This blog has become a hotbed for ardent discussions about the inefficacy of the Save Darfur Coalition and the theories for American influence in Sudan. While much of the criticism is astute and deserved, it seems as though the SDC and the American government have become proverbial punching bags lately, often at the expense of understanding each one’s multifarious make-up.
Steven Fake and Kevin Funk’s new book, Scramble for Africa: Darfur-Intervention and the USA, is no exception to the trend of SDC critics. These two activists examine the pitfalls of the Save Darfur Coalition and the poisons of American intervention in Africa in their new book. Fake and Funk’s analysis is bold, throwing punches at American foreign policy and providing guidance to activists eager to direct their energy towards positive change in Darfur.
To support their points, Fake and Funk construct their arguments by consulting the many recent books written about Darfur. Their knowledge of the current material is wide-ranging; however, their use of secondary sources is so frequent that their citations and annotations comprise more of the book’s 300 pages than their analysis. While the book is well-researched, and is a good resource for perusing the current literature on the Darfur conflict, the extensive annotated commentary and excessive citing complicate their overall argument. Many of the annotations include between three and seven paragraphs of commentary, which often serve as digressions from the original arguments.
The strength of the book, on the other hand, is that it explains the Darfur problem within the context of America’s greater struggle for Sudan and Africa at large. In this regard, the book’s emphasis is focused more on the global context of the Darfur conflict than it is on the current and historical sub-state environment (there is little to no discussion of the local history of the Darfur conflict). Fake and Funk make strong points about America’s use of humanitarian intervention as a tool for asserting its power and gaining geostrategic leverage in Africa. They chronicle the decades of American involvement in Sudan and point out how destructive this intervention has been.
While much of what they say about American double standards and self-interested policy is certainly true, Fake and Funk fall into the same trap that Mahmood Mamdani did in his recent book Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror: assuming that there is some greater conspiratorial effort behind Western institutions. For example, Funk and Fake overemphasize the role of Chevron in influencing Sudanese policy, suggesting that its presence in the 1970’s was the reason why President Gafaar Nimieri and the American government suddenly became hostile towards southern Sudan. According to the authors, Chevron’s “good fortunes” may have helped guide the policy decisions of the American and Sudanese governments. In reality, however, Chevron’s presence in southern Sudan was probably more of a liability for the Sudanese and American governments. Nimieri’s policy shift is perhaps better explained by his abrupt “born again” moment (whether genuine or political) when he began to side closely with the Islamist movement, which had always been opposed to a cooperative relationship with the South. Furthermore, Chevron never made a profit in Sudan and ultimately had to sell out to other companies before oil was even exported. This history makes it unlikely that Chevron’s “good fortunes” made a difference to policy-makers.
As the book progresses, Funk and Fake take every opportunity to deride Western (mostly American) involvement in Sudan and craft a collage of American offenses around the world, ultimately making the case that the US is fixated on oil, geostrategic leverage and its “war on terror”. Examples of American misdeeds are carefully selected from historical accounts in Somalia, Palestine, Rwanda, Iran, Kurdistan and other regions to prove the point that the US is guided only by greed and power. While it is certainly true that American involvement around the world has been destructive and often ill-intentioned, weaving together examples of American misdeeds in the absence of the complex legislative and contextual environments surrounding each incident seems to be an oversimplification of each case in order to make a broader point.
The authors direct a similarly cynical analysis at the Save Darfur Campaign and the US media in the second half of the book. Funk and Fake suggest that some of the Darfur activist groups have “ulterior motives to buttress US foreign policy designs,” while others are driven by “racist and imperialist tendencies.” In keeping with the conspiratorial tone of the book, the authors cite numerous examples of how the US media “suspicious[ly]” gave more coverage to the Save Darfur rallies than it did to the Iraq War protests. The authors assert that this disproportionate coverage was due to the fact that the Iraq War was a “war of Washington’s own making,” intimating that the media and Washington had some sort of special agreement. While indeed there may be some truth to their claim, the lack of evidence proving this linkage contributes to the book’s conspiratorial tone.
It is true that the media, activists, policy-makers, oil companies and many other Western participants are all in some way responsible for contributing to the deterioration of the situation in Darfur and many other places around the world; however, their motivations are not as homogeneous as the authors would have one believe. The Darfur activist movement comprises many different agendas and participants, as does the media, the US government, the UN and even oil companies. Therefore, instead of searching for a broader, more Manichean agenda, perhaps this trend of criticism and cynicism towards Save Darfur should be redirected towards identifying which parts of the movement are leading it astray.