By Simon Jenins (THE GUARDIAN, 20/09/06):
It is official. Tony Blair says so. The United Nations, the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Clooney, Elton John and the BBC en bloc say so. It is something-must-be-done-about-Darfur week – yet again. Something had to be done two years ago, when the situation was declared “unacceptable” by Jack Straw, to which every party cried amen. The adjective has this year been upgraded to “completely unacceptable” in honour of the UN general assembly in New York, the annual bid to exhaust world supplies of lobster, Pomerol and hypocrisy.
Even by UN standards last weekend’s “global day for Darfur” was cringe-worthy, ranking with the £100m squandered by the British government in Gleneagles last year to pretend to fight poverty. The latest Darfur round was kicked off with Blair sending a public letter to fellow EU leaders calling for “pressure” on Khartoum and the rebels. The usual celebrities were whipped into letter-signing mode to shame the janjaweed into their tents. George Bush came in on cue with a demand for troops to be sent, but not American or British. By this week everyone was feeling better, except possibly the Darfurians.
Cynical? Yes. The outside world has not the slightest intention of taking military action in Sudan. The Sudanese government knows this and gives not a fig for other sanctions. It has oil and friends in the east and, as Jonathan Steele pointed out yesterday, reached a deal with rebels in the south, similar to one reached five years ago, only to find it rejected in Darfur.
To call the conflict genocide is wrong, unless the word now covers any ethnic war. This is a separatist struggle in which land, religion, clan and mere survival brought people into contention; in which tens of thousands died and from which hundreds of thousands fled. We can sympathise, but what is the point of telling such peoples to stop squabbling and behave? How would we react if they lectured us on Northern Ireland?
I have no doubt that the Sudanese government can be mendacious, paranoid and grotesque in its suppression of rebels. It is also apparently our ally in the war on terror. It cannot see why it should admit UN forces it regards as aiding the rebels. The president, Omar al-Bashir, also fears indictment for war crimes and wants no foreign troops near him. (A similar fear impedes the search for peace in Uganda.) The reality is that Sudan is riven by an intractable conflict that foreign ill-wishers and name-callers will never resolve, and the one incontrovertible fact is a humanitarian disaster.
Interventionist machismo demands that all such conflicts be tackled “at political source”. There is no point in helping mere symptoms, the victims, which is a job for wimps and charities. Real men do war and regime change. To such people, wrongdoers must be excoriated, condemned and preferably toppled. There must be economic sanctions (always “smart”) and international indictments. There must be UN troops, preferably not ours. In this, Blair, Bush, Clooney, the New York Times and the Guardian are one.
Machismo in foreign policy always has the best tunes, but tunes are not enough. First, they show a bizarre selectivity related chiefly to television coverage. The reluctance of interveners (mostly Britons and Americans) to come to the aid of Tibetans, Chechens, Zimbabweans or Kashmiris may be realpolitik. But the neglect of Congolese, Sri Lankans, Burmese or Uzbekistanis – with political and humanitarian outrages aplenty – is odd.
If Sierra Leone, why not Somalia? If East Timor, why not Aceh? Why so tolerant of that nuclear host to terror, dictatorial Pakistan, and so hysterical about semi-democratic Iran? It is no good muttering that we cannot be everywhere. We can at least talk the talk. Kant’s moral imperative must be universalisable or it loses all force as both a rule and a deterrent.
More serious is the lack of sincerity behind this interventionism. Nothing has changed since Kipling complained: “When you’ve shouted Rule Britannia / When you’ve sung God Save the Queen / When you’ve finished killing Kruger with your mouth …” what then? British neoimperial belligerence has already committed troops to reckless, unwinnable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The floundering defence secretary, Des Browne, claims untruthfully never to have been warned about the Taliban. (Does he not read newspapers?) Any fool can call for “action to end the fighting” anywhere on earth, without giving a thought to what this involves. It usually involves other people dying to no good purpose.
The swelling chorus of something-must-be-done-in-Darfur argues that bombast “raises awareness”. They ask, what would I do about the janjaweed, and what about the 1.9 million refugees? My answer to the first is identical in substance to theirs: nothing really. They just get the T-shirt. The janjaweed are not in my country, not my business and, most important, not a problem within my power to solve. Many conflicts have required external military sanction, including the Falklands, Kuwait, East Timor and, after a false start, Kosovo. This never applied to Iraq or Afghanistan. International politics has yet to find a way of expressing this distinction. Blair’s 1999 Chicago speech was, in truth, confusion. The UN now rejects non-intervention in its members’ internal affairs, but it has no ideology of proportionate aggression to replace it. This leaves the field open to jihadists on all sides.
As it is, spasmodic damnation merely shows the west as a paper tiger. It incites rebels and separatists to anticipate western support, which is why such support almost always leads to partition, Yugoslavia and Iraq being the most recent examples. As for the “coward’s war” of sanctions, they only entrench regimes, hurt the poor and drive the middle class and opposition into exile. They never achieve their goal, least of all in the short term.
Today’s constant banging of the aggressor’s drum makes embattled regimes resist the one intervention that is often most urgent: humanitarian relief. Helping the starving and dying, monitoring their fate and protecting their relief should be the first responsibility of the international community. In Africa and elsewhere the involvement of charities in conflicts has become controversial. All relief is aid, and all aid is in some sense political. The more reason to uphold the purity of vision of the Red Cross pioneers, to help without taking sides. This struggle offers the UN scope enough for thought and action this week, most desperately in the very case of Darfur. To be diverted into regime abuse is mere celebrity grandstanding.