Blogs > Cliopatria > Another Problem From Hell

May 20, 2004 7:20 pm

Another Problem From Hell

Students at Swarthmore recently organized a series of events and talks on the issue of genocide, largely prompted by the 10th anniversary of the killings in Rwanda. Without consciously planning around that anniversary, I’ve also found that a significant amount of my teaching this year has revolved around the events in Rwanda and subsequent events in the Congo.

As part of a faculty panel organized by the students, my colleague James Kurth proposed a new international “humanitarian intervention force” designed to replace the largely useless structure of United Nations peacekeeping. Somewhat mischieviously (I think) he also proposed that the people serving in this force be drawn from the ranks of well-meaning liberal and left-wing college students who now believe that an intervention should have happened ten years ago in Rwanda. This was an extension of his very strong criticisms of the passivity and disinterest of liberal Americans (as well as conservatives) in 1994 in the face of clear evidence of genocide in Rwanda. Everyone, he concluded, likes to believe now, in the wake of Samantha Power’s searing j’accuse , A Problem from Hell, that an intervention should have happened, but hardly anyone at the time seemed to be willing to agitate for it.

I agree with him on this point. It is one reason that I think the neoconservative attack on the United Nations and other international frameworks in the run-up to the War in Iraq was largely justified. Rwanda, and before that Somalia and a number of other crises, revealed that the pre-Iraq framework for international protection of human rights was morally and pragmatically bankrupt, unable to live up to its promises, unable to mediate between a paper commitment to universal human rights and the defense of inviolable sovereignities. It was that bankruptcy that allowed neoconservatives to seize the project of humanitarian intervention as their own, because there wasn’t anything else viable on the table.

Now we are at a critical moment in another place, in the Sudan—some would say well past that moment. Anybody who reads Power and endorses her attack on inaction then is pretty well obligated to line up behind some kind of intervention now—or is obligated to scribble over their support for her critique and go back to the drawing board. Because there is no question that the Sudan is right now and has been for some time the site of genocidal violence and mass suffering. If that is the trigger for action, then the trigger has been pulled.

It is always different to look ahead to what needs to be done than to point fingers at what was done by others. Suppose one accepts the obligation to act in the Sudan. Now what? Rwanda was a very small country: it is just possible to imagine, as Romeo Dallaire does, that a small international force exerting minimal power and operating on a limited scale could have been sufficient to stop the elites behind Hutu Power from exercising their plans.

The Sudan, in contrast, is a huge nation, one of the largest in Africa. The government’s violent assaults on parts of the country’s population are masked by the use of irregulars and insurgents. The government’s armed opponents are just as morally repugnant and prone to massacres of civilians. There is no principled way to separate good actors from bad actors here. Any serious intervention that took place without the assent of all or most of the combatants would have to involve huge numbers of troops and very substantial resources, and would have to tackle extremely sticky questions about the future of the Sudanese state and the possibility of partition—something that most African heads of state would bitterly oppose. Much as I dislike the “ancient conflicts” trope, and don’t regard it as applicable here, it is nevertheless true that the structural roots of the civil conflicts of the past two decades in the Sudan lie at least a century deep. Even if Dallaire is right about Rwanda, no one can seriously envision the same minimalist scenario here.

In practical terms, imagining this intervention is an impossibility. The United States is brutally overextended in every possible respect, and without US support and assistance, such an intervention is virtually impossible. (I can’t get past this point without observing that this is yet another cost that I would put on the negative side of the ledger for the war in Iraq: it has precluded the possibility of humanitarian interventions elsewhere, at least for the immediate future.) The international political climate makes it staggeringly unlikely that any leader of any state would seriously argue for a major intervention.

