delta.” Since that was the source of oil, this was understandable. But even then, military cooperation was totally proportionate to Nigerian efforts.

However, the new threat that has been developed since then has been from the northeast sector. The incentive to continue military support for Nigeria raises its head because of the threat of radical Islamic terrorism. So why all the qualms and conditions? Without the issue of protection of the oil interests, direct U.S. military intervention was never on the table. Instead, the policy required the smallest U.S. signature in any initiative. The stress was on capacity building and thickening intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance related to national cooperation, but now conjoined with democratic and human rights improvements.

Thus, even though Obama retained Defense Secretary Robert Gates as well as Army Chief of Staff, General George Casey, their efforts focused on security assistance, even to repressive and undemocratic governments, provided the countries were either direct U.S. allies (Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya and Ethiopia) or rich in resources needed by the U.S. such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. How does this impact on the increasing threat of Boko Haram to Nigerian stability?

A CNN commentator, satirized in the Nigerian media, was responding to Maj. General James “Spider” Marks clarification on why there was zero (not just reduced) military aid to Nigeria in its fight against Boko Haram. Black West Africa is not a priority, the commentator suggested. Not West Africa! Not Nigeria! But BLACK West Africa. Yet BLACK Uganda was a priority? The commentator said that, although the U.S. has the means and capability to help us combat/possibly rid us of Boko Haram, the U.S. was committed elsewhere.

In a long term effort, the U.S. could, even unilaterally, do almost anything needed to rout Boko Haram. But Nigeria is not a priority. Defeating militant Islamic terrorism is not a priority. Defeating international militant Islam is, though Obama is always careful to dub it terrorism and not Islamic or religious terrorism. It is not because Nigeria is black or the terrorists are black. Racism is not the differentiating factor. The reduction of Nigeria as an economic and, hence, national security priority, conjoined with the Obama priority on human rights and democracy as conditions for military assistance, except where the countries are explicit allies, are key factors.

Kerry at Davos, before he left for Abuja, spoke at length on the threat to the world from Islamist extremist groups, including Boko Haram. But upon his arrival, he did not focus on the insurgency in the northeast, but of ensuring fair presidential and parliamentary elections in the lead up and on 14 February. The United States has even pressed for the elections to proceed despite the raging violence in northeastern Nigeria, even though Nigeria’s national security adviser, Sambo Dasuki, recommended that polling be delayed, especially in the northeast where tens of thousands have been displaced and three million live in fear.

Perhaps Boko Haram had learned its lesson when it brought the wrath of the U.S. down upon itself when it planned a terror attack on U.S.-bound Northwest Airlines flight on 25 December 2009. Don’t threaten America – just Nigerian schoolgirls, the public, the police, the army, politicians, moderate Muslim clerics, and even businessmen and Christians. America’s involvement in anti-terror programs had not evolved in proportion to the increased threat in the northeast because the terrorist threat in the Niger Delta from the Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta (MEND) significantly diminished.

The decline seems to have had no relationship to the efforts of the Nigerian legislature to pass anti-terrorism legislation between 2006 and 2009. Besides, MEND was always been classified as simply a militant not a terrorist threat. But the anti-terrorism legislation clearly had no impact on a real and growing terrorist threat in the northeast. Nevertheless, critical arms were denied to Nigeria. Boko Haram could wreck all the havoc it wanted as long as Nigeria was not allied with the U.S., was of no overt economic prime interest to the U.S., and the insurgents were not engaged in ‘international’ terrorism. In fact, even as the lethality ratcheted up, military aid could decline.

Bright and promising young security professionals were increasingly sent to Western-sponsored seminars to improve local capacity for effectively countering terrorist threats, but, at the same time, stressing the need for them to protect human rights and enhance democracy. The U.S. Department of Defense’s Counterterrorism Fellowship Program built relationships and developed networks of cooperation. Technology and infrastructure were supplied for detection and recording (early warning), but the supply of lethal force has been inadequate, though aid has been forthcoming to develop appropriate legal frameworks and institutional capacity to counter terrorism.

Ambassador Samantha Power, the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, addressed the Security Council on action to sanction Boko Haram and hold its leaders accountable by adding Boko Haram to the UN’s 1267 sanctions list. The Security Council helped close off funding sources, travel and weapons supplies for Boko Haram. But demonstrations of world unity and such measures, however beneficial, do little to mitigate Boko Haram’s growing strength unless sufficient military supplies of the right type and training are forthcoming.

Samantha Power said, “Last weekend in Paris, the United States and our partners agreed to assist Nigeria in developing a comprehensive strategy to address Boko Haram’s threat to the region by strengthening regional cooperation on counterterrorism, including intelligence sharing and border security. Today’s listing also supports and facilitates regional cooperation in confronting Boko Haram. The United States has been working with Nigeria to provide critical tools and support for confronting Boko Haram, like helping professionalize its military; working on law enforcement so that they can better investigate and assist in hostage situations; and providing economic assistance, including education and job training programs, to help lift people out of poverty and provide an alternative to extremist ideologies.” But one would have to wait eons and arms supplies would not be mentioned. The U.S. is not, counter to what Samantha Power said, “doing everything we can to help the people of Nigeria bring back their girls and…eliminate Boko Haram,” though it will increase its efforts to refute Boko Haram’s “backwards and bloodthirsty ideology,” as if this was an ideological debate. After 17 April 2013, Obama did send “military experts to help track down more than 200 girls seized in a ‘heartbreaking’ kidnapping,” but not the helicopters crucial to freeing them. Outrage and saying NO are just milquetoast.

When the threat is adequately described and analyzed on Sunday, this pusillanimous response will be seen as totally inadequate.


All the President’s Men

No Women in the White House


Howard Adelman

Last evening I stayed up with a friend to watch All the President’s Men, the 1976 Hollywood movie directed by Alan Pakula that starred Robert Redford as Bob Woodward and Dustin Hoffman as Carl Bernstein, the two young, inexperienced but hungry reporters in their late twenties working on the city desk of the Washington Post who, in the movie, were portrayed as exclusively responsible for breaking the Watergate scandal. That scandal was not simply about the break-in of the Democratic Party headquarters in Washington in June 1972. That was only the tip of the iceberg. The movie revealed a vast conspiracy involving the Department of Justice, the FBI, the CIA and eventually the White House involved in an organized covert effort to deliberately and illegally subvert democracy and undermine the core values of the constitution of the United States. What the movie does not reveal is that the Washington Post – and Hollywood – were part of a parallel conspiracy.

Near the end of the movie, journalists were portrayed as paranoid and in fear of their lives, though this may easily have been a matter more of William Goldman’s script and Pakula’s direction than reality. The movie is a paean to journalism in general and investigative journalism in particular. Near the end of the movie, the film portrays the Fifth Estate as transformed into the heroic saviour of democracy. Journalists are the gutsy source of the revelation of truths that others are too fearful to admit. So the heroic spin by the reporters themselves and their Hollywood hacks would have us believe.

The movie as a reverential portrayal of investigative journalism depicts the process of connecting the dots that lead to the initial discovery that the original Watergate break-in involved James W. McCord, a former CIA agent, and four Cuban-Americans with CIA ties connected with E. Howard Hunt, another former CIA man. Most surprising of all, those clues lead to Charles Colson, Richard Nixon’s own Special Counsel, who just happened to be having a romantic dalliance with a fellow reporter at the Washington Post. Following the dictum of Woodward’s Deep Throat to follow the money, clues lead to Nixon’s own Committee to Re-elect the President (CRP which became popularly known as CREEP), to former CREEP treasurer Hugh W. Sloan, Jr., and the chair himself, John Mitchell, Nixon’s Attorney General.

That revelation, in turn, led to H.R. (Bob) Haldeman, the second most powerful man in the U.S., Nixon’s Chief of Staff in the White House, and eventually Nixon himself, but this last link is mentioned only as a note at the end of the movie as was the impeachment proceedings against Nixon and his eventual resignation in disgrace. In addition, what is left out is the revelation in Haldeman’s own diaries, The Ends of Power, published after his death in 1993 (after refusing medical treatment for cancer as he was a Christian Scientist) that Nixon himself was the key initiator of the program of dirty tricks and the Watergate cover-up. The movie ends with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein typing up their blockbuster breakthrough just as Nixon is being inaugurated for his second term.

What is also left out, and what is arguably much more important, is that the Washington Post was part of an equally large conspiracy to subvert democracy. After all, Herbert Hoover as head of the FBI had been blackmailing presidents for decades to ensure that the FBI remained an autonomous power immune to democratic accountability. For Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein and even Ben Bradlee – though the latter information is omitted in the film since Bradlee was a cooperative aid in developing the script – all knew that Deep Throat was, in fact, the Associate Director of the FBI and de facto real head of the FBI. Mark Felt was Deep Throat and admitted to this to John D. O’Connor for his 31 May 2005 Vanity Fair article on Deep Throat, an admission then confirmed by Ben Bradlee. Bob Woodward, who obviously had his manuscript prepared, during the summer published his account of his relationship with Mark Felt in The Secret Man: The Story of Watergate’s Deep Throat.

After J. Edgar Hoover died in May of 1972 (the Watergate break-in took place after his death, in August 1972), Clyde A. Tolson, Hoover’s heir-apparent and confidante for decades, who was also suspected of being his secret gay lover, was too ill then to assume control of the FBI. Mark Felt, third in line of command, became the de facto head. This was a role he continued to play even after Nixon failed to appoint him Director of the FBI but, instead, appointed L. Patrick Gray III as Acting Director the day after Tolson resigned because of his own ill health. Gray was never confirmed and in the short time her served, spent six weeks away from the office recuperating from an illness and much of the rest of the time touring regional offices to bolster the morale of the organization. Thus, even without the title. Felt ran the organization.

Nixon was not so much determined to get civilian control over the FBI as personal control. The secrets it held were too threatening to him. After all, the FBI under Hoover had been spying on elected democratic leaders for decades. Though Felt is now sometimes portrayed as the protector of democratic accountability, that depiction is both self-serving and hard to swallow. Felt himself was, following his retirement (it becomes clear why Hoover never wanted to retire), indicted and convicted of his own conspiracy to wiretap and break-in to the homes of civilians without any court orders. Felt, along with Edward S. Miller, was charged with authorizing FBI agents, without the benefit of a search warrant, to break into private homes on nine separate occasions in what were called “black bag jobs,” the same type of operation that the ex-CIA officer and his American-Cuban cohorts undertook in breaking into the Watergate headquarters of the Democratic Party.

Of course, Felt was in pursuit of the Weather Underground, relatively harmless minutia in the scheme of things; Nixon was in pursuit of political victory and power and targeted the Democrats when Edward Muskie was leading Nixon in the polls. However, the most continuing and arguably more serious conspiracy was the FBI’s continuing watch on the White House and its occupants long before the Watergate break-in.

Felt had been sideswiped in failing to become director and used the same methods he had absorbed at the feet of J. Edgar Hoover to bring down Richard Nixon. There were several ironies in the whole story, none of them mentioned in the movie which is a morality fable rather than a serious work of fiction or an honest documentary. First, Mark Felt had been initially promoted to his high office as third in command by the White House. Secondly, as mentioned above, Felt was charged himself specifically with breaking into the homes of relatives of the Weather Underground, that is, with “willfully, and knowingly combine, conspire, confederate, and agree together and with each other to injure and oppress citizens of the United States who were relatives and acquaintances of the Weatherman fugitives, in the free exercise and enjoyments of certain rights and privileges secured to them by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America.”

Felt was convicted. However, as a third irony, on 29 October 1980, former President Richard Nixon, who had been brought down by the efforts of Mark Felt, in his first court appearance since Watergate, testified as a defense witness for Felt on his appeal and insisted that all presidents since FDR had initiated non-court-authorized break-ins to counter espionage and subversion. Nixon had even made a donation to Felt’s legal defence fund. Felt was eventually pardoned by President Ronald Reagan on the ostensible grounds that their actions were not motivated by criminal intent but were sincere efforts, “necessary to preserve the security interests of our country.”

Nixon and Felt were two peas in a pod. The Washington Post had not only been used by one to exact revenge on the other, but in themselves covered up their source and the motivations for the leaks, thus becoming part of a contending conspiracy. Robert Redford, wearing all his badges of liberal rights, then, in turn, even in his 2013 documentary, hung to the heroic portrait and never acknowledged the dubious role that Hollywood had played in partnership with the Washington Post.

The movie, both at the time and subsequently, was widely acclaimed and won several awards, William Goldman for his script and Jason Robards for his portrayal of Ben Bradlee, the Washington Post editor who, in the movie, kept insisting on verifying and corroborating “the facts” but, in the movie, hiding the fact that he knew who Deep Throat was all along. The year before last, in Sundance Productions, Robert Redford’s own film production company, the follow-up documentary, All the President’s Men Revisited, was broadcast on television. That second movie included the revelation that W. Mark Felt, (MF, My Friend, in Woodward’s notebooks), played by Hal Holbrook in the original movie, was the real Deep Throat. Felt until 2005 had adamantly denied that he had been Deep Throat in his own autobiography, but in preparation to profit from that disclosure after his own death for his own family, bought back the half rights of his biography from his ghost writer, Ralph T. Toledano, without telling him why and that he had lied about having no connection with Deep Throat. (Evidently, as early as 1976, the prosecutor in a grand jury investigation, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, J. Stanley Pottinger, learned that Felt was Deep Throat; the secrecy of the proceedings preserved the secret for another thirty years though there were wide suspicions that Mark Felt was Deep Throat.)

