As an eighth-grader learning about American slavery, I had a fantasy. I imagined that some elite Marines and I could outfit ourselves in the latest combat gear and travel back in time to the year 1820. Once we arrived in the heart of the slavery era, we’d storm the plantations with superior weaponry and free the slaves. Problem solved. It would be awesome, and I’d be a hero.
Of course, as I learned in later study, the abolition of one of history’s most monstrous atrocities was not such a simple matter. Dismantling slavery meant the splitting of a nation, a civil war that sacrificed 600,000 lives, and a burning of the South that – while possibly justified – entailed extreme and morally repugnant violence. And of course, war was only part of the solution. There were the complex political negotiations, the recalibration of society that, 150 years later, is still incomplete.
I kept thinking of these episodes in my education as I read Richard Just’s August 27 take-down of Mahmood Mamdani in The New Republic. The article – a review of Mamdani’s Saviors and Survivors and Gareth Evans’s The Responsibility to Protect – concludes that Mamdani’s book is a paranoid failure, but that Evans proposes a refreshing idealism (though Just finds that the R2P proponent is a little too conservative in promoting his doctrine).
The review is one of the stronger all-out criticisms of Saviors and Survivors I’ve read. (I haven’t read Evans’s book yet, so I’ll limit my reflections to Just’s comments on Mamdani’s, which are the bulk of the review.) Just convincingly argues that the Save Darfur Coalition is not monolithically aligned with the architects of the Global War on Terror, and the links between SDC’s motives, the ideological milieu in which it blossomed, and the movement’s actual effects are not as cut and dry as some passages in Saviors seem to suggest.
But Just takes his criticism of Mamdani much further, practically dismissing his entire book as a misguided tirade, “chilling” and lacking in “humanity.” His allowances for the value of Saviors are miniscule. Just writes with apparent disdain that Mamdani’s emphasis on the importance of context – it “becomes something of a fetish” – has obscured the real issue of immediate violence in Darfur. He posits that an invasion of Sudan in 2004 would have stopped the deaths and killing.
It’s that last point that makes me think of my childhood fantasy of salvation. Just is right that the raw ideals of protecting those in danger are noble ones; I believe that, too. But context – not least, history – complicates things, in extreme and important ways. It is the political, economic and social context of my fantasy slave revolt (notwithstanding the pesky lack of time travel) that would have made my ninja assault on Southern plantations foolhardy. The people of 1860s United States had to solve the problem themselves.
The idea of solving Darfur through military intervention strikes me as being nearly as fantastic as my slavery-ending daydream.
While I understand that for some people it comes from a noble impulse, that in no way warrants the belittling of attempts to understand the context of what is going on. It sounds defensive, and it smacks of an unwillingness to consider any serious criticism of the SDC (and affiliate) position.
The Darfur conflict is a toxic and incredibly complicated brew of land disputes, power grabs, environmental catastrophe, ethnicized political rivalries and decades-long militarization. Rebels were not even fighting for the same goals; they had no unifying ideology. War and drought amplified historical injustices that spun out of control. All sides committed atrocities – though vastly more were by government-backed forces. It’s a war whose every cease-fire and ultimate resolution have screamed out for the need to address context, and this is one of Mamdani’s main points.
So the open hostility and then dismissal of all aspects of Mamdani’s arguments – which I’ve found characteristic of SDC hardliners in the blogosphere and at public events – is a posture I can’t reconcile. I get that people grate at the tone of the debate. I wouldn’t want to be on the wrong end of zingers like Mamdani’s “child soldiers” of Save Darfur remark, either. And in a media atmosphere saturated with lurid descriptions of Darfur’s ultraviolence, I also get how some readers might take a relative lack of focus on those aspects as flippancy.
In Just’s hostility, though – like a lot of other Save Darfur people who have reviewed Saviors and Survivors – he misses important points, and a chance for some meaningful self-reflection. Save Darfur’s misapprehension of the context of the Darfur tragedy is now well-documented and has had real consequences. A political affairs official with the U.N. Mission in Sudan (UNMIS), who asked not to be identified because she is not authorized to speak to the media, told me that the political process in Darfur “is very unique because of the amount of international attention.” Rebels, the official said, knew that advocates had helped stack the deck against their adversaries in the Sudanese government. “Being a rebel became a favorite pastime in Darfur,” because it meant “wining and dining” by international organizations, the official said.
Based on tidbits like this, it seems to me like activists’ dismissal of context may have actually prolonged the conflict.
It all makes me wonder: even if you’re not willing to dismiss the movement outright, why not seek to improve it by fixing things that are wrong with it? The refusal to seriously engage with criticism makes SDC look more and more like the caricature lampooned on the Save Darfur Accountability Project blog.
Now, it’s not to the credit of Saviors and Survivors that its tone has apparently failed to get SDC and the most hawkish R2P advocates to listen. But even more so, the lack of a thoughtful reaction to the book’s most convincing criticisms is an indictment of SDC.
There are crucial questions that intellectual leaders of SDC have evaded, lost in the din of their more violent objections to Mamdani. The conflict is still frequently described in the less-well-managed sections of the movement and the media (including in Just’s review) as one between “Africans and Arabs,” obscuring its direct, material causes, not to mention using two categories that are not logically comparable. (SDC has attempted to rein in that description, but I’ve seen it persist everywhere.) Meanwhile, the objectives of the movement grow blurrier by the day.
More deeply, though, there is a broad and glaring issue that persists, and one good thing about Just’s article is that he acknowledges that this is one huge question at stake. From the Belgian Congo to late-colonial Kenya, saving locals from themselves has been an excuse for imperialist invasion and exploitation. In the era of the Global War on Terror, and of the hypocrisy in the United State’s policies in the Middle East, why shouldn’t anti-imperialists be deeply suspicious of ever more rights-based arguments for war, emanating from the world’s biggest military power?
Even when intervention has been directed at truly odious regimes, the result is poisoned by the context of imperialism in which it occurs. All liberals thought the Taliban was terrible, and Saddam, too; our invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq have not brought us any closer to long-term solutions for those countries. Haven’t they – especially in Iraq – created more death and oppression?
Indeed, in a half-century that included Vietnam and Laos and Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, shouldn’t American activists be looking at different ways to help? Or, when we propose running to get our guns, should the world take our earnest professions of idealism and good intentions at face value?
Eamon Kircher-Allen is a journalist currently based in Tanzania. This post also appeared on his blog, http://longgonedaddy.wordpress.com/.