Darfur Activism: The Debate Continues (Part 1)
Posted on behalf of Jeff Weintraub, Visiting Scholar, University of Pennsylvania
I have continued to follow your writings on Darfur with keen interest, if not always with total agreement. This included your on-line Newsweek debate with John Prendergast, as well as your subsequent postscript in the SSRC blog “Making Sense of Darfur.”
I appreciated the characteristic seriousness and intelligence with which you carried out your side of the debate. And of course I agree with your general point that in such matters good intentions and empty moralizing are not enough–a morally and politically serious response also has to include a realistic analysis of the problem that recognizes, among other things, the complexity of the situation in Darfur and the inherent limits and constraints on any possible solution.
Nevertheless, I must say that on the whole my sympathies in the debate tended more toward the position being defended by Prendergast and his associates–and I confess that this sympathy extended to a number of their criticisms of the kinds of public arguments you have been making recently. These really do come across to many readers, observers, and polemicists as a slightly unbalanced attack on the whole “Save Darfur” movement and on other activists who have been trying to arouse public opinion about the ongoing Darfur atrocity, and I’m afraid that they really do give aid and comfort to forces who would rather see the outside world do nothing at all about the crisis in Darfur–either because of a futilitarian conviction that any action is hopeless anyway, or from a so-called “realist” perspective that sees mass murder in distant exotic countries as none of our business, or in order to change the subject to attacking Blair & Bush & Zionism & imperialism, or because such people are simply supporters of and/or apologists for the Khartoum regime. And all this is a great pity, in my view, since you are clearly one of the most knowledgeable, serious, and genuinely engaged analysts of this whole catastrophe, and I am sure that none of this is what you intend.
Such, at least, are my (possibly fallible) impressions.
Elaborating on all the issues I’ve just mentioned would take a while, and I don’t want to go back over all the arguments that you & Prendergast have already exchanged. So for the moment let me just offer two brief remarks on some passages from your postscript (Dueling over Darfur) in the SSRC blog:
Is the current chaos in Darfur what the government wanted and planned — as you contend — or was it the product of a confused and ultimately counterproductive counterinsurgency, as I argue?
Did the Khartoum government really hope and plan for the current level of military and political chaos in Darfur. Perhaps not … but is this really the central point at issue? I don’t think so.
When you speak here of “a confused and ultimately counterproductive counterinsurgency,” isn’t this just another way of saying that the Khartoum regime deliberately embarked on a strategy of using genocidal mass murder and ethnic cleansing in order to crush a set of local insurrections that they were unable to defeat militarily–pretty much along the lines of strategies they had used elsewhere in Sudan? As John Prendergast cogently summed it up, “the government of Sudan indeed had the intent to in part destroy the Fur, Zaghawa and Massalit ethnic groups to punish them for supporting the Darfur insurgency, to cut the umbilical cord between rebels and their supporters, and to send a message to all would-be rebels throughout Sudan that this would be your fate if you rebelled.” They appear to have succeeded.
In this respect, you have argued <a> that the Khartoum regime (or, at least, elements in the security services) did not embark on this campaign of genocidal mass murder and ethnic cleansing from a position of confidence and strength, but rather from a sense of weakness and even panic, and <b> that in some key respects the results have gotten out of their control (though their war against the “African” civilian population, as distinct from the rebel groups, has been a smashing success). Both of these points strike me as plausible, and I am certainly willing to accept them for the sake of argument.
But in terms of the really central issues at stake, I would have to ask–so what? Does that in any way negate or even qualify the fact that this was a “counterinsurgency” campaign consciously based on genocidal mass murder and ethnic cleansing of civilians? Not that I can see.
But your advocacy often leans perilously close to branding Khartoum’s rulers as unreconstructed evil.
Well, they are, aren’t they? Sometimes one has to make deals with evil forces and regimes, but why should we try to pretend that they are something different from what they are?
Let’s be even more specific. You have been arguing that, in the real world, political solutions that reduce human suffering and mitigate catastrophes (to some necessarily incomplete degree) often require reaching agreements with criminals and mass murderers that are carefully tailored to reassure those criminals and mass murderers that what they regard as their vital interests will not be threatened. OK, fine. But why is it either useful or realistic (as opposed to “realist”) to pretend that they aren’t actually criminals and mass murderers?