That second documentary movie never pointed out the implications for the moviemaker’s or the Washington Post’s parallel serious ethical failings. Bob Woodward had known Mark Felt since May of 1972 when Felt provided him with secret information gathered by the FBI for a story he wrote on Arthur H. Bremer, who shot George Wallace. Only a month later, Woodward became the sluice gate for releasing information that Felt wanted unveiled in his determination to bring the Nixon White House down, initially telling him that E. Howard Hunt’s telephone number in the White House was in one of the Watergate burglar’s address book.

However, what stands out for me in re-watching the movie is, as we are all aware, that the supposed heroic pinnacle of newspaper investigative journalism has been significantly decimated. Second, the sense of malevolence portrayed in the movie of a conspiratorial mentality and set of actions seem so arcane and relatively minor because those values were in some ways mirrored by the actual behaviour of the journalists and subsequently institutionalized and magnified in the George W. Bush White House. Third, that malevolence seems more like university fraternity high-jinks compared to what takes place today. Fourth, Haldeman may have been a Christian Scientist, but power then was clearly divorced from religion. The events and the movie took place at a time when religion was not only not connected with the quest for power, but when the connection was hard if not almost impossible to envision, though the Iranian or Islamic Revolution took place less than five years after Nixon’s resignation.

Finally, what may seem totally inconsequential, the title is worthy of note. No one today could make a movie about the contemporary White House as All the President’s Men; women now play such a crucial part of the presidential team. To me, the movie revealed how dumb and clumsy men are as dissemblers and conspirators. Women are far better. But you would never know that by watching this film in which women are all portrayed as dupes and fearful tools of manipulative men, including and foremost our two intrepid reporters, when, as we watch a film that portrays men as clever, focused and highly dedicated, thorough and organized, actually, on closer examination, reveal themselves as clumsy fools.

As George Friedman of Stratfor, an analyst of strategic intelligence on global business, economic, security and geopolitical affairs that was itself scandalized by a Wikipedia leak, wrote, “This was not a lone whistle-blower being protected by a courageous news organization; rather, it was a news organization being used by the FBI against the president, and a news organization that knew perfectly well that it was being used against the president. Protecting Deep Throat concealed not only an individual, but also the story of the FBI’s role in destroying Nixon. The three acknowledged a secret source, but they did not reveal that the secret source was in operational control of the FBI. They did not reveal that the FBI was passing on the fruits of surveillance of the White House. They did not reveal the genesis of the fall of Nixon. They accepted the accolades while withholding an extraordinarily important fact, elevating their own role in the episode while distorting the actual dynamic of Nixon’s fall.”

What is worse, the major federal police as a rogue operation, breaking into private homes without warrants, threatening private citizens and blackmailing democratically-elected politicians or the White House using a federal police agency as a personal adjunct of presidential power to undermine opponents?

The International Criminal Court: Justice versus Judgment

The International Criminal Court: Justice versus Judgment


Howard Adelman

If mercy is almost inherently unjust (see yesterday’s blog), an international system of justice may be inherently merciless. A system of justice brought to the treatment of genocidaires, murderers and abductors is fraught with even more paradoxes than the humanitarian dilemma. On 16 December 2003, Yoweri Museveni, president of Uganda, referred the issue of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) to the International Criminal Court (ICC). Uganda became the first sovereign state to invoke Articles 13 (a) and 14 of the Rome Statute granting the ICC jurisdiction over domestic criminality.

On 13 October 2005, the ICC unveiled its first ever arrest warrants, though they were issued on 8 July. The delay was only a result of security preparations. Four leading LRA commanders, in addition to Joseph Kony, were indicted — Vincent Otti, Okot Odhiambo, Dominic Ongwen, and Raska Lukwiya. Today, only Kony remains at large and only Dominic Ongwen is under arrest in The Hague. One was killed in battle, one was captured by local militias and one, the peace negotiator, Victor Otti, was killed by Joseph Kony himself. All of them had been charged with a litany of war crimes and crimes against humanity dating only after mid-2002 since the ICC did not have jurisdiction before that date.

The United States Senate has not ratified the Rome Statute that President Bill Clinton signed in 2000. George W. Bush subsequently suspended the country’s signature. Barack Obama has never renewed the effort to sign the treaty. Instead, the United States has systematically sought and obtained bilateral immunity agreements with over 100 countries that American nationals would not be subject to prosecution outside U.S. borders. The U.S. also enjoys the protection of its status as a permanent member of the Security Council where it can veto any reference by the UNSC to the ICC. On the other hand, in 2008, Obama committed his administration to ensure justice for those who committed crimes against humanity and war crimes. Though Obama could accede to the Rome Statute in practice, that accession would have no possibility of being ratified by the Senate.

However, without even the Senate veto, there are at least four different reasons Obama will not sign the Rome statute:

  • The American Servicemembers’ Protection Act (ASPA 2002), which explicitly prohibits cooperation between the U.S. and the ICC, is still in force.
  • The Obama administration has no interest in resurrecting the issue of alleged American war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan and does not want to make Americans vulnerable to investigations by the ICC.
  • Given statements by high-level UN officials decrying American drone strikes that are part of Obama’s war on terror, and given those officials’ allegations that targeting civilian areas is illegal under international law and a war crime, the U.S. has no interest in placing these drone strikes under an international legal microscope.
  • The U.S. opposes an ICC investigation into Israeli actions during the Gaza War, for example, and opposes the Palestinian Authority requesting such an investigation.

Not only does exempting the U.S. from the jurisdiction of the ICC undermine the principle of universal applicability, it points out the inherent tension between the ostensible universal jurisdiction of the court and the authority of a sovereign state. America’s exemption from the Rome statute seriously impairs the principle of universal international jurisdiction of the ICC.

When the ICC issued the arrest warrants for the LRA-five for enslavement, rape, and inhumane acts, inflicting serious bodily injury and suffering, as well as twenty-one counts of war crimes, including cruel treatment of civilians, intentionally directing an attack against a civilian population, pillaging, rape, and the forced enlisting of children, it did so without reference to or under the authority of the United Nations Security Council, the premier international political body in the world. The ICC had positioned itself as a court of legal jurisdiction independent of the UNSC. Without taking away the right of the UNSC to refer cases to the ICC, this tension over the independence of the ICC from the UNSC was quickly and easily dissipated when the head of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, welcomed the indictments and hailed the initiative as sending “a powerful signal around the world that those responsible for such crimes will be held accountable for their actions.”

The second issue was trickier and was left unresolved. When Museveni referred the matter to the ICC, by that request for an indictment, was Museveni, at the same time, denying his own state, Uganda, legal jurisdiction over the LRA-five? When Dominic Ongwen was captured and handed over to the Ugandan army, Kampala initially wanted to try him. But others insisted that Uganda, by referring the case to the ICC, had already granted ICC primary jurisdiction. The conflict was resolved, but not the division over principles behind it, when Uganda voluntarily granted ICC jurisdiction on the basis that Ongwen was alleged to have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in several countries (Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan as well as Uganda) and, therefore The Hague would be a better place to try him. But Uganda never acceded to the principle that the ICC jurisdiction trumped that of the sovereign state of Uganda.

Many analysts are concerned that the ICC may undermine national justice systems. They offer a very strict and narrow interpretation of the complementarity provisions of the Rome Statute, namely that, “no case is admissible where a country is willing and capable of conducting its own prosecution.” The strict provision offsets a third concern, the potential manipulation of the ICC for political ends. Did Yoweri Museveni refer the LRA indictments to the ICC for political rather than legal reasons? Was it an effort to mobilize the international community behind Uganda to enhance Uganda’s efforts to eliminate the threat of the LRA?

This issue arose over the reference of the LRA-five to the ICC even before the indictments were issued. From the very beginning, the question was raised whether the charges were laid on purely legal grounds or was the issue of the arrest warrants a political act in partnership with Uganda to use international law to induce the commanders of the LRA to surrender? Earlier, the reference by Museveni of the LRA issue to the ICC put pressure on the government of Sudan. Suddenly, after the reference to the ICC, Sudan acceded to Museveni’s request that Sudan end its support for the LRA and wind up the LRA bases in South Sudan. A March 2004 Protocol to permit the UPDF to attack LRA bases in southern Sudan was also agreed upon. This was precisely at the moment that LRA abuses had reached their peak. The ICC appeared as having been used for national political purposes.

The fourth dilemma of the ICC and the international community, complementary to the one immediately above, was the tension between peacemaking and meting out justice. Kony wanted immunity from the jurisdiction of the ICC for both himself and his commanders. Most of the population on the ground wanted peace even if it meant Kony and his colleagues got away with their murder and mayhem. The bulk of the population had been interned in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps for ten years and did not want to surrender the opportunity to return to their home villages. Two million people, ninety percent of the population of Uganda’s northern Acholi provinces, had abandoned their homes presumably in exchange for shelter and security. The camps were not only crowded and unsanitary, but they had not even provided the security supposedly guaranteed. Instead, they offered a more concentrated target for raids and abductions than the widely dispersed villages.

The other side of the argument was that the failure to offer amnesty undermined peace efforts. Rebel forces would be alienated when they could not access the protection offered by the Ugandan government’s Amnesty Act of 2000. The ICC indictments counteracted the incentive to defect from the LRA. The Amnesty Act had guaranteed blanket amnesty for all rebels of any rank who voluntarily surrendered. Ugandan minister Betty Bigombe, backed by the United States, Britain, the Netherlands, Norway, and the Catholic Church, used amnesty as a negotiating tool. Face-to-face meetings between senior government officials and LRA leaders in 2004 almost resulted in a peace agreement. The issuance if the ICC indictments put the nail in the coffin of those efforts.

Bigombe loudly complained that the ICC had rushed getting out the indictments and had not given the peace channel enough time, scuttling her efforts. Even more seriously, the ICC charges, and the refusal of the ICC to set them aside, deprived future negotiators of an essential tool in negotiating peace. Archbishop Odama of the Gulu Catholic Archdiocese concurred. “This is a blow to the peace process…Confidence-building has been moving well, but now the LRA will look at whoever gets in contact with them as an agent of the ICC.” Peter Onega, chair of the Uganda Amnesty Commission, insisted that amnesty still applied to all other rebels not named in the indictment. But even then, there would be two countervailing forces. Rebels who tried to defect, or suspected of wanting to defect, would be killed by the senior commanders. Furthermore, ICC commanders below the top could not be sure they would not be indicted if they did defect. For both reasons, the ICC arrest warrants undermined peace efforts and, in particular, the role that amnesty could play.

This was not a new issue. At the time of the drafting of the Rome Statute, the Harvard Human Rights Journal (V. 19) adumbrated the problem. The journal raised the issue whether offers of amnesty should be complemented by suspension of indictments. Even more, it was argued that prosecutions would prolong conflicts since they would narrow the number of options available to the peace negotiators. Broader more exible measures in cases of mass atrocities might be more appropriate. On the other hand, there were fears that genocidaire leaders and those responsible for war crimes would escape punishment.

There was no resolution to the conundrum. Article 53(1)(c) was deliberately vague leaving it up to the ICC prosecutor, not the political and military negotiators, to decide “taking into account the gravity of the crime and interests of the victim” and balancing those factors against the interest in justice. The 1948 Genocide Convention and the 1949 Geneva Conventions had the same problem. They resolved the issue in the same way by creating a binding obligation to prosecute egregious crimes such as genocide, but taking into consideration the context of international armed conflict. It did so by an even vaguer phrasing, both with respect to the responsibility of the ICC, the extent of its reach, and the applicability and timing of its actions.

This discretional provision for jurisdiction from one perspective, seemed to provide wiggle room for political negotiators while keeping the principle of justice for perpetrators intact. After all, since Museveni referred the issue of indictments to the ICC, a number of former rebels and a high-ranking LRA brigadier did surrender under the Amnesty Act of 2000. In fact, it was argued, the fear of being indicted pushed those fighters to surrender while amnesty was still available.

Even though Kony had been pushed into a corner by the end of 2008, even though the peace negotiations between long-term the LRA and the African Union Forces had come a long way, the ICC believed that the cause of justice could not be sacrificed for the immediate gain of a promise of peace. Besides, almost no one trusted Kony to keep the peace. After all, he even had his chief peace negotiator and deputy killed for becoming too susceptible to the entreaties of the peace negotiators.

There were two other major tensions resulting from the ICC charges against Kony and his cronies. On the one hand, there were the charges of victor’s justice. On the other hand, there were the complementary accusations that the meting out of justice was unjust, for Museveni had himself been guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity or, the very least, widely alleged to have committed such crimes. Why had a warrant of arrest not been issued against Yoweri Museveni? At the same time as the actions of the ICC were widely lauded, many organizations criticized the ICC for its failure to take broader action against human rights violations perpetrated by the government in Kampala.

In the effort to decimate the LRA, the Ugandan army, the UPDF (United People’s Defense Forces), “bombed and burned down villages, thus fueling the displacement of the Acholi.” Further, the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative and the Refugee Law Project documented numerous accounts of rapes and sexual attacks against women by UPDF soldiers and of killing civilians found outside IDP camps. In effect, Uganda was accused of setting up forced internment camps in the guise of “protection camps” or “protected villages.” These “protected villages,” which often lacked food, clean water, sanitation, and medicines, were safeguarded by local militias or the Ugandan national army. Nevertheless, the inhabitants remained easy targets. They continued to be maimed, raped, murdered, and abducted by the LRA—and reportedly mistreated by un-disciplined UPDF soldiers as well.

Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the ICC’s chief prosecutor, defended his decision not to lay any charges against individuals in the Museveni government and only charge LRA top commanders by insisting that, “[w]e analyzed the gravity of all crimes in Northern Uganda committed by the LRA and Ugandan forces. Crimes committed by the LRA were much more numerous and of much higher gravity. . .We therefore started with an investigation of the LRA.” It was the number of crimes and the gravity of the crimes not the fact that some crimes were committed by the Ugandan government that determined that only the LRA leaders were indicted. However, the appearance of one-sided justice undercut the credibility of the ICC in the eyes of Acholi leaders and the Acholi community.

