Feb 1 2008

The Humanitarian Temptation:

Calling for war to bring peace to Darfur

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Genocide Intervention Network

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Genocide Intervention Network

In the Darfur region of Sudan, truly horrific atrocities have taken place in recent years: Roughly 200,000 people have died from violence, disease or hunger (Science, 9/15/06), and well over 2 million have been driven from their homes, resulting in a severe humanitarian crisis. Such crises often go criminally ignored by a mainstream media seldom interested in the plight of those who suffer the double invisibilities of being distant and dark-skinned.

But Darfur is a little different: Propelled by a well-developed activist campaign and persistent appeals from both major celebrities and the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof, Darfur has managed to gain a small media spotlight.

Though the conflict erupted in early 2003, it took a good year for the press corps to take notice. But in the spring of 2004, in the shadow of the tenth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan gave media a hook, closing a commemoration speech on Rwanda by urging action on Darfur (AP, 4/7/04).

What’s more, the conflict was framed by some as a genocide with “Arabs” slaughtering “blacks.” Throw in the fact that the “Arabs” were acting under the auspices of an Islamist government that had harbored Osama bin Laden in the past, and it made for a simple and compelling narrative in post-September 11 media culture, with a corollary simple and compelling solution advanced by many media opinion-makers: “humanitarian intervention.”

‘The world must act’

If the Sudanese government refuses to stop the killings, the argument goes, then our moral compass dictates that outside forces should do so in one form or another.

“The genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan goes on and on,” wrote the Boston Globe (3/1/06), “because outside powers refuse to mount a humanitarian intervention with the required level of force”—NATO troops being the Globe’s force of choice. The Globe, one of the earliest and most consistent media voices on Darfur, had urged such an intervention from very early on (6/27/04), emphasizing that (8/1/04) “diplomatic dithering in the shadow of a genocide is unpardonable.”

“A U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing coercive force” would be preferable, according to the Washington Post (4/26/04), but the paper made clear (7/22/04) that “even in the absence of a U.N. resolution, the world must act,” and “if Europeans and other rich donors won’t act, then the United States will have to do so.”

The New York Times (10/12/06) agreed, pushing NATO as the ace-in-the-hole if U.N. troops failed to materialize: “Khartoum might feel less cocky if Mr. Bush announced that he was taking the lead on soliciting troops for a peacekeeping force while asking NATO to start drawing up plans for a possible forced entry should the United Nations fail to act.”

Op-eds from prominent Darfur pundits were even more forceful. “Regime change alone can end genocide as the domestic security policy of choice in Sudan,” wrote Smith College professor Eric Reeves in the Washington Post (8/23/04). “And it is the only thing that can avert the deaths of hundreds of thousands in Darfur.” Reeves’ voice echoes throughout the media; his name comes up in relation to Darfur nearly 500 times in the past four years in a Nexis search of U.S. media.

Also in the Post (5/30/04), Susan Rice, a former Clinton official on African affairs and a popular pundit on Africa-related stories like Darfur, co-penned a column in which she called on the U.S. government to “begin urgent military planning and preparation for the contingency that no other country will act to stop the dying in Darfur.” In the absence of such actions, she wrote, “the international community [will] have blood on its hands for failure to halt another genocide.”

Genocide’s special status

Certainly the controversial claim that what’s taking place in Darfur is a “genocide”—a label the U.N., the African Union and many aid groups and other experts dispute—provides the crucial moral underpinning for many of the media calls for armed action. Genocide does have special standing, as Kristof has pointed out (3/27/04): The U.N. genocide convention “not only authorizes but also obligates the nations ratifying it—including the U.S.—to stand up to genocide.”

It’s that uniqueness, some argue, that makes military intervention the response of choice. As Franklin Foer wrote in the New Republic (5/15/06), “In the response to most foreign policy crises, the use of military force is properly viewed as a last resort. In the response to genocide, the use of military force is properly viewed as a first resort.”

There’s also great emotional weight behind a genocide, particularly in the wake of Rwanda, an oft-cited analogy for Darfur. “Nothing on the global agenda is more urgent than rescuing Darfur’s people from a campaign of extermination that conceivably could equal in magnitude the genocidal rampage by ethnic Hutus against ethnic Tutsis in Rwanda 12 years ago,” wrote the Sacramento Bee (3/8/06) in an editorial headlined, “Rescue Darfur—Now; Sanctions Alone Won’t Stop Slaughter.”

