Posted by: sean | June 5, 2006

On non-intervention in darfur

In addition to Kuperman’s piece, David Rieff has also penned a case against intervention in Darfur in the New Republic, which Reeves hotly and thoroughly counters.

He sees the issue through the lense of Iraq in 2003 instead of, say, Rwanda in 1994 or Iraq during the genocidal al Anfal campaign to Arabize Iraqi Kurdistan in the 1908s. Rieff casts doubt on the reality of genocide in Darfur and says that those who call for intervention in Darfur are ignoring the politics of Darfur (which he seems to be less than well-versed in himself, the truth be told):

Were politics present in their thinking, pro-Darfuri intervention activists would not use the reductionist dichotomy of victims and abusers that has been the staple myth of humanitarian intervention. The people being killed by the Janjaweed have political interests. So do the extended families of the Janjaweed themselves, who, lest we forget, are also Darfuris. To describe the former simply as victims deprives them of any agency. To describe the latter simply as killers precludes actually understanding the conflict as anything other than an eruption of human wickedness, rather like a volcano or an earthquake.

One debilitating defect of the liberal interventionism is that it ignores the political implications of what it calls for. …

…[A]n intervention, however good it may be for the Darfuris, may be terrible for the rest of the world.

Reeves criticizes Rieff for mistakenly attributing secessionist ambitions to the Darfuri rebels, not discussion the spread of the genocide into Chad, irresponsibly casting doubt on the reality of genocide in Darfur and generally being ignorant on Darfuri politics.

In fact, we must wonder what “agency” a nine-year-old girl has when she is brutally gang-raped by the Janjaweed, or what “agency” a five-year-old boy has as he is thrown screaming into a bonfire along with his brothers, or indeed what “agency” a one-year-old boy has when the Janjaweed slice off his penis and he bleeds to death. “Political interests” here is an abstraction that can have meaning for very few besides David Rieff. There are real political issues in Darfur, including competition over natural resources and power in governance, as well as competing visions of equitable distribution of land and wealth. Rieff captures none of this in his account.

If the Abuja accord does fail, if violence then inevitably rapidly escalates in Darfur and Chad, it will be too late for hundreds of thousands of lives. We have simply waited too long, with too many sufficiently encouraged by specious arguments of the sort so abundant in Rieff’s account. In this sense it is perhaps useful to have Rieff articulate his factitious “realism,” to invoke so glibly the difficult “politics” of Darfur, to pretend that Iraq has somehow changed the imperative of responding to massive genocidal destruction.

Anne-Marie Slaughter writes in her TMPCafe piece, Rethinking Darfur that after reading Kuperman and Rieff, she’s having second thoughts. She doesn’t go into any specifics, but the gist of her piece is that maybe we shouldn’t intervene, because the situation is complicated:

I want to help the victims of the Janjaweed as much as anyone. But the Europeans have been arguing for some time that the situation is far more complicated than a simple morality tale would make it out to be. And surely if Iraq has taught us anything, it is to think very hard about what happens AFTER we go in and stop the initial killing. It may well be that even if an AU solution is slower and less effective up front, it will be more effective over the long term, whereas if the U.S. or NATO go in, we will find ourselves again “in charge” of a situation we barely understand and cannot control, ultimately visiting yet more chaos and death on the very people we seek to help.

To my mind, this is similar to seeing a woman getting raped and murdered on the street and hesitating to do anything about it because the situation is likely to be complicated. What will other people in the neighbourhood think if I intervene? What did that woman do to make those men decide to rape and murder her?

Of course the situation is complicated, as are most conflicts. We don’t live in a world of black and white, and we never have. Just because the sitauation surrounding a genocide is complex does not mean that there is any less of a moral imperative to stop it. The politics of Darfur are complex, as were the politics of Rwanda in 1994. What is not complex is that genocide is being committed, and either one believes that genocide carries the weight of a moral imperative or it doesn’t. Finally, Slaughter seems more interested in wringing her hands and hoping against all odds for the best. Rieff at least calls a spade a spade when he asks brings up the idea that even if intervention is better for Darfuris, maybe it would be bad for the rest of the world.

This is an interesting question that smacks of utilitarianism. But before answering it, we should ask ourselves two questions: First, given the number of dead incurred during World War II, should the international community have given up Czechoslovakia, Poland, Austria and the Jews in those countries in order to avoid the tens of millions of deaths that were a result of direct military confrontation between Axis and Allied powers? And second, are we sure that there will not be more death and conflict as a result of allowing a genocide to happen?

The first question is of a moral nature and can be difficult in some instances, if not in this one. The second one is about history and its consequences. Would the Congo be such a hellhole if we had not let the Rwandan genocide come to pass? In the case of Darfur, it is important to look at what this genocide means for Chad, and by consequence, the Central African Republic and Cameroon. If Khartoum is emboldened and allowed to topple Deby’s (distasteful) regime in Chad, the bloody and ongoing history of the Congo might repeat itself.

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