Finally, there was a debate over the nature of justice itself. Critics of the ICC, especially those favouring traditional Ugandan community modes of meting out justice, stressed restorative justice that emphasized the primacy to healing and reconciliation, the restoration of the unity of the community rather than the punishment of any one individual. Odama, and other Acholi religious and political leaders, argued in favour of traditional justice, a process based on public confessions of guilt, cleansing rituals, and the eventual acceptance of LRA members back into communities. This was parallel to the way the vast number of those charged with crimes in the Rwanda genocide were dealt with in the gacaca process.

How are the interests of victims served by either process? Perhaps by neither. After all, reconciliation is generally not rooted in justice systems at all, but in narratives of the women and spiritual and evangelical religious practices. The process of ICC justice, however, was rooted in detachment and universal abstract principles both divorced from everyday practices, especially a belief in the importance of invisible forces in fostering a healing process. Enchantment was necessary to offset disenchantment. How else could relationships be restored except by concepts such as Christian forgiveness and the metaphysics of redemption? But is the abstract principle of “natural” law and “human’ rights any less invisible and magical?

At the same time, Acholi “traditional” justice is inconsistent in its practices and both violent or humiliating. The fact is that any system of justice is infused with politics and tensions. In traditional justice, there are tensions between elders and religious leaders, between the older leadership and the young. Thus, the tensions between modern international justice and traditional justice systems are but a manifestation of the reality that reasonable judgment must be exercised in mediating the multi-dimensional conflicts on all levels between justice and politics, between state and international jurisdiction, between purity of principle and the messiness of any application. In the end, there is no avoidance of the need for reasonable judgment.

Victimization by the Merciful

Victimization by the Merciful


Howard Adelman

The hardest challenge by far for any international humanitarian aid organization is the responsibility for treating those whom the NGO wants to help as agents in their own right with feelings and thoughts. They – the abductees in this case – not the humanitarians, have been the main determinants of their own survival. In the horrors perpetrated on the abducted children by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), the victims have not just been abducted and abused and enslaved; they have not just been forcibly removed from their family and friends. And they have not just been indoctrinated into becoming part of a killing machine. They are survivors. And they had to negotiate and devise ways to survive.

For there is an unbridgeable contradiction between the need of an international humanitarian aid organization in order to raise funds for their cause, the necessity, on the one hand, to portray themselves as the indispensable and sine qua non without whom the victims could not survive and escape from their victimization, and the need to portray those they are helping simply as hapless victims. Yet those abductees have done for themselves far more than any outside agency can bring to the task, for it is they who have survived. It is they who had to scheme and plan and calculate how to get through each day. The NGOs must realize and recognize the relatively minor added value an aid organization brings to the situation. But if that organization does not portray itself as indispensable, as the sine qua non without which the victims will remain hapless and helpless, why would anyone donate funds to the organization?

Look first at the situation the young boys and girls found themselves in as soon as they were abducted. They were suddenly cast into a totally alien environment. Instead of the security of home, instead of the support of family and friends, they have been thrust among total strangers. If they were abducted with another friend or family member, which most are, they must almost immediately learn to hide that fact just when they most need the support of another. For if they do not immediately learn to hide and disguise the fact that they know another, if they do not quickly master the art of dissembling and misrepresenting what they really know, they pose the greatest danger to both themselves and their friends and relatives.

If they reveal that another abductee is a close friend or family member, if they do not almost immediately learn to hide their relationships, if they slip and the abductors realize that another member of the abducted group is a close friend or family member, then they will have to learn the hardest way of all the first lesson that the abductors must and do teach the abductees – that they are all alone, that they are totally dependent on the LRA for their survival. At the same time, they must retain the sense that they must rely on themselves for survival. Further, if they fail to learn that lesson, if they reveal what must remain hidden at precisely the time when the abductees most need another for support, then, at best, they will be separated and find themselves further alone, or else one of the two will be killed, or, worst of all, they will be “asked” to murder the other as the first act in their initiation in the new laws of the jungle.

Further, if they have already been raised and taught that the jungle is an alien place haunted by malevolent spirits, if they have already been acculturated into the magic and superstitious beliefs about this alien and threatening environment, then the task is all the harder and their fears are much greater. So the abductor has the task of isolating and alienating the abductee from his or her home environment. The abductee is then most in need of security of home and hearth. It is the first and most formidable challenge facing an abductee to negotiate this most fundamental and most difficult initial hurdle.

Assuming these very young boys and girls learn that lesson – and they have to learn it in order to survive – they then have to quickly master the “rules” of their new rulers and masters. And those rules are best absorbed if they are totally incorporated into one’s mind and heart. And the first and foremost rule is that they must be heartless, heartless in their treatment of others and, most importantly, heartless in their treatment of themselves. They must first betray the very essence of their being as a human. Yet if they surrender their essential humanity, they are totally lost and simply become one of the walking dead. They must learn to be schizophrenics.

They must retain their ability to master and manipulate a situation which will, at one and the same time, allow them to survive and, on the other hand, allow them to survive as humans. It is an absolutely impossible task. One comes only at the expense of the other. But if the expenditure is too great, then they are lost. So how do they learn to successfully manage and manipulate the situation in which they find themselves? This is a challenge thrown at those almost least equipped to overcome the difficulties – young teenagers and children below ten.

Look at the tasks that face them. They cannot have a mentor who openly teaches them the tricks of the trade. They must pick up those lessons by osmosis and acute observation. Where just hours and days before, they were primarily taken care of by others, they suddenly must fend for themselves. They must acquire the necessary skills to survive in a polity not committed to their survival and in a natural environment that they have been taught is filled with malevolent spirits. They must learn to interpret the everyday, not as friendly and supportive, but as alien, which they have already been taught. For those religious precepts are the only basic framework which they have inherited, to become masters of their own situation lest that new situation overwhelms them and drowns out their spirits.

All this must be accomplished within an environment of constraint and fear. Which beliefs are reinforced by what is happening to them? Which beliefs – such as beliefs in helping another – must be discarded, or, at the very least, repressed, in order to survive? So they must develop the outlook and the skills using whatever inherited resources at hand to control whatever small degree of freedom of action they can possibly squeeze out of a situation. And they can only do so by driving their most deep-seated beliefs even deeper into the underground of their own souls. They must develop not only the tools of survival, but the tools of hidden resistance as well. They must learn the most fundamental lesson of all, the one that the abductors are most determined to exorcise, that they are the masters of their own souls, that they are not passive victims but are agents of their own destiny.

But it is much worse. They are forced to become complicit in committing atrocities. Not only atrocities against a purported enemy, not only atrocities against their fellow abductees, but atrocities against their very sense of what it is to be a decent human being. The challenge of survival has been compounded by an almost impossible task in a situation in which they have been deprived of the most basic security and the emotional and intellectual supports to meet such a challenge.

Then imagine their escape. Imagine their return. Imagine the task they have of both learning to forget and re-learning who they once were and are no longer. And imagine facing that task in a context in which those dedicated to helping you, by the very nature of the support those agencies need to muster, also view you as a hapless victim rather than the agent of your own survival. Now in this most benevolent environment, the skills of deception and disguise acquired in the jungle are reinforced rather than discarded.

However, in this case, they are not just victims. They have been perpetrators. Not one can escape that label. They must deal with their own shame and guilt without full acceptance of that fact by those trying to help them. For, at the same time as humanitarian NGOs are pressured by their own circumstances to portray those they are dedicated to helping as victims in need of help and not agents who have demonstrated an extraordinary capacity to survive, the former abductees must be complicit in reinforcing an image of themselves as innocent victims and not agents of the most atrocious crimes.

So they are doubly deprived of agency – as agents of their own survival and as agents complicit in denying the survival of others. In the choice of whether to kill or be killed, they were forced to choose to be killers in order to be agents who survive. To the extent an NGO recognizes and publicizes this latter essential phenomenon, to that extent do those agencies undermine their own efforts in fundraising. After all, who wants to give money to support those guilty of heinous crimes? The very act of charity then will almost certainly induce an initial feeling that, in doing so, one is complicit in the crime itself.

So the former abductees must, of necessity, rely on the very same tools of deception and misrepresentation that they were taught in the jungle. They must, in the case of female abductees, now become complicit in portraying themselves as rape victims and sex slaves in the hands of their abductors rather than as active explorers of the world of sex, never mind as porters, cooks, and even enthusiastic participants in attacks, abductions and slaughters. They must participate in the construction of an identity so essential to the agency dedicated to helping them. Once complicit in murder, it is far easier to be complicit in reinforcing the basic lie necessary to the very essence of humanitarian aid, the lie of their pure victimhood.

Once relatively powerless as abductees, they must again be portrayed as powerless by their ostensible saviours. Once subject to the imperious barking commands of their overlords, they now must submit to the soothing care of those who would bring them help rather than fill them with fear. But it is care accepted at great cost – they must be cast in a movie once again of themselves as merely victims and, thus, be doubly victimized as they seek survival, not in an atmosphere of extreme repression and oppression, but in an atmosphere of loving care. Having been indoctrinated to spit on pity for others as well as for themselves, they must now repress that deep and hard-won lesson.

Having returned from a moral order that was harsh, brutal and usually short, they have come back to a context in which they are similarly subjected to the whims and fantasies, not now of their tormentors, but to the bleeding hearts who offer them help and assistance. And they must hide the fact now that they have acquired at a very deep level a disdain for sympathy and empathy. It is hardly the best environment conducive to facing the depth and extent of their own spiritual contamination. Once again, the rules of the game, however well-intentioned and benign this time, are being set by others. And this is almost more difficult, for, at the very least, the bad guys were clearly identifiable previously. Now, to survive as an agent responsible for one’s own being and destiny, one must again master the art of becoming internal strangers, but this time in an atmosphere where one’s masters have come to the situation, not with whips and guns, but with a helping and supposedly loving hand, but a hand resistant to grasping the horror that has penetrated your own soul.

Finally, in defining the Acholi conflict as a humanitarian rather than a political crisis, international human rights and humanitarian organizations undercut and help hide the reality that behind the moral conflict there is a deeper political one, one between the Acholi and the Ugandan government in Kampala. And these humanitarian agencies are in league with that government. Thus, their ostensible friends are cast into the camp of enemies. Instead of facing a command structure simply of evil, they now have to face one in which good lies in bed with evil. The alien other has a much stronger hand than the simple evil of a Joseph Cony. It is even more difficult to resist and survive as an individual responsible for oneself in such an ostensibly benevolent atmosphere.

Is it any surprise that re-integration is so difficult for abductees?

Tomorrow: Justice Without Mercy: The Paradox of the International Criminal Court

XII: Samantha Power and the Diminution of the LRA

XII: Samantha Power and the Diminution of the LRA


Howard Adelman

Invisible Children (IC) undertook dangerous work in Uganda in making its films to publicize the atrocities of Joseph Kony. I am fully aware of how dangerous work in northern Uganda can be without the explicit or, at least, implicit backing of the Ugandan government. One of my students was murdered in northern Uganda, likely related to his research; the Andrew Forbes Resource Centre at the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University was named in his honour. Nevertheless, hundreds of NGOs and overseas volunteers work out of Gulu 275 km north of Kampala and 100 km south of the South Sudan border. It is a town of about 147,000 and it is the largest urban area in Acholi.

IC’s regional office is located in Gulu. IC is in the process of transferring its on-the-ground activities to its local NGO partner in Uganda. IC is and has been involved in early warning protection and detection programs in CAR, but I was unable to find out if there was any connection with IGAD’s FEWER (Forum for Early Warning and Early Response) program – the early warning system of the countries in the Horn of Africa. In conjunction with OCHA’s 2015 South Sudan Humanitarian Response Plan, FEWER issued its report on the South Sudan Crisis. There is no apparent evidence of IC input, yet the South Sudan civil war crisis is immensely greater than the crisis of abducted children and displacement of 95% of the Acholi population between 1996 and 2006 in northern Uganda.

The humanitarian crisis in South Sudan is of a far greater order of magnitude than the Ugandan northern crisis at its peak. This year, the estimated number of IDPs in South Sudan is estimated to be almost 2 million. Over a quarter million have fled the area and become refugees. The death toll from the inter-ethnic violence is enormous and almost 6 million suffer from different degrees of food insecurity. Nevertheless, due in part to the efforts of IC, the conflict with Kony’s LRA has received far more publicity in its waning years than the immensely more critical South Sudan crisis. Proportionality has not been a virtue in attending to the sensationalist horrific practices of the LRA.

When one watches IC films (possibly to be reviewed separately) or reads its literature, it seems to have connections with certain government agencies and NGOs, but not with others. Further, it ranks of boosterism. “Our protection and detection programs using the Early Warning Radio network, fliers, radio messaging and community sensitization have played a critical role in weakening the LRA fighting force alongside the pressure exerted upon the African Union supported by US forces.”

That is quite a boast. Not only has IC played a big role in saving lives, but “a critical role in weakening the LRA.” Try to find out what that role was, quite aside from its valuation as “critical.” Try even to find an independent evaluation of lives saved. Compare IC to Save the Children, the ninety-year-old NGO operating in 120 countries, including Uganda, where Save the Children ran survival and protection projects. Save the Children always explains its mission, mandate and the way it works in the six programs it has operated in Uganda, including child protection as a major one. In that latter area, it has a very broad approach in contrast to the narrow laser-like focus on simply protection from Joseph Kony of IC. Further, though Save the Children literature declares, “We save children’s lives. We fight for their rights. We help them fulfill their potential,” the quantitative and qualitative assessment of its success are evaluated by independent consultants. I could find no such process for IC. Save the Children never seems to declare that its role has been “critical” in saving lives. In the Save the Children literature, there are no self-inserted adjectives and adverbs.