Even when the word “genocide” is not used, the calls for intervention regularly point to the urgency of the situation as trumping all other considerations. Newsday (4/6/06) acknowledged the debate around “the effectiveness of military intervention for humanitarian reasons,” but it seemed to find that debate irrelevant because of “the scale of the Darfur crisis,” which imposes on the U.S. a “moral obligation to try to stop the killings” via a NATO operation.

The Times’ Kristof, too, judged that any humanitarian fallout from aggressions he prescribed must be tolerated under the circumstances (8/6/07). He argued against ground troops, but called for a no-fly zone and the destruction of Sudanese bombers as retribution for any villages bombed, and acknowledged that “many aid workers will disagree with this suggestion, for fear that Sudan will retaliate by cutting off humanitarian access. But after four years, I think we need to show President Omar Hassan al-Bashir that he will pay a price for genocide.”

Exaggeration of scale

The consistency of these appeals to the gravity and urgency of the situation paint a picture of a massive “genocidal rampage” (Sacramento Bee, 3/8/06) that has been continuing relentlessly at full tilt since the beginning. But regardless of what terms and labels are used, it’s indisputable that the worst of the violence had already ended by the time the vast majority of the media even started paying attention.

The most intense period of conflict lasted from late 2003 to early 2004; on April 8, 2004, a ceasefire agreement was signed and major offensives ended in the area, and by June the Sudanese government began lifting restrictions on humanitarian aid access. The best estimate of mortality in Darfur, according to a GAO review (10/06), put violent deaths from September 2003 to January 2005 at 35,000, while another 83,000 died from displacement-related causes like disease and malnutrition (Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, 5/26/05). (When pundits like Kristof—10/29/06—claim that “so far, several hundred thousand black people have been slaughtered in Darfur,” it is both an exaggeration of scale and a misleading conflation of violent and non-violent deaths.)

Violence and displacement continue, but as a result of the de-escalation of the conflict and the aid effort, mortality rates began to decrease in 2004; by mid-2007, U.N. records indicated an average of roughly 100-200 violent deaths per month in the previous 24 months. Notably, many of the recent incidents have been carried out by groups other than the Sudanese military or the government-backed janjaweed militia, the only aggressors in the popular media narrative (SSRC.org, 6/20/07). In March 2007, Doctors Without Borders, which has been on the ground in Darfur since 2003, stated, “Today, it is totally incorrect to speak of large-scale massacres, of genocide, of famine and of large epidemics in Darfur.”

Darfur is unquestionably in crisis, but the situation on the ground for the last few years—when all of the above media proclamations were made—is less a Rwanda-style bloodbath than a large-scale humanitarian crisis with some two and a half million people driven from their homes. In other words, media’s main justification for intervention is a severe distortion of reality.


Necessary amnesia on Iraq

A “humanitarian intervention,” as benevolent as it may try to sound, at its core means non-consensual military action against a foreign country—war under the banner of humanitarianism. The remarkable thing about nearly all of these media calls for intervention is that, beyond the appeals to urgency and morality, virtually no effort is made to explain exactly why or how one should believe that aggressive military action is what will bring peace to Darfur; readers, apparently, are to take that as self-evident. “If the United Nations is not willing to intervene,” the St. Petersburg Times asked (7/27/04), “how can it be taken seriously as a force for peace and humanitarianism?”

The equation of intervention with peace and humanitarianism is particularly remarkable in the wake of Iraq. Despite the Bee’s declaration that “nothing” is more globally urgent than rescuing the people of Darfur, Iraq is unquestionably a much larger humanitarian crisis. Best estimates put the death toll in Iraq at over a million. (See Extra!, 1-2/08) According the UNCHR, 4.4 million Iraqis are currently refugees or internally displaced, despite widespread media attention on a relative handful of Iraqis returning home.

The “liberation” of the Kurds and Shiites from a genocidal dictator was from the beginning presented as a key justification for the Iraq War, increasingly so as the WMD argument lost all credibility with the public. Even now, calls for keeping U.S. troops in Iraq are based primarily on claims that a pullout will “result” in a humanitarian crisis—as if one were not already well underway.

The Bee’s amnesia is just one more example of the media’s refusal to acknowledge the humanitarian disaster that is Iraq, let alone take lessons from it. Iraq must be forgotten rather than learned from if we are to successfully deal with Darfur. The Washington Post (7/22/04) argued forcefully that, “if the nation is to avoid succumbing to an Iraq syndrome to match the Vietnam syndrome of the past, it must prove its continuing readiness to lead in the world”—and go it alone in Darfur if necessary.

