Tuesday, December 9, 2008

HOW NOT TO SAVE DARFUR: why genocide prevention as we know it needs to die

We can't do a damn thing about Darfur, so let's just admit this. It will be better for everybody.

I say this because I've just gotten a copy of "Preventing Genocide: A Blueprint for U.S. Policymakers," by Madeleine Albright and William Cohen, and witnessed their press conference at the United Nations today.

I'm not going after the whole report, which contains many good proposals, including a $250 million fund to be used to prevent genocide from breaking out in at-risk regions. Nipping this sort of thing in the bud is the best hope for the future. It's the "military action" section that makes my head hurt, and the Sudan is the perfect country to explain why.

The fact is, there isn't an effective military or coercive response that will bring about positive results in the country, and there never was. NATO can't legally deploy a force to a country that hasn't attacked or threatened a NATO member. The UN Security Council would never authorize a force that would actually take on the janjaweed, thanks to China. Sanctions won't work, because an oil embargo is the only sanction that would affect the government financially, and as we saw with Oil For Food, international oil embargoes are amazingly ineffective at keeping profits out of the wrong hands. The UN peacekeeping force that's slowly deploying is undermanned, underequipped, and can't solve the problem.

But even if these tools weren't limp instruments, the idea of using any of them misses the point. Darfur is not a war between good and evil: it's an ethnonationalistic rebellion of one ethno-tribal coalition against the central government of a country beset with the resource curse of oil, arbitrary colonial borders, and no history of national unity. One can say, without condoning Khartoum's brutal response, that no government in human history has ever dealt with such an uprising humanely. Without solving the underlying political problems to some degree of satisfaction for both the government and the rebels, no action will be effective. If a US, NATO, or UN force were deployed, its task would be to, in effect, hold warring tribes at arm's length, and we saw how damaging that is for all concerned during the worst of the bloodletting in Iraq in 2006. We can also see just how ineffective it is now, with the UN force completely incapable of being more than a bystander as Darfur unravels. Even in the UN Department of Peacekeeping, I've found skepticism as to whether the force should ever have been deployed. And national governments, given their unwillingness to contribute the pittance of helicopters the mission needs to function, clearly have no faith in it either.

Likewise, humanitarian aid will continue to put humanitarian workers in harm's way, which is why a week doesn't go by without several World Food Programme trucks getting hijacked, their contents stolen, and their drivers shot. It also won't solve the underlying problems of the refugee camps, where people will be stuck until there's a political settlement that allows them to go home. It's a band aid fix, perhaps necessary in the short term, but completely ineffective in the long term.

Once there's a political settlement, UN peacekeepers should and can deploy quickly to help restore security and the rule of law. But that won't prevent genocide. The genocide is already over. Realistically, nothing could have stopped it, and the sooner we recognize that, the smarter and more effective our foreign policy will be in preventing genocides in the future.

Rather than focusing on "sending in the troops" to stop the bad guys from doing bad things, we can grasp thoroughly the ethnonationalistic motivations of all actors in a conflict, and work towards implementing diplomatic solutions that head off the worst impulses of these actors. That's what worked -- temporarily, at least -- to defuse the crisis in Kenya before it spiraled out of hand. That, my friends, is Responsibility To Protect in action, and not a shot was fired from the international community. Sending NATO or the UN to a futile mission of pacifying Darfur, or sending Western troops to distribute aid at gunpoint in Myanmar after Cyclone Nargis (let's remember, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner was a strong advocate of this hair-brained scheme) will cause more problems than it solves.

By contrast, we could have taken action in Rwanda. A UN peacekeeping force, with robust mandate, was already there, and the signs of chaos were everywhere well in advance. Proper preventive action could have stopped the bloodletting, which killed 800,000 before spilling into Congo and bringing about the deaths of at least 5 million more in the subsequent 14 years.

But Rwanda, as Albright herself today said, was "volcanic" violence. It was almost unprecedented in its virulence and speed, and it was in many ways unique. Darfur is the genocide of the future, the brutal suppression of ethno-geographic rebellion. With diplomatic skill, perhaps we can head off the worst before it happens. But we basically can't do anything to stop such an event once it starts. The sooner we accept that, the better.

p.s. We'll probably be talking about this on the Don't Worry About the Government podcast tonight, so check that out when it comes out on Thursday morning.

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