“Critical” is an equivocal word. It is used both with respect to subjective assessments as well as to the status of the objective world. With respect to intellectual assessments, it is even more ambiguous. On the one hand, it means a negative evaluation, or, at the very least, an analysis that makes clear certain inadequacies. But it also refers to judgments about what is both good and bad in something, and evokes a sense of balance and fairness in analysis, rather than merely a negative or even biased evaluation. There is a parallel equivocation with respect to the use of the term in describing the objective world. On one hand, such as in the expression “a critical juncture,” the reference is to a significant turning point. On the other hand, as IC used the term, it wasn’t the juncture that was critical, but the self-appraisal of its own role evaluated as significant, and perhaps even indispensable, but with neither IC’s own data provided anywhere or that of independent assessors to verify that result.

Critical when applied to my work is either taken as a negative in my approach or, as I believe it to be, and as others have depicted it, as an attempt to be fair in my assessments showing both negative and positive elements in what I am examining. I would not claim, nor do I believe others would declare, that these series of blogs are important turning points in evaluating the world around me, let alone that they make a significant difference, and certainly not an indispensable one. My sense of IC is that it lacks a self-critical sensibility and does not employ an independent one. Further, their own evaluation of their work hypes its significance and even perhaps its indispensability.

There happens to be some objective data available based on surveys of former abductees who returned to Acholi. Though the rest either remained in captivity, died from disease or were killed in battle or by the LRA, it is estimated that 79% of male abductees and 92% of female abductees did return. Of those, the key factors were:

Escape             80%

Freed by LRA   15%

Rescued.             5%

The interviews with returnees indicated that they escaped when they were left unattended, or during the chaos of battle or during an ambush. The IC propaganda was not mentioned. Perhaps that was because the question was not asked. That may have been the case. Nevertheless, in narratives of returnees collected by anthropologists, the broadcasts or leaflets of IC are not mentioned. Perhaps the returnees spoke about the role and even significance of the broadcasts or the literature distributed, but the recorders did not think they were significant. The fact that such a reference was not even mentioned indicates that, at the very least, if IC efforts were mentioned, the reference did not make a strong impression on the interviewer, significant in itself since reference to the impact of media on an escape would be important and make a strong impression on an interviewer.

Did IC play any role let alone a significant or indispensable one in the rescue? Only the armed forces are given credit for rescues. Now all this may be academic nitpicking. But to make a claim, and to make it in a superlative form, not only without independent evidence, but in the face of contrary evidence, suggests that the value of IC was not in their effect on saving lives in Uganda and elsewhere, but in publicizing the plight of the abductees back in America. That may have been valuable enough, though its exact value also requires critical attention. IC’s literature is written in the tone of advertisements for itself when it boasts that the organization brought “life-saving work” to the threat of Joseph Kony.

What about the two other domestic parts of its program — helping to create a grassroots public pressure movement in the USA and influencing public policy with its complementary lobbying? The evidence for success in these two areas seems to be very strong. IC mastered the use of contemporary media to communicate a single message clearly and broadly, even if that message was criticized for casting the situation as simply a humanitarian one, at the expense of understanding the background politics, and of painting the situation as a moral war of good (the American grassroots and the interventionist role of the American government) versus evil (Kony and the LRA). When, as mentioned yesterday, there has been a recent shift abandoning grassroots organizing leaving only political lobbying in its mission after 2014, this suggests that in its own self-evaluation, lobbying was seen as far more important than organizing awareness and creating a grassroots public pressure movement, the very virtue that Samantha Power was so laudatory in praising IC.

What about its role in advocacy? The connection with the American government preceded the inauguration of Barack Obama as president. On 10 August 2007, Ben Keesey, CEO of IC, met with American ambassador, Steven Browning, and his officials in Kampala “to describe their efforts to provide to their audiences timely information on conditions in northern Uganda.” Innocent enough, except when the information is used both by the CIA and Ugandan intelligence services.

It is entirely a different matter when information provided by an NGO is used to repress non-violent dissent by the Acholi people in northern Uganda against the Museveni regime and when dissent is equated with armed rebellion and even with Kony’s criminal and morally repugnant behaviour. In a memo dated 11 June 2009, Kathleen FitzGibbon, the political affairs officer in the U.S. embassy in Kampala, wrote, “The Ugandan Government is investigating the latest attempt by Acholi Diaspora to mobilize support for a new rebellion in northern Uganda. The arrest of low level participants continues while the Government decides its next steps, which may include a public outing of Acholi Diaspora spoilers” exposed by an IC tip (my italics) “regarding the location of Patrick Komakec,” an LRA abductee branded by the Ugandan government as a former LRA child soldier who was reported by IC as being in Gulu, northern Uganda.

It is not as if the danger of abductions had passed at the time FitzGibbon wrote her memo. As the campaign geared up to finally eliminate the LRA, children continued to be abducted. In the same month that memo was written, on 24 June 2009, a security team from Uganda and the SPLA were reported as searching for six youths from Agoro and Madi-Opei in the Kitgum district of South Sudan. It was believed that they had been abducted from a market near Teretenya.

Patrick Komakec, whose presence in Uganda had been revealed either deliberately or inadvertently by IC, was not charged with abduction, but “was wanted by the security services for impersonating LRA leaders to extort money from government officials, NGOs, and Acholi leaders.” Assuming even that the charges were valid and not trumped up to silence a part of the political opposition, what business was it of IC, an American-based international NGO, to inform or provide information even on a fraudster. The alleged fraud had nothing to do with protecting and saving children. More significantly, any very preliminary knowledge of the Museveni regime, should have alerted IC that the charges against Komakec could have been made simply to silence a political opponent.

Based on names revealed by Komakec, presumably under torture, the Ugandan intelligence services conducted a sweep to arrest “suspects.” Most of them absolutely swore their innocence. Patrick Komakec and his associates were accused of trying to form a new version of the LRA, although the actual charges laid were for fraud not for treason. The Ugandan government also attempted to link this so-called new rebel group with Bishop John Baptist Odama, a highly respected Acholi religious leader who had always protested against military efforts by either side to resolve differences between Kampala and the north.

I do not know whether Jackie Komakec in Toronto is related to Patrick or how the various esteemed Komakecs originally from Uganda and now in the diaspora are related, but if Jackie is any indication, she has been a participant in a very different worldwide grassroots anti-Kony group that hold the Gulu Walk every year, but from the turnout I saw in Toronto, and the films they have posted on the internet about their efforts (for example, Gulu Walk in Toronto in 2009 or the one in Berlin in 2010), they have nowhere near the mastery of the media nor, correspondingly, the domestic impact in raising awareness, of IC.

What is the substance of IC’s advocacy? TIC is clearly on the side of military action by both the United States and Uganda. A 25 February 2009 memo from Ambassador Steven Browning noted that, “Invisible Children, a U.S.-based non-governmental organization, is planning pro-OLT [Operation Lightning Thunder] events under the theme ‘Kony Must Be Stopped. Rescue Our Children’,” suggesting a far more intimate relationship between IC, the Ugandan government and the U.S. government and the use of IC publicity to advertise the military program favourably.

Even without these leaked government memos, IC, as indicated, has not been without its critics. The criticisms have been made by Ugandan journalists who have long followed and certainly criticized the exploits of Joseph Kory and the LRA. Rosebell Kagumire was prominent among them. So was Dr. Beatrice Odongkara Mpora and Angelo Izama. To summarize the criticisms, they include:

  • Oversimplification
  • Distortions about Africa and its dependency on the West
  • The war misrepresented in terms of the forces of good versus evil
  • Over-personalization when the conflict was also about both resources and representation
  • The exploits of the LRA and Kony were not ignored before the media intervention of IC
  • Kony has been driven out of Uganda for the last nine years
  • IC seems naïve about the complex inter-ethnic history of Uganda, particularly the rivalry between the Luo (Acholi) and Baganda or Chwezi rulers toppled by the Acholi
  • IC advocacy of military intervention for ostensibly humanitarian reasons, seems either naive or willfully blind to American neo-colonial interests in the oil and mineral wealth of the DRC, South Sudan, and the strategic importance to the US of northern Uganda
  • Northern Ugandans have not been in IDP camps for nine years
  • Outsiders have played a very minor role in the rescue of children; IC, in particular, was not necessary to get the US military role to continue or to bring Kony before the ICC
  • The claim that, “due to increased awareness and global efforts to stop the group, the entire fighting force of the LRA has been reduced from approximately 1,000 at the end of the Juba peace talks in 2008 to an estimated 200 fighters in 2014” is a patent misrepresentation of the factors and forces that have decimated the LRA
  • IC’s attitude is patronizing
  • The process, as in Arab Spring, magnifies the role of social media considerably, especially by congratulating itself for starting a social revolution, and diminishes the far more important work on the ground by locals
  • Defeating Kony does not end the underlying problem
  • Policy shifts both in Africa and America have had little to do with IC
  • The general story of a helpless Africa without American support is a gross lie
  • The real current domestic problem is reconciliation
  • The real current inter-state problem is pacification of the region, not simply the elimination of Joseph Kony and the LRA

That is a long list of criticisms. Rebuttals can be provided to many. For example, IC was not the only organization that believed the LRA situation required a huge spotlight on it. In the same year that the three founders of IC first went to Africa, Jan Egeland (then the United Nations’ Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs), after visiting northern Uganda for only two days in November 2003, described the conflict between the LRA and the Ugandan government as the “biggest forgotten, neglected humanitarian emergency in the world.”

Overall, the IC has adopted the format of a Western with a focus on one bad guy as the source of evil. In that sense, the strategy of the right in America differs little from the strategy of the American left. Further, when Stop Kony came out, Kony and the LRA were already near their end. Critics called for a Stop Museveni campaign. Raising the awareness of college students about Joseph Kony has not only not been a sufficient cause in the depreciation of Kony, it has not even been a necessary factor according to Andrew Harding, the BBC Africa correspondent.

Mobilizing more, galvanizing more, getting more people to pay attention and to participate, in fact, played only an infinitesimally small role in the destruction of Joseph Kony and the LRA. Further, perpetuating the belief that online activism can change the course of international politics is not only naïve, but terribly misleading, especially when it suggests that the LRA has recruited 30,000 abducted children when this is the estimated total of abductees over almost 30 years. (See Michael Wilson’s critique in Foreign Policy.) The Council on Foreign Relations also accused IC of both exaggeration and manipulation. Michael Diebert, author of Democratic Republic of Congo: Between Hope and Despair, echoed these criticisms and chastised IC for its silence on the human rights abuses of the Uganda and South Sudan governments.

IC has also been criticized for a less than stellar reputation on Charity Navigation, an independent assessor of charities. However, an examination of the financial report of IC indicates that IC operates well within the norms of charities undertaking similar types of activism, whether with respect to the percentage of expenditures on administration, accountability and transparency criteria. In the latter areas, IC deservedly received a 100% approval rating.

While I acknowledge IC’s role in raising awareness, I am also critical of its narrow focus much as American Sniper only saw Iraq through Kyle’s rifle scope. This links up right wing and left wing activism in their narrow-minded moral frameworks, their personification of politics and their polarizing issues into the forces of good against the forces of evil. Most significantly, as indicated above, IC was accused of providing an intelligence tip to Uganda’s security service leading to the arrest of regime opponents. As distinct from its initial criticisms of the Ugandan government for inaction, IC has cooperated with Uganda and South Sudan in its film-making and awareness campaigns. The U.S. has been aware of Museveni’s efforts to link opponents of the regime with the LRA and thereby demonize them. Most significantly, IC may now be effectively acting as a propaganda arm of the Uganda government. Jolly Okot, who runs IC’s Gulu office, seems to have been an apologist for the OLT military campaign of the Ugandan government. Most interesting, IC has been unavailable to comment on such criticisms.

IC is certainly not the only NGO that inflates its own importance. IC is certainly not the only NGO that ignores politics in the emphasis on its humanitarian work, but IC seems to do so by going to the opposite extreme of providing an advertisement program for the Museveni government policies in dealing with the north. IC is also not the only NGO to inadvertently provide information to an oppressive government. I believe that IC has been led by sincere, well-intentioned and highly committed individuals who have sacrificed a great deal. But I have become convinced over the years that, as the cliché goes, the road to hell has often been paved with good intentions. Surely, the harm an organization causes must be weighed against its benefits.

What has been Samantha Power’s responsibility for all of this? She too has exhibited a similar level of naiveté, a similar level of lack of self-critique, a similar level of over-estimating the importance of grassroots movements. This is not simply guilt by association. This is guilt by reflection and identification. To make this explicit, I will examine two specific issues of double violation and suffering, the victimization of former abductees by organizations such as IC when IC takes the credit for the abductee’s salvation; former abductees deserve most of the credit. IC has also provided unstinting support for the International Criminal Court when the ICC, too, in its single-minded pursuit of justice, has been guilty of being complicit in victimization.

Next: Victimizing Acholi Abductees by NGOs and the ICC

XI: Samantha Power, Invisible Children and Joseph Kony

XI: Samantha Power, Invisible Children and Joseph Kony


Howard Adelman

There is one area where there has been real progress in reducing atrocities – the changing status of the marauding, plundering, abducting and murderous Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) led by Joseph Kony. Defections of personnel from the LRA are way up; the number of atrocities is way down. A week ago (14.01.2015), the last of Joseph Kony’s lieutenants alive, 34-year-old Dominic Ongwen, originally a 10-year old LRA abductee, was handed over to Ugandan troops in the Central African Republic. He is wanted for war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, and, since his capture, he has been transferred to the ICC.