“Has the grim shadow of Iraq, and fallout from the crisis in Lebanon, paralyzed the Western democracies in responding to a terrible ‘genocide by attrition’ among the African tribal populations of Darfur?” inquired Eric Reeves in a Post op-ed (9/3/06).

Iraq is cast as the exception, the “bad” war that has made it more difficult for us to advance “good” wars like Darfur. “Unfortunately for the victims of Darfur, too many of their advocates have come to view [American] power as tainted, marred by self-interest and by its misapplication in Iraq,” wrote New Republic editor Lawrence F. Kaplan in the L.A. Times (4/23/06).


The Kosovo ‘success’

But there is an example pointed to on the rare occasion that media actually try to make a case for intervention: Kosovo. If Iraq is the failure we must forget, the 1999 Kosovo War is the success that proves both the righteousness and effectiveness of humanitarian intervention.

“Perhaps the Bush administration’s effort to repackage the immensely unpopular war in Iraq as a Wilsonian crusade to free a subject people has discredited the very principle of humanitarian intervention,” mused the New York Times’ James Traub (7/18/04). But Kosovo, he wrote, was the place to look for an analogy to Darfur:

In the case of Kosovo, intervention to roll back ethnic terror ultimately worked: NATO’s 78-day bombing campaign forced Milosevic’s paramilitaries to withdraw. And yet neither the United Nations Security Council nor any other body has contemplated such an act in Sudan.

The Times’ Kristof (10/29/06) similarly pointed to success in Kosovo as precedent, asking why the U.S. wouldn’t act to save black people in Darfur when, “after fewer than 10,000 white people had died in Kosovo, the U.S. intervened to prevent a genocide.”

Kosovo set an important precedent for interventionists; the fact that NATO acted without U.N. backing is now used to argue for circumventing the U.N. again. The New York Times (10/12/06) scorned the international body’s insistence on a consensual deployment in Darfur and reminded readers that “when the Russians blocked U.N. action in Kosovo, President Clinton got NATO to stop the killing.”


Putting out fires with gasoline

That the Kosovo War was both a moral imperative and success has always been media gospel (Extra!, 7-8/99; Extra! Update, 8/99). But the U.S.-led NATO bombing in fact didn’t “roll back ethnic terror” or “stop the killing,” it escalated them. The year before NATO planes started bombing, some 2,500 people had been killed in Kosovo (including both ethnic Albanians and Serbs), and 230,000 displaced. Once NATO intervened, the Serbs dramatically stepped up their attacks, and during the 78 days of NATO airstrikes, Serbia killed an estimated 10,000 people and displaced more than a million more (Foreign Affairs, 9-10/99).

While most of those Albanians eventually returned, a new “ethnic terror” unfolded under NATO occupation: 90 percent of the Serb population, as well as many Roma and other minorities—some 250,000 people in all—fled in the face of Kosovo Liberation Army revenge attacks and intimidation. After eight years, more than 220,000 remain displaced, and there are still more than 21,000 internally displaced people within Kosovo (UNHCR.org, 9/22/06, 11/9/07).

Eight years later, bitter ethnic divisions are as entrenched as ever, and Kosovo remains deeply impoverished, corrupt and under U.N. occupation; the supposed goal of a peaceful and multiethnic region is certainly no nearer achievement post-intervention.

But media can’t seem to look past military “victory” to see such disasters. New Republic assistant editor James Kirchick, arguing (L.A. Times, 11/18/07) that “only the U.S. military has the power to bring Khartoum to its knees,” wrote that those who resist the deployment of U.S. or NATO forces for fear of stirring up even more anti-American sentiment among the world’s Muslims should think back to the U.S. firebombing of Dresden in World War II and the bombing of Belgrade in the Kosovo War. “Did the fact that we (and our allies) antagonized people during these military actions make those interventions unjust?”

Obviously, people were far more than “antagonized” in those attacks; tens of thousands of civilians died in Dresden, and beyond the horrors noted above that were precipitated by the NATO intervention, an estimated 1,600 Yugoslavian civilians were killed by NATO bombs in the Kosovo war (Washington Post, 7/11/99).

Bombing civilian targets in cities, as happened in both Dresden and Belgrade, easily fits the bill for war crimes under the Geneva Conventions, but the idea of committing war crimes against civilians for the purpose of preventing or punishing others’ war crimes against civilians never seems to strike interventionists as problematic.

‘Overly simplistic analysis’

The Kosovo War was sold—just like the Iraq war—as a black-and-white, good vs. evil conflict in which one ethnic group oppressed another and that we could easily set right by using our military might against the “bad guys.” Clearly, both situations were more complex than that, and the fallout from both wars had much to do with those unacknowledged complexities. Darfur is no different.