“Never again” sounds powerful, urgent, necessary. Now we see, however, why the one thing that we can safely predict is that we’ll continue to say it and not fully mean it, that we’ll always be angling ourselves to point fingers after the killing stops at those others, some others, who didn’t do anything when they could have done something. In the Sudan, honesty should compel us: our fingers point always to ourselves. No one is or will be innocent. Not people for the war in Iraq, and not people against it. No one will or should brandish A Problem From Hell at others to damn them with it, because I see no real possibility of a substantial intervention in an ongoing crisis whose total human toll is already comparable to Rwanda’s.

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Derek Charles Catsam - 5/23/2004

Since I was so critical of Twizzle, Twozzle, or whatever it was, I want to say that I thought this was a fantastic post. Since Tim and I are the only regular HNN folks who consistently engage with Africa as a professional imperative, I did not want to let this post fall along the wayside. If I have a quibble it is with ceding so much place to Powers. Aside from the scholarly literature (much of which is so difficult to slog through I'm afraid I'd lose friends if I recommended it) I'd at least acknowledge that Philip Gourevitch and Bill Berkeley antedate Powers, and that Gourevitch is better on Rwanda and Berkeley is better at zeroing in on the concept of evil in Africa. Tim and I can, I hope soon, meet and discuss this stuff in depth at some point, perhaps the next time I am at the peace collection at Swarthmore. (PS, Tim -- Williams rules). I'm all for serious engagement in the Sudan, and I have been for some time. And recall prior to 9-11 how we almost had the strange bedfellows to do so -- lefty human rights types (remember them? It was my whole argument for Iraq. I'm now no longer allowed in the sandbox.) and righty religious conservatives. And I honestly believe that the Sudan is a potential hotbed for serious anti-American radicalism. I hope to see what "never again" means (again). My guess is that Bush will define it away in Sudan as Clinton did in Rwanda. And ten years hence I'll be writing memorial posts about the thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of dead Africans. Except this time they will be at the hands of Muslim radicals, and there will be no excuses that we did not know oif the threat they posed. Of course, I see no excuses for 1994 either.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/22/2004

Well, just the ones that are committing atrocities..... never mind.

Ralph E. Luker - 5/22/2004

You know the public complaints that our armed forces are already over-extended. How many Moslim countries would you have United States-led forces invade at a time? I'm inclined to think that the disaster in Iraq does preclude doing anything elsewhere. As Tim suggests, that reality, if that it is, makes the disaster in Iraq all the worse.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/22/2004

Are we really so overextended that we can't afford the money or military to lead an actual international coalition? Surely, if we offered to join in, there would be others who would help, as there is a strong case to be made for intervention. Even the OAU, though committed to the preservation of states and state boundaries, should see this as an opportunity to retain their relevance (not to mention preventing the spread of the conflict).

How much force would it really take? Yes, it's a big fight, but this is one case where our technology is a huge advantage, if we use it in support of something substantial. Can we really not spare a few fighters, an AWACS, some helicopters and a few thousand Marines? Lots of countries that wouldn't contribute to the Iraqi mission would probably jump at the chance to join this one.

The only sin, I think, is to not try. Even failure would be morally preferable to passivity, and in the long run it would probably be better in other ways as well.

Richard Henry Morgan - 5/20/2004

I think you are right on target. I also think there was more than just a neoconservative attack on the UN framework (though you didn't limit it to them, or perhaps only in relation to Iraq). One must give credit to Clinton, and Havel, and others, for their attack on that framework in Bosnia and Kosovo, via the NATO intervention that directly contravened UN Security Council Resolutions. Havel celebrated the death of the sovereign state as an inviolable concept when humanitarian concerns arise.

And Bush I deserves a large measure of blame for signing on to an arms embargo that only assisted the Serbians in their genocidal aims in Bosnia. The lesson was learned from Rwanda in 1994, applied in Bosnia and Kosovo, and then ... what? forgotten again? When I contemplate the quick exit of European powers from Rwanda, and the disgraceful behaviour of UN European troops in Bosnia, the prospects for an intervention in the Sudan, sans the US, is effectively nil.

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