It is still unclear whether Ongwen defected to U.S. Special Forces troops working in collaboration with Ugandan army units or was captured by Mounir Ahmat, commander of the Central African Republic’s (CAR) mostly Muslim Seleka rebel group. The latter claimed they had captured Ongwen near the eastern town of Sam Ouandja when he was trying to escape and Mounir claimed the $5 million U.S. reward on offer since 2013. The U.S. forces said that Ongwen defected. Uganda, which initially wanted to try him, under pressure, agreed to transfer him to the ICC that had issued his arrest warrant in 2005. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni conceded that the LRA had also committed atrocities in neighbouring countries and, therefore, Ongwen should face international justice.

Last year, Okot Odhiambo, then LRA’s second in command, was killed in CAR by African Union forces near the town of Djema, On 12 May 2012, Caesar Achellam was captured by the Ugandan military in the CAR. In 2011, “Brigadier” Bok Abudema was killed by the Ugandan army. Vincent Otti was killed on Kony’s orders in November 2007 for wanting to sign the peace deal offered by the Ugandan government and that he, Otti, had personally negotiated. In August 2006, the first of Kony’s lieutenants to be taken out was killed by the Ugandan army just before Kony signed a Cessation of Hostilities agreement that initiated two years of peace talks. After the collapse of the peace negotiations, the LRA left Uganda and never returned.

As background, the north and south of Uganda have been at odds throughout the colonial period with a de facto peace imposed by the British by allowing the Acholi in the north to predominate in the army and the Buganda in the south to become predominant in the civil service and the professions. Between Idi Amin’s assumption of rule in 1971, when he and his West-Nilers overthrew the democratic government made almost impotent by north-south divisions, until he himself was overthrown in 1979, 300,000 Ugandans had been slaughtered by his regime. However, the 1979 intervention by Tanzanian troops backing former Prime Minister Milton Obote in partnership with General Tito Okello leading an army of purged Acholi ex-soldiers, the Uganda National Liberation Front/Army (UNLF/A), proved to be even more murderous than Idi Amin. Frustrated by the lack of peace and reconciliation, in July 1985 Okello led a revolt that overthrew Obote only to be overthrown in turn six months later by Yoweri Museveni’s combination of Bugandans and Rwandan Tutsis.

Now, neither the government nor the army had a significant presence of Acholi after a short period in which they had dominated both. Disaffected Acholi soldiers returned north and became engaged in a struggle with tribal elders who viewed the soldiers as “contaminated’ by the spirits of their dead enemies. Modernity vied with traditionalism only to yield to the leadership of a charismatic Joan of Arc, Alice Auma (Lakwena), a spiritualist claiming to have been possessed by a dead Italian general. Alice rallied both ex-soldiers and elders behind the reconstituted Holy Spirit Mobile Forces (HSMF), or Holy Spirit Movement (HSM), that initially had considerable success against Museveni’s Ugandan National Resistance Army. The HSM with its new-found discipline and messianic fervour (the resurrection of Jesus Christ had been promised), in spite of its initial victories, was decisively defeated in November 1987 after coming within 50 km of Kampala.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, taking advantage of both the defeat of Alice Lakwena whose spirit he claimed to have inherited, and the availability of disaffected former soldiers who refused to accede to the peace agreement between northern insurgents and the new Ugandan army, Joesph Kony initiated his so-called rebellion. He was aided and abetted by the continuing alienation of northern Uganda from the Yoweri Museveni regime. The LRA (originally the United Holy Salvation Army/Uganda Christian Army/Movement) under Joseph Kony emerged as a dangerous extremist Christian cult that kidnapped children and sent fear throughout the Acholi people who populated the north of Uganda. Supported initially by the Sudanese government in Khartoum, which then viewed Museveni as an upstart who aided the rebellious south Sudanese, the LRA’s ostensible purpose was the overthrow of Museveni. However, the primary victims of its campaign of pillaging, rape and abductions were the Acholi people. The latter were caught between the LRA, which they learned to fear, and the Museveni regime, which they loathed.

Though the LRA was both a spiritualist and an evangelical Christian organization as well as a personality cult, with the support of Sudan it also developed a strong political agenda, but its methods of intimidation and maiming, mutilations and abductions soon alienated Kony from the local Acholi population and eventually Khartoum. After failed peace talks that began in 1994 and a resumption of the war, in 2002, Museveni decided to bring the LRA reign of terror in the north to an end by launching a full-scale military action to hunt Kony down. He had obtained the agreement of the Sudanese government to allow Ugandan troops to invade southern Sudan in Operation Iron Fist. However, Kony counterattacked against IDP camps and escaped the pincer efforts of the government. Mediation in 2004 by both the Carter Centre in Atlanta and Pope John Paul II failed. Subsequently, Joseph Kony was made an international pariah, having been accused of crimes against humanity by the ICC. In 2005, the U.S. placed Joseph Kony on a list of most wanted terrorists. By 2006, UNICEF estimated that in the previous 15 years, the LRA had abducted 25,000 children (many became kadogo – child soldiers) and others estimated numbers as high as 60,000 including porters, sex slaves, etc. 95% of the Acholi population was living in over 200 IDP camps in the north of Uganda in February of that year, in part to protect them and in part to deprive Kony of a support base. Initially, a UN special forces operation to capture Kony failed abysmally at a cost of 8 Guatemalan commandos.

Peace talks began in 2006 and lasted until the end of 2008. As with previous efforts, they also ended in failure, according to Kony, because he and his lieutenants were not promised amnesty from the charges laid by the ICC. Operation Lightning Thunder (OLT) was then launched by Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), CAR and Sudan. The U.S. supplied intelligence and logistical support. Kony escaped. Led by Dominic Ongwen, the LRA attacked villages in DRC on 24 December 2008, killing 865 civilians and abducting 160 more over the next several weeks. Just before the next Christmas in 2009, the LRA launched attacks in the northeast of DRC in the Makombo region, killing 321 and abducting 250. Human Rights Watch broke the news three months later.

Since then, however, as described in the third paragraph above, the whole of the command structure of the LRA has been eliminated. The only leader of the LRA left is Joseph Kony himself, the former Catholic altar boy, athlete (he played football) and reputedly brilliant dancer. He survives with an estimated 200 followers hiding in northeastern CAR. He is being hunted down by four African armies supported by 100 U.S. special forces troops, Navy Seals, who were featured in the movie American Sniper, reviewed last week. As I will try to make clear, this is not the only overlap between the Kony story and that of Chris Kyle, the top American sniper in American military history. However, unlike Iraq, the U.S. special forces in CAR only provide logistical, medical, training and intelligence support. In March 2014, the mission obtained four V-22 Ospreys and the total force authorized was expanded to 300, though evidently only 150 have been deployed.

Can Samantha Power (SP) and/or Barack Obama claim any credit? After all, when SP was Obama’s adviser on reducing atrocities, in May 2010, President Obama signed the “Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Recovery Act” that authorized the deployment of U.S. troops to the region. Obama said to the Invisible Children (IC), an activist group launched to bring attention to LRA atrocities and in attendance when the bill was signed, “We have seen your reporting, your websites, your blogs, and your video postcards—you have made the plight of the children visible to us all.” Obama gave IC enormous credit. Samantha Power had been an active promoter and backer of IC.

The first American military units arrived in October 2011. There is evidence that suggests that SP deserves some and perhaps considerable credit. After all, she has over the years been the main spokesperson arguing that NGOs who engage in activism and pressure their government are the main, if not the exclusive determinants, of foreign policy. This theme was echoed both in what she said and who she addressed in her first speech after she was named UN ambassador.

On 10 August 2013, SP addressed the Fourth Estate Leadership Summit in Los Angeles sponsored by Invisible Children (IC), the anti-Kony activist group credited by Obama. IC was started in 2004 by Bobby Bailey, Laren Poole and Jason Russell. Since then, IC has campaigned to stop the LRA warlord, Joseph Kony. Convinced (erroneously) that the world was unaware of the havoc of the LRA and Joseph Kony, they produced their first film, Invisible Children: Rough Cut. SP said, “Invisible Children doesn’t just lobby policymakers to go after the LRA, it designs fliers that tell LRA fighters how they might defect, and it distributes them – more than 400,000 so far – into LRA-affected areas in DRC and the Central African Republic…It has also built six locally-run FM radio stations in areas of high LRA activity. These stations now reach an audience covering more than 29,000 square miles.” For example, Radio Zereda (Zereda means peace in Zande) in Obo, broadcasts advice and information on UN camps and appeals by former abductees, such as Emmanuel Daba, to help those trying to flee the LRA.

If defections are way up and IC has had a significant responsibility for that result, and if SP has been a major champion of IC, then surely she deserves considerable credit for the diminution of the LRA threat. For IC’s effects went further. After all, the activism operates on two fronts – in the education of politicians in Washington and in the information spread in the field to undermine Joseph Kony. Further, there is a double effect in America for the media campaign in Africa reverberates back on the politics and policies in Washington.

In 2012, IC produced a video, Stop Kony, that went viral with more than 5 million views. It became the number one topic on Twitter, multiplied many times over by Facebook references. IC made a follow-up film, Beyond Kony, emphasizing post-conflict reconstruction. Yet, although the LRA was on its last legs, the objectives of IC remained, not only to publicize the evils about LRA, but also to pressure the U.S. government “To intervene militarily in Central Africa.” At the end of 2014, when IC announced that it was ending the bulk of its mass mobilization programs, it remained committed to the priority of political advocacy in America and its on-the-ground programs in Africa. When the poster child for grass roots political pressure, as both the necessary and sufficient cause of policy change, throws grass roots organizing out the window, the delusionary belief in its efficaciousness should be thrown out with it.

IC started making films about Joseph Kony and the abductees back in 2004. High school students in Massachusetts sent one of the films to their Senator. He and his colleagues then wrote a law directed at the LRA and modelled on the rewards offered for narco-traffickers. President Obama signed that anti-LRA bill in 2010 that created a rewards program to bring Kony and his thugs to justice. That Senator from Massachusetts was John Kerry who is now the Secretary of State. Based on that law, the State Department offered rewards of up to $5 million that lead to the arrest of LRA leaders.

In addition to its first 2004 film and famous 2012 film, Stop Kony, IC has produced many other films such as: Innocent: The Story of a Night (2005); Groce: The Story of a Child Mother (2006); and The Story of an Orphan (2006). Further, IC has won numerous awards over the years for its films:

  • 2007 Progressive Source Awards for best fundraising podcast
  • 2008 Human Security Award
  • 2008 People’s Voice Webby Award
  • 2008 American Advertisement Federation award
  • 2008 Summit Creative Award for its School for Schools and its Display Me websites
  • 2009 Interactive Media Award for The Rescue website
  • 2009 nominated for the Think Social Award
  • 2010 and 2011 Stay Classy Award for Most Effective Awareness
  • 2011 LRA Crisis Tracker for MediaPost Creative Media Filmography Award
  • 2013 Digital Campaign of the Year Award for Interactive Media

In an open letter IC sent to SP after she became ambassador to the UN concerning Joseph Kony, the following appeal was made:

Joseph Kony has been committing war crimes and crimes against humanity for nearly 30 years. And this month marks the nine year anniversary of his indictment by the International Criminal Court. But Kony still remains at large and the fact that he has, quite literally, gotten away with mass murder for this long is completely unacceptable. We know you agree.

We also know that for the last few years, Kony has regularly received safe haven in the Sudanese-controlled region of Kafia Kingi, but this area is largely out of the reach of African Union and U.S. forces that are pursuing him.

Most importantly, we know that you are among the few people who can do something about it. Ambassador Power, you, along with nine other U.S. and world leaders, have the unique power to help end Kony’s impunity and finally stop decades of LRA violence. We’re asking you to publicly reaffirm your commitment to bringing Kony to justice and stopping LRA violence.

More specifically, your commitment to stopping LRA violence must include the following actions during the upcoming U.S. Security Council Briefing on the LRA crisis:

Ask the new UN special envoy on the LRA, Mr. Abdoulaye Bathily, direct questions about what the UN is doing to prevent Kony from a) enjoying safe haven in the Sudanese-controlled Kafia Kingi enclave and b) poaching elephants in D.R. Congo.

–Ensure that the UN Security Council’s statement on the LRA in response to the briefing highlights deep concern about Kony’s safe haven and elephant poaching by the LRA, and clearly directs the UN to do more to address these issues.

Thank you for all that you’ve already done to help end LRA violence and arrest Joseph Kony. We’re so grateful for your committed leadership on this issue. With these additional actions, you can help us make sure the 10-year anniversary of Joseph Kony’s ICC indictment is a celebration of justice — not only for Kony, but also for the millions that have been affected by his crimes.

The letter clearly acknowledges SP’s past influence on and efforts on behalf of the campaign of IC to capture Joseph Kony and beseeches her to do more now that she is the American ambassador to the UN. SP clearly comes across as the go-to person in the Obama administration with respect to Joseph Kony, even though John Kerry, the Secretary of State, authored the bill that created the reward program for capturing Kony and his lieutenants. To what extent can SP claim and be awarded credit for the decline in the LRA?

Tomorrow: Samantha Power and the Diminution of the LRA

Birdman: Riggan, Mike and Adolf Eichmann

Birdman: Riggan, Mike and Adolf Eichmann


Howard Adelman

In a previous blog I spoke of doubleness and the dramatic tension between Riggan and Mike as the core of the tension in the movie, Birdman. The film has been nominated for nine Oscars this year. The form, theme, cinematography, soundtrack, characters are so at odds with a movie that thirty years ago won Oscars for best movie, best direction and five other Oscars – Out of Africa that we watched again last evening. I quote from the 1937 memoir by the Danish Isak Dinesen (the pseudonym of Karen Blixen) upon which the movie was based.

“Two homogenous units will never be capable of forming a whole… Man and woman become one… A hook and an eye are a Unity, a fastening, but with two hooks you can do nothing. A right-hand glove with its contrast the left-hand glove makes a whole, a pair of gloves; but two right-hand gloves you throw away.”