Though media calls for intervention tend to present the conflict as “rampaging Arab militias . . . slaughtering black non-Arabs” (Columbus Dispatch, 8/6/07), the reality is much more complicated. “Arab vs. black” was never a particularly accurate or helpful distinction (Extra!, 5-6/07), in part because the “Arabs” are no less black then the “blacks”; today it is even less so. Warring parties are proliferating, the rebel groups have splintered and number at least 15, and they’re not simply defenders of the targeted villagers—rebels have been responsible for both intransigence in the peace process and attacks on African Union troops. Rebels, janjaweed and others are forming alliances and rivalries that hopelessly blur the clear lines the media have drawn.

Doctors Without Borders/ Medecins Sans Frontieres argued (MSF.org, 6/14/07) that calls for military intervention “seem to be coming from an overly simplistic analysis of the situation. . . . We are talking about an extremely complex situation with widespread violence committed by a number of different actors in a region the size of France.” The group warned (MSF.org, 2/22/07) that “a nonconsensual military intervention would lead to a collapse of humanitarian activities in Darfur—just as it did in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq . . . and is very unlikely to translate into less violence against civilians.”

Another major humanitarian group working on the ground in Darfur, Action Against Hunger, sent out a press release in response to activist and media calls for intervention (5/18/07) warning that,

because the conflict is spreading and the number of instigators of violence is increasing . . . a non-negotiated intervention . . . could have disastrous consequences that risk triggering a further escalation of violence while jeopardizing the provision of vital humanitarian assistance to millions of people.

War threats undermine peace

The alternative, of course, is negotiating a peace. Media often pay lip service to the need for a “negotiated peace agreement” (Kristof, New York Times, 3/13/07), acknowledging that “without peace even a large peacekeeping mission may be doomed” (Washington Post, 11/11/06).

Tragically, there’s a case to be made that media’s focus on military intervention has played a role in the failure of the peace process thus far. Darfur expert and Social Science Research Council program director Alex de Waal, who was involved in the Abuja peace negotiations, explained (Harvard International Review, 3/21/07):

Unfortunately, the clamor for U.N. troops has consumed most of the diplomatic energies of the United States and its allies over the last 18 months, diverting efforts from achieving a peace agreement that was within grasp a year ago but has now slipped away.

Moreover, the push for intervention, he argued, “unrealistically raised the hopes of the rebels and intensified the fears of the government.” One of the two key rebel leaders refused to sign the Abuja peace agreement, saying, “I need a guarantee for implementation like in Bosnia”—in other words, the military intervention that had been threatened (London Review of Books, 11/30/06).

But even though the two main rebel groups were not on board, the U.S. pushed for a quick end to negotiations in order to get U.N. troops into Darfur. De Waal lays part of the blame for that policy decision on those Darfur advocates whose “focus on military intervention and peacekeeping led to a situation in which the peace process itself was compromised” (ssrc.org, 10/25/07). De Waal was speaking specifically about the high-profile Darfur advocacy campaigns, but he might have just as easily implicated the media, who give those advocate calls a platform and an echo chamber with little response.

In the end, the rushed peace deal that failed to bring in the rebels inflamed inter-rebel violence, actually causing a deterioration of the security and humanitarian situations (IRIN, 9/11/06).

Independent journalist Julie Flint (Washington Post, 6/3/07) also lamented the “exclusive focus on getting U.N. peacekeepers into Darfur. There’s a case to be made for putting under U.N. command the African peacekeepers who are now on the ground. But the stridency of the campaign for doing so has proved counterproductive,” resulting in unrealistic deadlines for peace and strengthening regime hard-liners.

Ultimately, in Iraq and Kosovo—and any number of other examples—those in power used the rhetoric of “humanitarian intervention” as a smokescreen for U.S. geopolitical ambitions. While the Bush administration has thus far shown reluctance to go so far as to push for a NATO-led regime change in Darfur, it’s worth recalling that Wesley Clark claimed that Sudan was on the administration’s short list of countries it was considering “taking out” post-September 11 (Democracy Now!, 3/2/07). And, perhaps, that Sudan has over 6 billion barrels and climbing in proven oil reserves (BP.com, 6/07), with U.S. companies currently barred by sanctions from operating there.

Even assuming the best of intentions, media calls for “humanitarian intervention” in Darfur serve to establish the important political cover necessary for any military intervention in the region the Bush administration—or a future Democratic administration—might decide would advance its own political interests, regardless of its impact on Darfur’s citizens.