‘Save Darfur’: Emancipatory American Exceptionalism?
Several contributors to this blog have disputed Mahmood Mamdani’s arguments about the links between “˜Save Darfur’ (in the wider sense of the mass movement) and the George W. Bush Administration’s “˜global war on terror,’ or conversely supported them. I think there is another and more fundamental point that needs to be made: the “˜war on terror’ and the call for halting genocide by (principally American) military intervention possess a comparable moral logic.
Let me caricature them both. The “˜war on terror’ as mounted by the Bush Administration identified “˜evil’ as a concrete enemy that could be destroyed by military action. If a discrete number of “˜evil’ individuals were detained or killed, then the world would resume its secular progress towards societies and political systems that look more like America. As it happens, these “˜evil’ individuals tend to be Muslims and Arabs, and they supposedly hate America because of its freedoms and its success. And all that America needs to know is whether a person or a country is “˜with us or against us'””the task is not to understand the world but to change it in America’s favor, while America’s huge power renders detailed knowledge redundant.
The “˜war on genocide’ as envisaged by the liberal interventionists identifies “˜evil’ in the form of individuals and governments which can be removed by military action or judicial activism. Genocides are perpetrated, according to this narrative, because powerful states (i.e. America) fail to intervene (politically, early, or militarily, when necessary) to halt the march of evil. If those determined to be genocidaires are apprehended by the ICC or killed by U.S. cruise missiles, then the world will continue to progress towards respecting human rights and practicing democracy and justice (as America should do so if its leaders were properly respectful of the Constitution and Bill of Rights). As it happens, the first government identified in this way is Muslim and Arab, and it allegedly wants to eliminate Africans because they are different (and perhaps more diverse in their faiths). And all that America needs to know is whether “˜genocide’ is happening and which evildoer is responsible. Once this determination is made, any further academic analysis is redundant.
This is a caricature of both. We shouldn’t judge either project by the crasser claims made in campaign advertising, though we should ask why leaders find if acceptable and meaningful to use words like “˜evil.’
Many of those involved in prosecuting the “˜war on terror’ recognize that the better route to suppressing jihadist militancy is through promoting better government and development in the Muslim/Arab world, through cooperative and respectful dealings with Muslim and Arab governments, and through seeking peace with dignity for the Palestinian people. The cooperation between the CIA and Sudanese intelligence is one of those anomalies in which old-fashioned realists won out over ideologues (compare America’s rebuffs of Syria and Iraq in 2002-03).
Many of those who advocate forcible measures to prevent genocide or protect its victims also have more nuanced views. Gareth Evans chastises me for “˜misrepresenting’ his views on the “˜responsibility to protect’ as chiefly a charter for intervention””a challenge I must take up another time.
But having fielded questions on Darfur in many public fora, it’s also clear that the “˜Save Darfur’ caricature contains elements of truth. There are many Americans who genuinely believe that the main challenge to stopping genocide is for the U.S. armed forces to be prepared to intervene, and for the President and Congress to possess the “˜political will’ to dispatch them, in time with the right mandate.
Mahmood Mamdani has an acutely sensitive nose for the slightest whiff of neocolonialism or any agenda that promotes western political or ideological domination. His suspicion of “˜Save Darfur’ is widely-held across Africa, and not just among ruling elites. It is important to be alert to the way in which the “˜Save Darfur’ agenda reverberates with a host of other agendas of power and ideology. Mamdani’s description of the faith-specific cards handed out to the Darfur demonstrators in Central Park should make any liberal squirm. His characterization of the “˜Darfur’ of public imagination as a “˜moral high ground’ rather than a real place with history resonates with the way in which Darfur’s tragedy has too often been instrumentalized for other purposes. His observations about the sources and use of the funds for the Save Darfur Coalition, at least until 2008, are also discomforting. The fact that Mamdani holds his own””or better””in public debate with his adversaries shows that his critique has hit a nerve. Some activists are their own caricatures.
But that does not mean that it is correct to argue that “˜Save Darfur’ is “˜the humanitarian face’ of the “˜war on terror’. I don’t believe this is supported by the evidence and I think that it also misses the fundamental relationship between the two.
A first point is that “˜Save Darfur’ is “˜humanitarian’ only in a limited sense. The mainstream of institutionalized humanitarianism, as exemplified by the U.S. NGOs, MSF and the ICRC (each representing a different strand) has had an ambivalent relationship with the “˜Save Darfur’ movement. The campaign is (as Mamdani notes elsewhere) a move beyond the old apolitical style of humanitarianism and also beyond the classic approach of human rights organizations, which don’t explicitly deal with questions of political power. It is a political project, unafraid to deal with challenges such as using force. If the interventionists got their way then they would define U.S. military action in Sudan as a “˜humanitarian war'””something that would mark a departure from other definitions of “˜humanitarian.’
A second point is that the Bush Administration’s attitude to the campaign was ambivalent. “˜Save Darfur’ was not a pawn of any branch of government, not least because it complicated U.S. cooperation with Sudanese intelligence on counter-terrorism and made it difficult to sustain discussion on the implementation of the CPA.
In some circumstances, “˜Save Darfur’ and the war on terror converge on the same themes, for example support for Israel or Europe’s alleged moral spinelessness. “˜Save Darfur’ exports about as well as the “˜war on terror’. They also share another feature in common: they enjoy professions of support across sub-Saharan Africa, but the same people who avow loyalty also discreetly express their fears about the project. Is interesting to note how Mamdani’s book resonates in Africa: it speaks to people’s worries about the humanitarian imperium, while they are equally concerned that this critique will let abusive leaders off the hook.
In other areas, there are sharp divergences between the war on terror and the war on genocide. The Center for American Progress, one of the leading liberal institutes associated with the movement, is also a prominent critic of human rights violations perpetrated by the U.S. in the war on terror and in Iraq. One impulse among the movements’ members is to redeem the misuse of U.S. power in Iraq and Guantanamo by projecting force in Sudan in a moral manner. The slogan “˜Out of Iraq and Into Darfur!’ observed on Save Darfur demonstrations was meant with all seriousness.
One striking feature about the “˜Save Darfur’ campaign has been the breadth of its support across the American domestic political spectrum. Only the unreconstructed left, the isolationist right, and those professionally involved in conflict resolution in Sudan, have been outside the bipartisan consensus which condemns Darfur as “˜genocide’ and the Sudan Government as “˜evil.’ Save the occasional embarrassment such as over the visit of Gen. Salah Gosh to the CIA, the Darfur movement has been notably unthreatening to the U.S. political establishment.
Third and most important, this formulation gives analytical primacy to the “˜war on terror’, rather than to the mindset and political economy that turned the U.S. confrontation with al Qa’ida into an ethically unconstrained projection of American power. Rather than conspiracy, I think we have a partial convergence of worldviews: both projects share the fundamental belief in an emancipatory American hegemony. While the “˜war on terror’ made liberalism subservience to American power, the fight against genocide wants to reverse the hierarchy. “˜Save Darfur’ falls within a wider “˜liberal absolutist’ (in Anatole Lieven’s felicitous phrase) and American exceptionalist movement. It bestows on the U.S. the right to identify “˜evil’, and excise it thereby creating a better world””saving other nations from the prison of their own history.
It would have been more accurate to describe “˜Save Darfur’ as the liberal interventionist face of U.S. hegemony, at a historical moment when American supremacy was showing a particularly ugly countenance. That is its strength as well as its weakness. There is much more to say on this: the movement’s biggest challenge is become genuinely internationalist, at a time when the new U.S. President is showing remarkable signs of internationalism.