Of Lions and Mice in Darfur
The most recent effort to grapple with the far-reaching international response to the Darfur conflict comes from Steven Fake and Kevin Funk in “The Scramble for Africa, Darfur-Intervention and the USA.” The book offers a leftist critique of humanitarianism in Darfur that is inspired by Noam Chomsky’s accounts of NATO’s 1999 intervention in Kosovo. The central theme is that humanitarian arguments conceal an imperial-capitalist agenda through which the west, spearheaded by the U.S., seeks to subdue the rest of the world. Thus, campaigns for humanitarian intervention in Darfur serve U.S. interests, and therefore, Darfur activists are naí¯vely co-opted by big-power interests – an analysis reminiscent of Mahmood Mamdani’s recent book, although “The Scramble for Africa” was written before “Saviors and Survivors” was released.
The book is an interesting read and it is well-researched (as evidenced by the 180 pages (!) of endnotes). Also, the authors usefully point to some discrepancies between rhetoric and action in western countries’ response to the Darfur conflict, such as the rejection of Darfurian refugees or the lack of funding for AMIS peacekeepers.
However, the book has its own double standards. For example, it ignores that most Arab countries have remained largely silent on Darfur, while publicly denouncing the plight of Muslims elsewhere, from Bosnia to Palestine and Kashmir. Fake and Funk are also excessively anti-American, going as far as to demand that “Washington must pay reparations for past crimes in Sudan” (p. 125). The book ignores the helpful contributions of the U.S. in ending the North-South conflict, and it is one-dimensional insofar as it downplays Sudanese agency and exaggerates U.S. influence in Sudan. Jean-Franí§ois Bayart’s criticism of dependency theory is relevant here. Africa’s relations with the world are a two-way street and, despite power imbalances, “occasionally the puppets pull the strings” (e.g. when African dictators finance electoral campaigns of western politicians).
Throughout the book, one has the impression that Fake and Funk want to make a broader point about how the world works, choosing evidence from Darfur to suit this purpose. The problem is that Darfur is not a convincing example of Western imperialism and in many ways contradicts leftist analysis of international affairs.
If, as Fake and Funk contend, the US government in Sudan was primarily motivated by oil interests, counter-terrorism and geostrategic competition with China, would it not make sense for the U.S. to foster a good relationship with Sudan, similar to, say, Saudi Arabia? Would it not make sense to ignore human rights violations and focus on business relations and security cooperation? Indeed, this is how Sudan was handled during the Cold War, but things are different today. The U.S., especially under G.W. Bush, is antagonistic towards Sudan. It called the Darfur conflict genocide (the first time in an ongoing conflict); it issued sanctions against members of the Sudanese government as well as US companies operating in Sudan; and most importantly, it supports the arrest warrant against President al-Bashir.
These measures are significant and go much beyond, as the authors argue, “rhetorical and propaganda value” (p. 50). The Obama Administration has somewhat softened its approach and there was, and may still be, cooperation on anti-terrorist matters. Nonetheless, the relations between the U.S. and Sudan are currently not good, as China’s dominant role, the absence of US oil companies, and clashes in UN fora demonstrate. The most important reason for the strained relations is that US interests in Sudan are more humanitarian than geostrategic. This is not because the US or any other government is inherently humanitarian, far from that. Rather, it is because an influential domestic constituency – first on South Sudan, then on Darfur – that has developed sufficient leverage such that its normative agenda has prevailed over realpolitik considerations. The result of this development was quite positive in South Sudan, where the U.S. played a helpful role in brokering the CPA, but is more ambiguous in Darfur.
Finally, “The Scramble for Africa” offers an interesting example of the tension in left-wing thinking between anti-imperialism and human rights, as highlighted by Richard Just in his review of Mamdani’s and Garth Evans’ recent books. Those devoted to human rights seek to meddle in the affairs of governments that violate human rights, and they are willing “to judge, to oppose, and even to undermine such governments.” Anti-imperialists, on the other hand, are skeptical about interventionism as well as the norms and institutions underpinning such interventions, as they inevitably reflect power imbalances inherent in world politics. For example, it is unlikely that big powers will ever be the targets of humanitarian interventions or that one of their nationals will be tried by the International Criminal Court. Thus, following Fake and Funk’s analogy, the mice (small powers) will be caged, while the lions (big powers) are left free to roam the earth unfettered by international legal constraints.
In parts of the book Fake and Funk manage to strike a balance between human rights and anti-imperialism. This is the case for their discussion in the foreword of the ICC’s involvement in Sudan as well as their “manifesto for Darfur activism” (pp. 123-126) that contains a number of sensible policy recommendations (with the exception of the claim that the U.S. should pay reparations). Unfortunately, the “Scramble for Africa” reverts back to a maximalist anti-imperial position that paints all conflict intervention as a western conspiracy to undermine Africa. UN peacekeeping forces, for example, are described as “an integral element” in the subjugation of Africa by oil-thirsty big powers (p. 60). Therefore, the UN-AU force in Darfur “operates under significant Western influence, and thus will ultimately serve a humanitarian agenda only insofar as it serves an imperial one” (p. 88). In other words, the lions are back in Darfur, and they are wearing blue helmets. It is funny then that there are no lions, but only mice among UNAMID troops.
David Lanz is a PhD candidate at the University of Basel and works with the Swiss Peace Foundation, swisspeace. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.