December 7, 2012 by soniauwimana
People often ask me who bankrolls Jason Stearns? George Soros? State Department? CIA? All of the above? I always opt for (e) who gives a hoot (although I don’t say “hoot”)?
Jason Stearns seems to work hard and deserves to get paid and, frankly, it’s none of my business who pays him. As I have written repeatedly (lest I get branded part of the Kagame attack machine) I have a small amount of admiration for Stearns as an author. As such efforts go, Dancing in the Glory of Monsters, was not an altogether awful book. I certainly read it through to the last page which is more than I can say for:
- Lord of the Rings
- The Old Testament
- The New Testament
- Folie et déraison, or anything else written by or about Michel Foucault
Tepid praise for his okay book aside, I have been scathing about Stearns as a blogger and commentator because it seems crystal clear to me — but completely invisible to anyone outside Africa — that he is up to no good. I do not know a single person in this region who trusts Stearns’ motives and methods even a tiny bit — and, yet, he has masterfully positioned himself as this above-the-fray voice of God figure when it comes to matters Central Africa in the West. He is at the crux of profound cultural and intellectual dissonance between those of us who experience African politics from the inside and those who observe it from without. It is genuinely fascinating and perplexing to me.
One of Stearns’ cleverest tricks is that, in the context of a highly fraught and often vicious discourse over and between the Congo and its neighbors, he never overtly attacks anyone (with occasional exceptions, such as that execrable minerals trader profiled by Bloomberg earlier in the week that even Montgomery Burns would have trouble defending). Stearns is assiduous on this point, always opting to attribute negative language to unnamed sources such as “diplomats in Kigali/Kinshasa/Kampala” or “senior commanders within the FARDC”. In this way, he is able to portray his “analysis” as the logical extension of his unparalleled access, well-connectedness and superior knowledge. Everyone else opines; Stearns knows.
In an little-heralded Twitter exchange last week, Stearns defended Steve Hege’s controversial Understanding the FDLR fact-sheet, not by raising doubts about its authorship as he has done in the past, but by saying it was “analysis” and not “advocacy”. This is nonsense on two fronts: first, no fair reading of the Hege paper can conclude it is not a work of advocacy (in explicitly promoting a new and more benign view of the FDLR); second, the distinction between analysis and advocacy itself is pure sophistry. All analysis is advocating a point of view and I defy anyone to identify a single exception to that rule.
Of course it suits Stearns to say “I just analyse, I don’t advocate”, and it suits the media to buy it because they need an “impartial expert”, but that doesn’t make it any less absurd. Every time Steve Hege or Jason Stearns put pen to paper or lips to microphone, they are advocating a point of view whether they prefer to call it analysis or not.
Advocacy dressed up as analysis is what sustains the multi-billion dollar lobbying industry from Stearns’ home country. In DC, the Heritage Foundation, the Brookings Institution, the American Enterprise Institute, you name it — these guys spend a good part of their bloated budgets on well-paid “experts” to analyse problems and report findings that, wouldn’t you know it, always manage conform to the ideological orientation of the originating institution. It is therefore commonplace that two analyses of the same problem, often conducted by people of comparable expertise and intelligence, can come up with diametrically opposed findings. Is this because one of the two batches of analysis is flawed, wrong or the analysts corrupt? No. It’s because the problems we face in life — healthcare, tax versus spending, foreign policy priorities — are not arithmetical problems with one possible correct answer. Every analysis will reflect the biases, ideologies and intellectual assumptions of the analyst. Each conclusion is therefore just a point of view — admittedly, some better informed and more intellectually robust than others, but a point of view nonetheless. And we, as the reader, tend to gravitate towards the kind of analysis that suits our pre-existing worldview and baulk at those that challenge said same.
It is therefore the height of cynicism, elegantly concealed, that Stearns encourages the fallacious notion that the eastern DRC is a puzzle that only he has the requisite knowledge and insight to solve. This is how he is portrayed in the Western media and Stearns must know it is a scam — if he hasn’t, that is, fallen for his own PR.
Speaking of public relations, Stearns often chastizes others for being motivated by PR concerns. He repeatedly argues that sanctions and aid cuts are justifiable weapons to deploy against Rwanda because, for Kigali, reputation is of paramount importance (more so, he implies, than eradicating poverty or preventing a repeat of the genocide). This assertion always, always goes unchallenged — and, in fact, lazy reporters are prone to repeat versions of it themselves: Rwanda is obsessed with its international image, Kigali’s powerhouse PR machine, blah blah. We know the trope well — and it comes directly from Stearns’ analysis. And yet, I would argue that it is a highly contestable assertion. I cannot think of a less PR-conscious or stage-managed political leader than Paul Kagame. If he has ever — even once — uttered a talking point written on his behalf by a spin-doctor or PR consultant, I would be amazed. Name another leader anywhere in the world about whom this could be truthfully said.
More recently, Stearns has claimed that M23 left Goma for public relations reasons. This analysis has been quoted uncritically and ad nauseum throughout the western press. But this morsel of analysis truly sinks to the level of complete bullshit. I mean, seriously: the fall of Goma was a PR disaster for M23 — and not, say, for the FARDC, DRC government or MONUSCO? Stearns must know this is nonsense, but he keeps saying it anyway. Why? First: he can get away with it because, hey, he’s Jason Stearns. And, second, by convincing people that M23 were acting out of selfish PR concerns, he undermines their role in Kampala’s peace talks which Stearns is on the record predicting will fail. And could this cynical undermining help doom the regional solution that Stearns has been dispassionately, calmly, analytically insisting is doomed from the outset?