Before I return to the movie of thirty years ago, I want to introduce a third character, one from real life. I know you will be puzzled by the inclusion of Adolf Eichmann when discussing a Hollywood film that, on the surface, has absolutely no connection with an organizer of mass murder, but I beg your forbearance as I develop my theme. I am currently completing the reading of Eichmann Before Jerusalem by Bettina Stangneth, a German philosopher who has written a brilliant work of scholarship. It is a heavy tome at 579 pages, 155 of them endnotes. Don’t worry, I do not intend to review the book in this blog, even though it is a tour de force and hopefully will win a number of additional scholarly prizes now that it has been translated into English. It has already won the German NDR award for best non-fiction book. The reviewer of the English translation will require a far greater scholarly acquaintance with the field than I will ever have.

It is rare to read a philosopher who wrote her PhD thesis on Kant’s concept of radical evil and ever since has been researching a theory of the lie, but who has also become a scholar on anti-Semitism and the National Socialist philosophy. It is rarer yet for that scholar to produce such a brilliant case study of a personality who embodied radical evil. Stangneth, as I do, belongs to a school of philosophy that believes that philosophers have to sink into the mire of the empirical to undertake proper philosophical work.

One of the virtues of the book is the grace but thoroughness with which she totally buries Hannah Arendt’s portrait of Adolph Eichmann as an expression of the banality of evil, not only by the thoroughness of her research and the skill of her analysis, but by clearly showing that Arendt was duped by Adolf Eichmann’s deliberately cultivated deceptive self-portrait in the courtroom in Jerusalem. Though Stangneth lauds Arendt for her courage and the conviction of her clarity in portraiture, though Arendt knew far too little, and for her meticulous work, Stangneth overwhelmingly demonstrates that, “even someone of average intelligence can induce a highly intelligent person to defeat herself with her own weapon: her desire to see her expectations fulfilled.” An ability at self-critique is still the ultimate virtue of a first class philosopher and Hannah Arendt ultimately fails that test.

Stangweth demonstrates definitively that Eichmann was a man of vaulting ambition who did not inadvertently become a member of the SD as he proclaimed, but wanted with a desperate passion to enjoy the respect from others because of his membership in the SD [the SD stood for Sicherheitsdienst or Security Service in Nazi Germany and was distinct from the Gestapo). For his deepest desire was to experience the deep dread he could then inspire in others.

Eichmann was not the epitome of the bureaucrat who followed rules and kept meticulous records. He was disorganized and often tardy. More importantly, he believed in smashing conventional bureaucracy in the name of both a higher ideal, National Socialism, but also to set in place a system that was speedy and more effective by not following inherited rules. He was Mr. Fixit when it came to invention for extermination. He coined the phrase, “Final Solution”. Nevertheless, though not a bureaucrat in the ordinary Weberian sense, he meticulously kept records of denunciation files as he wrote, with his crude and simplistic ideology, anti-Semitic screeds. Unlike either Riggan or Mike in the Birdman, he sought to exude faceless power (akin to a Gestapo man in a long leather coat with his face in the shadows) rather than the desire for facial recognition of both Riggan and Mike, each in very different ways.

Not that Eichmann disdained recognition; he craved it, but for his name rather than his face. Riggan and Mike wanted recognition, the former for his face that had previously been hidden behind a bird costume, and the latter for his body of work as an actor. All three wanted and craved a reputation, but Eichmann for one that inspired fear while Riggan wanted respect and Mike wanted recognition for brilliant artistry. But all three were poseurs, Mike deliberately, for that was his art, Riggan to cover up his lack of artistic skills, and Eichmann to project power and status (hence, the black SS uniform and the riding crop) as well as erudition. For he was brilliant at convincing others that he was an authority on both Judaism and Zionism and that he had mastered both Yiddish and Hebrew when he only learned a smattering of each, but just enough about all four to deceive others.

“A glance at the modest means with which Eichmann managed to present himself as a perfect Hebraist, even to his colleagues, teaches us something about his use of role-playing and image-making. Eichmann spoke no Hebrew and only a little Yiddish.”

Riggan, Mike and Eichmann were not shy, were not retiring, and did not want to be subordinate to anyone else. Each wanted a place in history, a very different place for each, but a lofty position nevertheless. Riggan wanted to achieve fame and recognition out of costume. Eichmann wanted fame in costume. In contrast to both, Mike achieved fame by baring all. He did not even wear underwear when he had to change in the fitting room. The biggest difference between Riggan and both Mike and Eichmann is that Riggan was always uncertain and full of self-doubt. In contrast, both Mike and Eichmann were convinced that they had been chosen for greatness. Eichmann wanted fame as the exterminator of the Jews. Mike sought fame as the exterminator of himself. Riggan wanted fame for being an actor rather than a comic book character in costume.

All three men were known for barking orders. As the leaders of the Jewish communities that met with Eichmann attested, he “attacked them energetically, shouting and screaming and threatened to send them to a concentration camp.” He was no self-effacing bureaucrat who simply followed orders. None of these three men were capable of simply following orders. They were all artificers in their very different ways, obsessed with invention, primarily of themselves, though only Eichmann conceived of himself as the manservant of death who carried the sickle obsessed with the extermination of Jews. While he accused Jewish leaders of portraying him as the bloodhound who wanted to kill the Jews, he collected those reviews as if he were a director of plays taking great pride in both that reputation and his achievements. Riggan’a orders, unlike those of Mike and Eichmann, though he barked as loud as the others, were just as often ignored, Eichmann and Mike barked orders that were always obeyed, but Mike, unlike Eichmann, rarely obeyed orders given to him. For Mike could not tolerate constraints.

Pride. Ambition. Self-aggrandizement. Arrogance. Role-players. Image-makers. These descriptors characterize all three. But Riggan and Mike are Lilliputians compared to Eichmann who boasted, “Nobody else was such a household name in Jewish political life at home and abroad as little old me.” Paradoxically, a contradiction of which he was totally unaware, Eichmann was determined to exterminate that very polity in which his greatest fame was to be found. But the key is not the polity on which he focused his obsession with extermination, but his obsession with his reputation and the need for an image and public performance to sustain and enhance his role on the stage of world history. All three were united in an inability to hide in the shadows, an inability that would lead to Eichmann’s identification, kidnapping, trial and eventual execution.

What is often overlooked is how the audience is complicit in the deceit. Look at the raves Riggan’s play received from both the audience and critics in the film, Birdman – though it is clear that the play is a dramatic mess. The plaudits were for technique, for the ultra-realism of actually shooting himself at the end. The movie incorporates the laugh-line of The Producers, who, in contrast to Riggan, were intent on, rather than bumbling toward, failure. The production was a smash success. In every case, not just in theatre but in real life, deception can only succeed in partnership with the mindblindness of an audience. Even Eichmann’s Jewish victims helped enlarge the symbolism of his name as that name became more than that of an individual person, but was projected onto every jack-booted leather-coated Gestapo agent his victims ever encountered.

People who have experienced suffering, humiliation, and loss do not want to have been the victims of someone mediocre: that a mere nobody has power over us is even more unbearable than the idea that someone has power over us. This mechanism blocks our view of the perpetrator. It gives more power to the dynamic of symbol creation and strengthens the sphere of power by limiting our capacity for making clear judgments.”

Hence the story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Hence the diatribe in the Torah against idolatry as the worst sin. Hence, false memories and projection of the deceived. This was true of even an intellectual as smart as Hannah Arendt. So why fault the audience who went crazy over the play Riggan wrote, directed and acted in? Why fault the audience who watch Birdman or those who nominated it for awards and will eventually cascade the movie with honours?

Am I putting down my wife and children who so loved the film? Not at all. They were taken in, as the vast majority of people are, by the artifice of technique and deception, by the magic of the movies, by brilliant and sparkling dialogue, by inventive and skilled cinematography and, most of all, by inspired acting and role-playing. Our great love of precisely those elements also help to deceive us about everyday life and of history. For artistry for its own sake, the preference for technique at the expense of substance, invention divorced from creation, is just magic.

Isn’t this an assertion of arrogance? Not at all. It is merely pointing out, what Mike was passionate about pointing out, that we all are small, meaningless and naked ultimately as we play our roles in time, and even more pitiful when we play a role obsessed with standing out and above history. These are but acts of enormous vanity. While we exert enormous efforts at playing a role that will raise us to greatness, that will give our life meaning, it is just as important, if not more so, to be always aware of how small we are and how fleeting and ephemeral fame is. Further, if fame is only to be gained by stepping over the bodies of others, better to bury fame.

Eichmann at the pinnacle of his success as an exterminator of the Jews is only a Mike turned inside out and directed outward at the Other. After the war, as he hid out in Germany and in Argentina, as he made plans to re-appear on the public stage, Eichmann did return to the world public stage, not as he envisioned it, but in a courtroom in Jerusalem where he was required to play his greatest role, that of a faceless bureaucrat that is only a cog in a murder machine that was the precise obverse of his performance in history. In the courtroom, he had his ideal critic as he played his new role for the most intellectually significant drama critic at the time, Hannah Arendt, who was totally taken in by his performance, proving what a superior thespian he really was.

Eichmann had to play the humble and pitiful actor rather than the costumed hero of his greatest fame, and though he clearly, in retrospect, bungled the writing, the directing and the performance itself, he nevertheless succeeded in earning an even greater status in history than he ever imagined by playing the role of self-diminution in a so-called banal murder machine. Eichmann desired and dreamt of being Birdman, soaring like an eagle, and not reducing himself to ordinariness, humiliating himself in his own eyes, but, paradoxically that inversion won him a role in history far beyond any that he imagined, as the purveyor of banal evil.

Mike and Riggan are hollow men. By bombarding the image of Eichmann with electrons in a super-collider, each is revealed as infinitesimally small positive and negative quarks, as the two very different faces of a monstrous Adolf Eichmann. Miniscule characters are magnified and revealed when we can see Riggan and Mike writ large as Adolf Eichmann. Even more important, the absence of the Higgs boson particle allows them to disintegrate before our very eyes. This can best be illustrated by sitting Birdman side-by-side Out of Africa, the star-studded Oscar-winner of thirty-years ago.

It would be hard to find two films as radically different as Birdman and Out of Africa. Birdman is set in the small cluttered dressing rooms, narrow corridors and small theatrical stage of a Broadway theatre. Out of Africa is as expansive as Birdman is claustrophobic. Set on the open veld at the foot of the Ngong hills in Kenya southwest of Nairobi, Out of Africa juxtaposes nature and the artifices of civilization, primitive Masai warriors and herders with ex-pat aristocrats largely from Britain, hunters with farmers, and the role of the Kikuyu workers and Somali Muslim house servants caught between these radically different periods in human history. There is NO nature in Birdman, not even human nature; it is all artifice, brilliant artifice, but artifice all the same.

The pace of Out of Africa is languorous while that of Birdman is frenetic. The sound track of each is radically different. The Music of Out of Africa combined traditional tribal music from Kenya and orchestral works by classic composers (Mozart’s “Clarinet Concerto” for example) with a brilliant original score by John Barry that communicated the transition from the tension between a tribal world and a feudal aristocratic order into the modernism of the twentieth century. In Birdman, sound designer Martín Hernández enhanced tension with Antonio Sánchez’ atonal “jazz” playing. Percussion had been taken full circle from the beat of the Masai warriors as they run across the Serengeti to a regular beat, through the background percussiveness of a European orchestra, back to drumming that paces a rapid transition into modernity.

In Birdman, instead of providing a steady beat for the warriors, the beat is very irregular and varied, tuned to reflect the subtext of each scene in the movie rather than set a constant pace for the performance. The drumming stops and starts, resuming at a very different pace to enhance the erratic performances of the characters. Instead of crisp, clear tones, the fractured and broken drumming signals disfunction, irregularity, tension and disintegration. The veld may have been relatively dry in the Serengeti, but was never emotionally dry. The drums in Birdman reflected the dirty realism of the Carver stories brought to a radically new pitch sometimes bordering on and other times breaching the insane.

In Out of Africa, the main tension is between a female and a male, initially between Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep) and her philandering aristocratic husband, Baron Bror Blixen (Klaus Maria Brandauer) and then between Karen Blixen and Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford), a man who refuses to be owned or possessed, but who deeply connects with the immediate other in imitation of the Masai way. He is as direct and honest as the Baron is deceiving and a reprobate. Whether, between the Baroness and the Baron, or in her love affair with Denys, the differences are clearly there, but, in each case, the love that unites them is clear. This is also evident in Karen’s connection with her Somali overseer, Farah (Malick Bowens).

In Birdman, we have a tension between male and male, not as in a boxing moving as a test of strength and skill, nor as in a buddy movie as a test of contrasting characters, but as a competition between two different forms of fabrication with radically different intentions and goa,ls. What we never have is love. What we never have is the injunction of E.M. Forster to “Only Connect” What we cannot find in director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s script and direction is a Higgs boson particle.

Scenes from Birdman

Scenes from Birdman


Howard Adelman

In one terrific scene from Birdman, Riggan sees Sam in a dressing room and asks her why she is there so late. She offers a non-committal account and then Riggan smells pot and flies into a rage. “You can’t do this to me,” he tells Sam. Sam responds: “To you! Everything revolves around you. That is why you are such a lousy father. Further, you do not recognize you are a has-been. You don’t exist.” This is the same language that the part played by Riggan in the play within the movie uses in the last scene before he shoots himself. Everyone knows you are a has-been because you hate bloggers, you make fun of Twitter and you do not even have a Facebook page. For Sam is a contemporary for whom existence is equated with exposure and presence on the internet. Ironically, she is the one who pursues invisibility with the same effort her father seeks visibility. Then when she suddenly realizes that she has hit her father below the belt where he can really feel the criticism, she becomes contrite, but is unable to really say anything. Riggan stays behind sulking, picks up the stub of her joint, starts smoking it, only to burn his fingers.