I would say the opposite. Precisely since the option of trying to topple and replace the Khartoum regime is not even remotely on the table (which, whatever fantasies might exist in Khartoum or among some LRB readers, is obviously the case), and because therefore any possible solution has to involve hostile negotiations with the Sudanese rulers, it is especially important to avoid whitewashing them and to keep in mind who and what they are.
I prefer to see the Sudan government as weak and sometimes incoherent, and to see the militia strategy and the mass killing in Darfur as a product of its internal weaknesses. That’s not an exoneration.
OK. But for many of the people who quote you, or who take the general “it’s-all-more-complicated-than-that” line, it IS advanced as an exoneration. If you want people like John Prendergast to go out of their way to hammer home explicitly that “regime change” in Khartoum or a military invasion of Sudan are not on the agenda (and the idea that either of them is on the agenda is ludicrous), then I think it would also be incumbent on you to hammer home a little more frequently and explicitly that you do not favor letting the Khartoum regime and its foreign supporters off the hook, and that you recognize that some degree of international pressure on the Khartoum regime is a necessary (though not sufficient) part of the solution.. This might include, for example, distancing yourself more explicitly from serial apologists for genocide like Mahmood Mamdani and from those who insinuate that the whole movement to help the victims in Darfur is somehow an imperialist and/or Zionist plot.
(You suggested to Prendergast that “We need to be concerned with the whole array of groups and individuals taking public stands on Darfur.” OK, but if this injunction is taken seriously, it shouldn’t be applied only to individuals and groups who support action to stop the Darfur atrocity and to help the victims. Shouldn’t it also apply to “the whole range of groups and individuals” who, explicitly or implicitly, oppose taking any serious action on Darfur and, at worst, act as apologists for the Khartoum criminals and their foreign supporters?)
Part of your larger argument with Darfur activists like Prendergast has to do, not simply with their own intentions and actions, but with what you perceive to be the indirect and unintentional effects of their agitation and of the rhetoric they help to encourage. I agree that these are serious concerns. But it seems to me that similar cautions apply to people espousing positions like yours–especially since, as you are no doubt aware, the underlying agenda of most people who criticize the “Save Darfur” movement is not that they would like to see more sophisticated and effective measures to reduce suffering in Darfur and the rest of Sudan (which, of course, is what you want), but instead that they would like to avoid dealing with the problem of Darfur entirely.
And that is always going to be the default option of any governments (western or otherwise) who are not subject to public pressure on the issue of Darfur. Contrary to some of the conspiratorial fantasies floating around, western governments are not looking for excuses to intervene militarily in Sudan, using Darfur as a pretext. In the real world, they would be happy to find more excuses not to do anything about Darfur (even make empty noises), and only sustained pressure from an aroused public opinion will ever persuade them to behave otherwise. In that same real world, the public pressure that most western governments have been feeling on the issue of Darfur has been shamefully weak, not excessive–and outside the US and (to a lesser degree) Britain, it has been fairly minimal. So I’m sure you don’t want to help people who would like to see that pressure simply go away.
I mean that last sentence seriously, not ironically. I’m sure you don’t want to help them. Well, that means facing up to the realities and complexities of politics in western societies, just as you would like Darfur activists to face up to the realities and complexities of politics in Sudan. In this respect, Prendergast made what strikes me as the crucial point:
Frankly, if you removed the advocacy movement from the equation, absolutely nothing would have been done on Sudan. So it’s not that activists diverted energies from what otherwise would have been a good approach; rather, we created attention and momentum around a set of issues that would have been ignored, at no cost, otherwise.
I don’t know whether you would disagree with this analysis. But if you do agree, then it would be useful to publicly underline your agreement (before adding any “but” you might want to add). This is especially true since I am afraid there is a good deal of truth to another point that Prendergast made:
Whatever your intent, those activists that have read anything you have written of late are trying to understand why you are saying that activists are more part of the problem than of the solution.
Perhaps this is an inaccurate and even unfair interpretation of what you have been arguing, but then (as you have been reminding Darfur activists) life is often unfair. And Darfur activists are not the only ones who get that impression–so do many of those who oppose taking any serious action on Darfur (from futilitarian, apologist, conspiratorial, or so-called “realist” perspectives). Again, I am sure you don’t want to give aid and comfort to such people, and I’m sure that you want to improve Darfur advocacy and make it more sophisticated, not discourage it. In the end, without the (desperately inadequate) level of public concern and mobilization about Darfur that has been achieved in some western countries (though too few), there would be no prospect of anything at all getting done.
Yours in solidarity (if not always in agreement),