Monday, April 16, 2007

Progress in Darfur? Well... kind of

This past week has, surprisingly enough, seen a bit of potentially positive movement in the Darfur crisis (along with the usual flood of bad news). The New York Times reported a few days ago that China, in the face of a growing international grassroots campaign excoriating China's support for the Sudanese regime, is beginning, finally, to put some pressure on Khartoum to curb the horrors taking place in Darfur. It would seem that an increasingly image-conscious China does not want to go down in history as hosting the "Genocide Olympics" next year. Also in recent days, the Times reported that many of the anti-government rebel groups in the region have been discussing forming a multi-ethnic alliance against the central administration which has the potential to re-shape the conflict. Finally, today, Khartoum has officially withdrawn its objection to the deployment of a 'phase two' UN force into Darfur as a step towards quelling the violence.

Let me be clear, my optimism at this point is tempered by more than three years of watching the international community do virtually nothing to stop the carnage in the Sudan (or Chad, or the DRC or...). I also have absolutely no confidence that President Bashir is making anything beyond a minor adjustment to his murderous policies in response to pressure that, finally, is beginning to build from all sides (witness the simultaneous revelation that Khartoum has been shipping arms to the region in violation of UN sanctions). Irrespective of whether or not anything comes of these recent developments, however, they do have some lessons to impart to analysts of global politics writ large:

Lesson One: Self-interest still rules the day. The unfortunate fact is that the supposed leaders of the international community - The United States, the EU, Russia, China - have dumbly watched one of the greatest crimes of recent decades unfold before their eyes with full knowledge that they had the power to stop, or at the very least curb, its effects. For all the posturing, moralizing, and talk about building constructive international solutions, these leaders have done next to nothing to stem the slaughter. In this instance, I blame not only the relevant governments (though they get the lion's share of it), but the relevant populations as well. Though support for intervening more forcefully in Darfur has been broad-based for some time (at least in the West), there is a difference between supporting a policy and pressuring political leadership to implement one. Broadly speaking, the populations of the worlds powerful nations (among whom, to my embarassment, I count myself) have not brought serious pressure on their governments to stop the genocide (witness Nick Kristoff's latest column on the political economy of genocide).

The reasons for this are somewhat understandable. The United States is fighting (and losing) several major wars. The threat of terrorism now seems ubiquitous, and not just in America. In nations rich and poor, people have been trying to come to grips with the dislocating effects of globalization and demographic and cultural transformation. Global warming poses an increasingly imminent threat to the ways of life we all take for granted. Add to all that the fact that intervening in Darfur, even in a non-military context, has the capacity to impose serious political costs (yet another Western intervention into the internal affairs of an Arab state - must be to take its oil) and the failure of leadership in Darfur becomes less baffling, if no more excusable. For better or worse, Darfur demonstrates that consistent, aggressive, muscular intervention by world powers in times of humanitarian crisis remains more of a dream than a reality.

Lesson Two: Grassroots action works... sort of. What progress has been made, notably in bringing the issue to the eyes of the world in the first place, and in shaming international governments into taking what paltry action they have, has been the result of concerted, coordinated efforts by groups of active citizens worldwide. While some may look at this pessimistically - noting that years of focused action has produced little in the way of results - I prefer to take a more optimistic view, believing that, in the future, the global citizenry will be capable of more effective action.

Lesson Three: Legitimacy Matters. One of the reasons the United States has had difficulty showing leadership on the Darfur issue (other than the fact that the United States has abysmal leadership of late) is that our credibility as a quasi-legitimate, relatively benign global leader capable of commanding respect has been shattered by Guantanamo, Iraq, Abu Gharaib (insert inexcusable scandal here). Ten years ago, had the U.S. offered a muscular response to Darfur, the notion that America was using the crisis as a cynical excuse to gain control over Sudanese oil would have gained few adherents. Now, it would get traction. America has lost the moral credibility necessary to provide effective leadership, and it must be regained before U.S. power will be effective in any positive way.

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