But Riggan does go viral – when his image is caught as he runs through Times Square in his underwear. As a result, he received over 200,000 hits in the first hour and the twitter account Sam sets up for him, within its first hour, gets Riggan 80,000 followers.

You know Raymond Carver is central to Riggan’s character, not only because he has adapted one of his short stories, but because Riggan carries a note that Carver sent him when he appeared in a high school play in Syracuse that said, “That was a terrific performance”. That was when Riggan knew he wanted to be an actor and he kept the note in his wallet ever since. Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), his co-star and rival in amending the script, offering changes to the direction and otherwise messing with the preview performance (a similar theme and inversion of roles can be seen in the terrific play, Venus in Fur), derides and dismisses the note and states authoritatively that Carver, a known alcoholic, was drunk when he wrote the note on a cocktail napkin.

The note appears once again when Riggan shows it to Tabitha Dickson (Lindsay Duncan), the New York Times critic. The Carver note reaches its end when it is left on the bar counter after Riggan confronts Tabitha, who, as we are repeatedly told, has the power to close the show with her 500 words. Tabitha insists she holds the Sword of Damocles over the success of the show. Mike had already challenged her and acknowledged that she can and will pan him, but he does not bow before her but insists she will only do it when he turns in a bad performance. Tabitha is presented as the stereotype of the actor’s view of the critic – mean-spirited, vengeful, totally subjective and cynical.

Riggan says to her, “You risk nothing. I have risked my reputation, my money and my whole career.” She replies that she will kill the play for she resents him as a Hollywood interloper who played comic book characters. He cannot act but comes with fame and fortune onto her turf, but without any artistic credentials. And he takes the space and air away from much more worthy artistic endeavours. This is not just Broadway versus Hollywood. This is an elitist versus the ordinary Joe, which Riggan in some sense is in spite of his celebrity. He is just trying to earn respect. Her name, Tabitha, cannot be associated with its Hebrew meaning of a gazelle, but with an old TV series about a witch. Except, she is a callous and evil witch of the worst order who has decided to pan the play and kill it without ever seeing it. As she announces to him, “I am going to destroy your play.”

Riggan stands up to her threat with his words, but seems to admit defeat with his actions, beginning with leaving the note behind. Presumably, he has surrendered to the voices, including that of the Birdman inside him, who insists he is a celebrity only and not an actor. However, it is also here that the movie rings false and turns into a farce rather than simply a black comedy. For there is no such critic. It is a projection of a stereotypical actor’s insecurities. Critics, like every writer and performing artist, risks his or her reputation with every word they write. They may have once been playwrights themselves. They understand the effort and the tension in creating a work of art and putting it out for the public – and other critics – to view and appraise. And like the actor, all a critic can do is be as honest with himself and his experience of the work of art as he can be. The theme of confusing love with admiration is hackneyed. The ironic mirroring is overplayed – as with the reference to getting an actor to substitute for Ralph only to learn that he is earning great money with The Avenger franchise. His inner Birdman haunts him: “We are the real heroes. We had it all and gave it away. We surrendered the keys to the kingdom. These usurpers don’t have what you have wasted and thrown away. These people don’t know what you are capable of.”

There is another satirical scene with stereotypes when a number of journalists are interviewing Riggan. One is a pompous pedant who constantly refers to and cites the views of the literary critic, Roland Barthes. Another, from the opposite end of the spectrum, is only interested in gossip and whether Riggan has or has not injected himself with semen. This scene at least has the benefit of the theatre of the absurd, especially when the Chinese or Japanese journalists learn that they are interviewing the famous Birdman, wake up from their dumb stupor, and are suddenly delighted and highly excited.

Just as the reference to semen is an indirect way of highlighting Riggan’s efforts to recover his youth and reputation, the reference to Barthes’ theories also offer an ironic reflective note. For Barthes insisted that language in a play, a movie or a novel was not supposed to represent reality, even when it was written in gritty realistic language. Writing signifies but does not represent and mirror reality. So although the journalist is a boring pedant, there is a real question of what the role of the realism in the script is supposed to impart. What is the ideology behind it, or is this movie a post-modernist expression in which the viewer is permitted to read into the movie his or her ideology of choice. The semiology, not semenology, of the movie, the numerous underwear scenes and certainly the atonal drumming that enters and leaves throughout the film until the drummer actually appears on the streets of New York and, eventually, even in the back hall of the theatre. There is an arbitrariness and playfulness to it all. For Barthes, the two – realism and semiology of props, characters, situations, arbitrariness etc. – do not have to cohere. They can be juxtaposed and, in the dance of the dialectic, play off one another. I believe this is what the movie tries to do.

And that dance is most evidently played out in the dialectical wrestling between Riggan and Mike, between Michael Keaton and Ed Norton. Mike has not been able to get it up for six months with Laura (Naomi Watts), the female lead and his mistress. The scene is adumbrated when Mike asks Lesley to play with his balls, but when they are on stage he takes it one enormous step further. He has an enormous hard-on and, in the name of realism, he wants to have real sex on stage when they are in bed. As Mike later confesses to Sam, it is only on stage that he is real; in life he is a lout and a fraud. So the irony is that he can only be true to himself when he is an Other. In real life, he is impotent.

Mike is the hyper-realist when the only thing real is artifice. He cannot stand plastic bananas used as props – in homage to Barthes. He cannot stand that Riggan uses a pistol in the penultimate scene that looks like a toy gun. Verisimilitude on stage demands reality. There has to be real gin in his drink. And as he makes this declaration in the preview, the cupboards fall down and fragile phony structure of the stage set collapses just as the play in so-called reality will fall apart even when it earns extraordinary plaudits from the critics.

But the show must go on – whether Riggan inadvertently ends up in his underwear or Lesley expresses her fears that she is undeserving of Broadway. So Riggan must soothe her, tell her she is beautiful and great in front of his mistress to whom he has never uttered a compliment of that kind in three years. Over and over again the movie returns to Riggan’s inadequacies – his relative shortcomings as a person, but absolute incompetence as an actor. By contrast, Mike is brilliant as an actor but absolutely incompetent as a person.

He, like Carver, is the real minimalist and Riggan is only an idolater. When he “auditions” for the part, he criticizes Riggan for writing four lines when one will do and when actually, a simple “Fuck you” would be even better. Ignore self-consciousness is his credo. Just sink yourself into the part. But he can only sink himself into the part of a lover with Sam when she goads him on first on the roof and then on the fly loft when they get it off while the other actors on stage are asking rhetorically, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Mike, who repeatedly insists that you should just get into it, just try, when it comes to acting, has heretofore been a total failure when it comes to performing outside the theatre.

The black comedy has some standard tropes, as when Lesley is telling Mike what a snoop and voyeur Sam is just when she is behind the rack of clothes listening to the conversation. When Sam reveals her presence, Lesley goes into a rage at Mike for humiliating her and Mike shoots back, “You make it so easy.” In this case, a staple of broad farce is turned on its head into black comedy.

The subtitle of the movie is “The unexpected virtue of ignorance” which is also the headline of the front page of the newspaper, or, at least, of the arts section, lauding the play in superlative terms. Is the movie declaring the appraisals ignorant whether they pan or praise a dramatic performance? Is the movie commenting on the irony that while it is Mike who reveres absolute realism, it is Riggan who gets praised for an inadvertent mammoth transformative force in the level of realist art? Or does the title subtitle suggest something different again, that the virtue of the ignorance of the audience is what is unexpected by the performers, for it is only in their ignorance blind to the insecurities and conflict of egos that take place behind the proscenium, that allows them to be caught up in the artifice and illusion of both theatre and movies. Or does the subtitle ambiguously refer to all three?

At the beginning of the movie, the voice of Birdman – he will later actually appear – haunts Riggan and asks how did we end up here in this backstage rathole excuse for a dressing room that smells like balls. Birdman takes his stand. “We do not belong in this shithole.” Riggan insists he does not and is intent on proving it through art, not through financial success. And that is the central motif of the movie that shunts all relationships and certainly love to the margins. If his inner Birdman is Riggan’s id and passion for success, Sam, his daughter, is his superego.

Is the movie a satire of crass ambition or of superhero movies with special effects – the helicopters, giant black birds and explosions near the end? Or is a stiletto aimed at theatre and movie critics? Or is the movie perhaps a satire of the pomposity of even philosophical concerns – including of himself, Alejandro González Iñárritu when he directed Biutiful? It may target all of these. In that sense, there may be too much of enough already. For this movie is a hectic, frenetic, splenetic twisted inversion playing realism off artifice, honesty versus craft, and all in the most claustrophobic settings for everything packed into the movie. The hero of the movie is a man who wants to be vain but is not and cannot be, even though that is his greatest ambition which, ironically, he does achieve, but totally inadvertently.

If one loves postmodernism, if one adores identities that continually fracture into divisions, if one loves following the trace through repetition – always emphasized by the drumming – if one is attracted to hyperrealism posing as magical realism, then this movie is for you. But if you like progress in a play instead of sinking in quicksand, if you care for characters who are present rather than one’s known for their absence, if you want performances by people with an identity instead of a split personality, if you want a movie to have a singularity of meaning instead of settling constantly into ambiguity, if you want to be emotionally transfixed and transformed instead of enjoying an epistemic experience, then other choices might be preferable that this overloaded script by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo. But I am sure Hollywood, whether in the Golden Globes or with the Oscars, will fall over itself in love with this movie, for these big egos, who live in a bubble of their own making, love nothing better than to see a reflection of themselves no matter how critical.

Dinelaris said “a few different approaches” were considered, including finishes that felt satirical or dramatic, before the writers settled on what made the final script…”We’re not going to sit around and explain the ending. I guess my thing is, if you can silence the voice of mediocrity, then what is possible? [That] is good enough for me,” Dinelaris said. “But we thought if we answered that question at the end, it would seem very, very small. Is he famous because he shot himself? That’s small. Is he still miserable? That’s small. Everything seemed small.”

Birdman: Riggan and Mike – a Comparison

Birdman: Riggan and Mike – a Comparison


Howard Adelman

In Birdman, Riggan and Mike share some characteristics. But a myriad of others push them into opposite poles. The connection as well as the differences are responsible for the doubleness of the action that propels the drama, a doubleness that forms the heart and core of the universe. I begin by mentioning two fundamental characteristics they share in common. Both men are hollow and lack any spiritual core. And both men are totally self-centred. But first a side trip into T.S Eliot, the source of the phrase “hollow men” in most modern literary and other artistic references.

The phrase comes from T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Hollow Men”, though that is actually not the title of the poem. It is called, “Mistah Kurtz – he dead.” The phrase is not even the sub-title which is “A Penny for the Old Guy”. The popular title comes from the opening stanza:

We are the hollow men

We are the stuffed men

Leaning together

Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!

Our dried voices, when

We whisper together

Are quiet and meaningless

As wind in dry grass

Or rats’ feet over broken glass

In our dry cellar

Hollow men lean against one another and hold one another up. Not one can stand on his own two feet. Like the tin man in The Wizard of Oz, they have straw for brains. In Birdman, they recognize their own sad state. Further, when they speak – which is rare since they most often shout – their voices are dry, quiet and as meaningless as wind in dry grass, or, more gruesomely, as the sound of rats’ feet over broken glass in a dry cellar. Their voices, even when shrill, always grate and leave only the sound of emptiness behind.

This depiction echoes that of Macbeth in William Shakespeare’s play (Act 5, Scene 5) as his plans, like Riggan’s, self-destruct all around him. The description is about what makes good and bad theatre. The latter is always “A Tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Macbeth’s speech has probably been memorized by every school child in the Western world.

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.!Out,Out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

The speeches of both Riggan and Mike are full of sound and fury, brilliant fireworks that signify nothing. Hence, Birdman is a tale told by an idiot savant with great creative inventiveness but without any significance. This is what I wrote sixty years ago about T.S. Eliot’s post 1925 poetry, especially the most famous of all his poems, “The Wasteland” in an essay in 1956 for my second year English class when I was a premed student at the University of Toronto. I called Eliot a brilliant poetic craftsman, but, even according to his own criteria in his critical essays, he was not a poet because a poet was always a communicator concerned with reaching a public and telling or alluding to a great truth. Eliot did not nearly live up to his own criteria. Shakespeare, by contrast, could depict both bad theatre and terrible conduct in real life and on the stage. But he believed in people and believed in love, Eliot was full of contempt that he filtered into his blatant anti-Semitism. In the essay, I attempted to connect his poetic techniques in his later poetry, his literary criticism and his anti-Semitism.

For a student who, on my first assignment in first year, received the worst mark in my English class (16 out of 100 – luckily it did not count toward my final mark), I received an A++ for that essay on Eliot in an era when awarding an A grade was rare. I have always been very proud of that mark, but much prouder of the professor and the institution that awarded it. The professor was an obvious lover of T.S. Eliot as a poet and, I am sure, did not agree with a word I wrote. Yet he gave me that mark.

All this is not as irrelevant as it might first appear. For not only is Birdman mainly a story about hollow men who need and prop one another up in spite of their rivalry and mutual; antagonism and contempt for one another, but the writers and directors are, like Eliot, absolutely brilliant at writing and crafting a movie, but the movie, like Riggan’s pretentious dramatic production itself, is not art. Most importantly, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo all seem to recognize that about their own film.

Their two main characters are certainly hollow men but have the added characteristic of both being self-centred, that is, totally preoccupied with their own personal concerns and careers. To be hollow is one thing. To be determined to fill that hollowness oneself with whatever craft one has acquired, but without a soul, allows for the hollowness to be dramatically expressed. For each, there are very different expressions of hollowness. Let me simply list the different characteristics without any elaboration.

Riggan                                                                Mike

Not talented as an actor                                      Extremely talented as an actor

A has-been                                                          A current Broadway star

Pursuit of fame and visibility                                Pursuit of artistic excellence

Fame through self-embarrassment                     No inhibitions whatsoever

Running through Times Square in underwear

Ironically, is a celebrity only                                Totally careless about personal reputation

Claims to risk all but, in fact, has nothing           Great method actor precisely because he is

really to risk                                                       willing to risk everything once on stage

A devotee of magical realism                             A devotee of tough and gritty realism

A maximalist                                                       A minimalist

An artisan                                                          An artist

Impossibility of suppressing the banal               Resists the banal for artistic greatness                      The cleverness of magic                                   The brilliance of art

Poor communicator                                           Articulate in the extreme

Easily intimidated                                              Cannot be intimidated

Weak ego                                                         Strong ego

Powerful id (Birdman)                                       No id, except for artifice

Powerful superego (Sam)                                 No superego

Full of self-pity                                                  Pitiless

Calamity Jane                                                   Indestructible, more than the comic book hero

No sense of truth                                              Verisimilitude to the real the be-all and end-all

Not ultimately vain                                            Is only vain

So we have two hollow self-centred men dependent on one another but with polar opposite personalities. Riggan may inadvertently produce a “new art” and Mike will continue to reinvent himself as an artist with each stage performance, but, in both cases, it will be a product of emptiness. But what is wrong with that? After all, Nietzsche’s ȕbermensch is characterized by constantly overcoming his old self and re-inventing himself anew. In the movie, the audience feels, and is meant to feel, more pity and empathy for the pratfalls of Riggan than for the monstrous ego of a conniving Mike, but it is Riggan who is perhaps the more dangerous hollow man, an observation not included in the movie. (See tomorrow’s blog.).

In a sense, we are all hollow men made up of atoms that in turn consist of more fundamental particles, up and down quarks and anti-quarks, leptons – electrons, muons and taus and their complimentary neutrinos – and anti-leptons. There are also four forces – gravity which exerts itself on all particles, electromagnetism, the strong force and the weak force. But what holds everything together, what gives shape to matter and form to the otherwise almost complete hollowness, is the Higgs boson particle produced when two gluons collide. The loop of virtual quarks formed in that collision holds everything together. Higgs boson carries the strong force. The difference between being just a hollow man and a human with form and shape is that there is something there, however ephemeral and, in spite of occupying no space at all. That ephemeral virtual non-spatial entity holds it together.

Eliot in the second stanza of his poem “The Hollow Men” envisioned shape without form when there cannot be shape without form. Eliot envisioned force that was paralyzed, an oxymoron if there ever was one, just as there can never be gesture without motion. These paradoxical and impossible combinations are but imaginative exercises in a world which Eliot envisioned as having totally exploded, for there was nothing to hold anything together. In Birdman, there is no dark night of the soul, because, though the night is entirely black comedy, there is no soul. To repeat, there was nothing to hold anything together.

Though Birdman goes through stages – beginning with death’s dream kingdom and with the bulk of the movie focused on death’s twilight – the movie ends as Riggan leaves through the hospital window into death’s other kingdom. For there is limbo then hell, but no redemption.

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper.

The movie drifts downward from determination and resistance of Riggan to both the voices of his id and of his superego. Riggan is then forced to submit to Mike’s much superior artifice. Though these characters provide the double side of drama in a movie about performance, the film as a whole lacks this doubling dialectic. For there is no redemption, not even a possible one. The movie is driven only by a thirst for fame but never for a thirst for divine love. There is bathos and irony, mocking juxtapositions and a few hilarious scenes, but, in the end, Riggan disappears out the window and we are left with the pathos of mental and spiritual exhaustion.

Birdman and Raymond Carver

Birdman and Raymond Carver


Howard Adelman

Birdman has been nominated for five Golden Globe Awards. On Thursday, Birdman tied with The Grand Budapest Hotel for the most Oscar nominations with nine, including best picture. After watching the film, or about 75% the first time, I told my family that I did not intend to review it. After watching it again Saturday night, in full this second time, I changed my mind.

I saw it the second time to justify my reaction to my wife and two youngest sons who thought Birdman was one of the best films they had seen in a long time. But that is not the real explanation. For, quite honestly, I usually do what I feel like without feeling any need to justify myself to anyone. Perhaps it was because I could not identify with the emotional life crisis that Michael Keaton experiences in playing Riggan Thomson. It is not as if I could not identify with having a crisis of the soul – I myself had a tremendous one when I was about Riggan’s age in the film. But my crisis was about relationships, not about my identity or career or reputation as an academic, or, as in the movie, an artist. Or so I thought.

After the first viewing or partial viewing, I was not entranced by the film, though I did not leave the film because it upset me or bored me. It just had not grabbed me. And I felt very tired. On my second viewing I saw that, although I had followed the events of the film the first time, I had missed the layers of meaning. The failure to grasp the film had been my fault. I was much more intrigued and interested in the film the second time. But it still did not grab me by the balls or play on my heart strings. The film still remained heartless. So a strong spoiler alert. Do not read this review until you have seen the movie because I have to go into great detail to explain my response.

Like I was thirty-five years ago, Riggan, in the movie, also is in trouble with his relationships – with his daughter Sam (played brilliantly by Emma Stone – more on that later), with his current mistress, Laura (Andrea Riseborough) who is pregnant and then not pregnant, with his ex-wife, Sylvia (Amy Ryan) and even somewhat with his female co-star, Lesley (Naomi Watts), though not very much since she is even more insecure than Riggan is. But the relationship that is most troublesome is the one with his male co-star and his competitor for acting talent, Edward Norton as Mike Shiner.

But all of these troubled relationships initially seem peripheral to the central crisis – his inner one. Is he washed up as an actor, forever stereotyped as a comic book superhero that he played over twenty-years-ago in a series of three blockbuster movies (as Michael Keaton actually did playing Batman), or does he have the talent to revive his career, to prove himself on Broadway rather than in Hollywood, by writing, directing and starring in his own adaptation of Raymond Carver’s 1981 short story from his collection by the same title, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love?

Is this a movie of a play within that reflects on the theme and characters in the movie? I had read one of Carver’s stories about ten years ago in its original version in The New Yorker, and it seemed like a version of the one in the movie, but I cannot be sure and do not have the Carver collection of short stories. But from the snippets dramatizing the short story in the movie, from the front notes and the various references and mirroring of the original story, the movie is a series of carnival mirrors both reflecting and distorting the original story.

This initially seems odd, because this movie is about a has-been actor trying to adapt the short story as a play, directing and starring in it. But the original story as retold in the film is about two couples sitting around a table drinking gin and talking about what true love is. There are two complementary and opposite stories within that discourse just as the doctor’s wife and his male friend adopt two opposite views of love. In one, an older couple who have been in a car accident with a young drunk driver who was killed, end up in body casts. The doctor mends their bodies, and then reports to the older man in his body cast to tell him he will live. He learns that his patient is still in despair. What for? Because he was unable to turn his head to see his wife through the eye sockets in his cast.

If I remember correctly, it was this story within the story of the play that I read, and not the story of the two couples drinking and arguing about love and whether, in the other story told around that table, one woman’s former very abusive husband really loved her. Did he kill himself to protect his love from his uncontrollable rages?

So it helps to understand Raymond Carver to interpret the movie. I saw the quote from Carver the first time I saw the movie, but despaired when I forgot what it said though I committed it to memory. I am just getting old. Or I might just have been too tired. On second viewing I scribbled it down. Scribbled is the correct way to describe what I did in the dark so do not expect word for word accuracy.

“Did you get what you wanted from this life?

I did.

And what did you get?

To call myself beloved to find myself beloved on the earth.”

Raymond Carver

So the movie was to be about achieving your goals in life. And somehow that achievement was to be measured in terms of love. There must be a dialectical tension between ambition and love. However, in watching the movie both times, the issue of love seemed to be an epiphenomenon to the core dynamic about a has-been actor trying to redeem himself who confuses love and admiration. Perhaps it was because the movie, unlike Carver’s prose, did not proceed in a straightforward lineal step-by-step development, even though it gave all appearances of being a continuous tale since there were no cutaways, but rather the very interesting artifice of a continuing shoot achieved evidently by matching frames. But the movie was anything but continuous. Rather, it was like the graphic in which the initial quote was revealed on the screen. The letters appeared in random fashion and one could only read the full message once all the letters were in place. Was the movie to be understood only when it was over?

Does that explain the repeated references to Carver even though the style was in many ways so different? But the stories are so apposite. All of Carver’s stories, as far as I know, were about lower-middle-class individuals, not Hollywood and Broadway stars with egos the size of the moon only matched by insecurities the size of the sun. Carver’s story, like the one I referred to above that is referenced in the play within the movie script, though it did not have “love” in the title, was about love, not about talking about love, but about what real love was held out to be. For the depressed and alcoholic Raymond Carver, there is a clear message – love is the deep attachment of one human for another. Though the old man and woman were unable to communicate or even to see one another, their deep love could not be hidden even behind a body cast. But the first level of the play within a play is about mistaken love, about either love as possession by an abuser or someone who claims love to be absolute. This latter romantic love is but the inverse of possessive and abusive love, except in romantic love one kills oneself for it, whereas in an abusive possessive love, one kills the other. So what does it mean when the abuser kills himself?

Carver’s stories, though told very directly and simply, also reverberated with quite profound philosophical issues. Birdman seemed to be the opposite, a story not told straightforwardly, but as narrow and bent and twisted as the corridors and cross aisles in the back of the theatre where most of the movie takes place. The movie is not about the lives of ordinary people crushed by outside forces, but about competing inflated egos who seem totally hollow on the inside. One could not detect the least trace of love in the whole movie, even at the end when the daughter brings her father flowers and he strokes her arm. One only gets the sense of longing for what they both missed.

In both substance and style, the two forms of art of the Carver stories and the movie do not seem to have much if anything in common. Carver belonged to the school of Kmart or dirty realism school of writing to which Cormac McCarthy and Carson McCullers belonged. The stories are very easy reads, but very different from the Chicago school of potboiler realists I read as a kid that romanticized gangsters and crime. The themes in Chicago realism were constant, however variable the plots and characters – the tension between the effort at maturing and discovering who you are as you grew up and tried not to get crushed in an urban world of greed dominated by organized crime and corrupt politicians.

Carver’s stories were about ordinary people facing ordinary challenges – lack of a job or a shortage of money – in very mundane situations set in motels and small New York or other suburban homes, or even on their lawns. The setting in Birdman is anything but ordinary, for the movie takes place almost entirely in one place, as with Carver’s stories, but in the St. James Theatre off Times Square with an illustrious history of great dramas and performances. The characters in Birdman, however, may use the short, staccato sentences of Carver and its brutal frankness, but are radically different. They are at once pompous and self-centred and totally insecure at one and the same time. It is hard to feel compassion for any of them – except for Jake (Zack Galifianikis), Riggan’s partner and co-producer, the only sane and stable lead character in the movie who, with great forbearance, tries to hold the whole mad mess together.

Further, the style of the movie, in contrast, is rooted in magic rather than dirty realism. After all, the movie begins with Riggan in his underwear levitating about three feet off the ground in a yoga- like pose. Riggan can also move objects around at a distance, with his confession to Jake that he is responsible for the sandbag (or counterweight or light?) falling from the fly loft onto the first actor he had cast for one of the main characters in the play when that actor playing Ralph (Jeremy Shamos) turned out to be a dud. (Ralph returns at the end of the movie in a wheelchair to pile more troubles onto Riggan as he threatens a suit, in spite of Jake’s claim that he has silenced Ralph with a threat to reveal his obsession with nuns in diapers to the public.) However, these absurdities, these unreal and unbelievable events, always remain rooted in the real world – until the end. But the movie reverses the prime mode of magic realism by not beginning with realism and allowing interventions at odd moments in the plot to take the narrative in an unusual direction. The movie begins and ends with the unbelievable so that the viewer does not know whether this is a deliberate illusion or a projection of Riggan’s imagination, since the movie is otherwise so strongly rooted in the real.

But magical realism and dirty realism do have certain common elements that help us understand the movie. First, in reading Kmart realist stories, and in watching Birdman, there is a cold detachment that makes it very difficult to empathize with the characters. The detachment is also ironic so that, although we rarely laugh out loud or ever guffaw, except perhaps when Riggan gets locked outside the backstage door when he goes out for a smoke and his bathrobe gets stuck in the door so that he has to run through Times Square in his underwear to go around to the front of the theatre to regain his entrance and then re-enter the play from the aisle of the auditorium. This is but one of many of the zany and absurd predicaments in which the characters find themselves and at which we smile with an inner grin. And although dirty realist stories start with the mundane and the banal versus the movie that begins with star-studded characters from the magical worlds of movies and Broadway, they end up in the same place, in the midst of black comedy with the characters stripped down to their savage essence – especially when they are naked or in their underwear.

But the two modes of telling a story are so at odds, that one is more puzzled than enlightened by the selection of the short story that is to be adapted for the stage. Perhaps they are linked by language. In Carver’s stories, the language is always simple and completely unadorned. In the movie, the language is course and raw, but also always hysterical and out of bounds, except for Jake when he either tells it as it is or tells outright lies about the audience and a famous attendees to stroke the egos of his actors. When Lesley asks him whether it is true that Scorsese will be in the audience, Jake replies sarcastically, “Yeah and the new pope too.” In contrast, Sam, who sees through everyone and is, therefore, cynical and not upbeat like Jake, offers a deeper honesty. She chooses and offers dares, for truths are too easy to pronounce.

To Be Continued – Tomorrow: Scenes from Birdman