“What Does Darfur Have To Do With The “War On Terror”?”

by Jun 30, 2009All Articles

posted by Kevin Funk
A renowned scholar and commentator on African affairs and U.S. foreign policy, Mahmood Mamdani’s views have attracted considerable criticism from across the political spectrum. In particular, his analysis of the Robert Mugabe government of Zimbabwe has drawn ire from both the right and left, with some contending that he is downplaying the crimes of the Mugabe regime. With his new book’s aim of cutting Western media and activist portrayals of the Darfur conflict down to size, and formulating a fresh, historically-grounded narrative about its causes, will Mamdani’s Saviors and Survivors prompt him to be labeled an apologist for Omar al-Bashir’s regime as well?

Despite his pull-no-punches style, Saviors and Survivors seems to have achieved the impressive feat of not automatically turning off everyone it criticizes. Both the New York Times and the New Republic, which have been at or least near the forefront of the simplistic moralizing about Darfur that Mamdani rightfully despises, have run generally favorable reviews of the book – suggesting perhaps an opening in mainstream discourse for alternative views on Darfur. So what does Saviors and Survivors bring to the table?

Mamdani spends slightly more than half of the book engaging in an extensive deconstruction of the formation of “African” vs. “Arab” and “native” vs. “settler” identities in Darfur and Sudan. This leads to his thesis that the current Darfur conflict actually “began as a localized civil war (1987-89) and turned into a rebellion” – a clash between landed “natives” and landless “settlers” in Darfur that was fueled by the British colonial legacy of retribalization, environmental degradation, an influx of weapons due to the Cold War, and, finally, “a brutal counterinsurgency” waged by Khartoum (p. 4).

The merits of these particular conclusions will have to be properly evaluated by academic specialists – and indeed, some of Mamdani’s arguments have been challenged by distinguished Sudan researchers such as the historian Martin Daly. Nevertheless, the rest of Saviors and Survivors, more incendiary in tone, sees Mamdani wielding these historical arguments, as well as an extensive bibliography of source material, to launch a withering attack on Save Darfur activism.

Though the words may seem harsh when applied to a movement rife with high-schoolers, Mamdani’s formulation that “Save Darfur activists combine a contemptuous attitude toward knowing with an imperative to act” seems a fair characterization of Save Darfur’s national leadership and most visible celebrity-activist supporters (6). One is reminded of one of Save Darfur’s most prominent public faces, the actress Mia Farrow, commenting that activists should “Leave it to the [U.S.] government to decide how to best help the people of Darfur,” and instead focus their efforts more blandly on “let[ing] them know you want to help.” It is a sad day for Darfurians when hordes of U.S. activists attempt to “save” them by blindly trusting, and indeed empowering Washington to exert itself in the region in whatever way it sees fit – including militarily. Such advocacy is not in the interest of the victims, but rather, serves to buttress U.S. foreign policy aims (hence Mamdani’s constant invocations of the “War on Terror”), which are far from humanitarian.

Clearly then, as Mamdani posits, something is amiss in Darfur activism. As he notes after reviewing the oft-inflated death tolls for the conflict, “Ironically, the first international outcry [about Darfur] arose at almost the same time as the dramatic reduction in the level of fatalities,” and likewise, “The rhetoric of the Save Darfur movement in the United States escalated as the level of mortality in Darfur declined” (33). This coincided with “a major public campaign, involving Save Darfur and key Western governments, to have the African Union [force in Darfur] replaced by the United Nations” (41-42). So what accounts for the gap between Save Darfur’s rhetoric and the facts on the ground in Darfur – the region that is to be “saved”?

Mamdani is right to frame his analysis of the political economy of the Darfur conflict in the U.S. with the dominant paradigm of our times, the so-called “War on Terror.” Calling Save Darfur somewhat vaguely “the humanitarian face of the War on Terror,” he notes a shared “feel-good imperative” behind the two themes, in which it is not the suffering peoples in the countries we are said to be seeking to liberate that matters, but rather the projection of Western power (6). More precisely, as is the case with the War on Terror, Mamdani boils Save Darfur’s logic of salvation down to what is euphemistically called a Western military intervention – that is, an invasion of Sudan (47).

While this used to be an explicit goal of at least parts of the Save Darfur movement, activists have largely shied away from this position in recent times, at least in public. Though Save Darfur continues to call for an “intervention” as a solution to the conflict, sustaining Mamdani’s characterization of a Western invasion as a continued position of Save Darfur, and indeed its “central political thrust,” would require examining a more contemporary batch of sources than the ones he cites (47) – or, as Rebecca Hamilton notes in her contribution to the debate, interviewing some of the figures involved. In fact, in its push for an “intervention” in Sudan, Save Darfur has been perhaps deliberately coy about this point, as its usage of the term “intervention” seems to leave the door open to potentially supporting a U.S.- or Western-led invasion of Sudan, while on a more benign level it could be read to mean nothing more than support for UN and AU peacekeepers.

In seeking to explain why “All have been seduced to abandon their political dogmas and bathe in the moral glow of a global humanitarian cause that highlights the plight of some of the most wretched of our fellow humans,” (52) Mamdani poses a highly pertinent question – why is this cause Darfur and not Iraq?

Of course, as citizens of the invading and occupying power in Iraq, we bear direct moral responsibility for the death and destruction in that country, in a way that we simply do not for Darfur. We should undoubtedly feel sympathy for Darfurians, and be in solidarity with them in seeking to address the causes of their suffering, though basic moral calculus indicates that our guide for action should lead us to focus our limited energy as activists on addressing humanitarian crises based on both their severity, and also our power to actually be able to do something about them.

Though comparing mortality figures may seem a grim exercise, the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq has exacted a death toll surely several times higher than the Darfur conflict, as Mamdani reviews. Further, it is axiomatic that as U.S. citizens, our power to lessen the suffering in Iraq – by, say, withdrawing U.S. troops, in accordance with the wishes of the majority of the Iraqi population – is undeniably greater than is the case for Darfur.

To make the case that U.S. activists have been taken in by Darfur’s “moral glow” while ignoring our destruction of Iraq, Mamdani notes that “The most powerful mobilization in New York City – where I have lived for the larger part of the year since 1999 – was for Darfur, not Iraq.” As he does, one would of course “expect[] the reverse,” if basic humanitarian principles were indeed at play (59).

However, as I have argued elsewhere, based on my own careful review of media reports, Darfur rallies have not come even close to approaching the numbers of participants drawn by the largest protests against the war in Iraq. In fact, for what may have been the most publicized and attended Save Darfur rally on record – which took place on April 30, 2006, in Washington, DC – media reports generally put the size of the crowd in the “thousands.” In contrast, an anti-war protest in New York City, which occurred just days before, drew what even corporate media sources conceded was many times more – “tens of thousands” of people.

Anyone who follows news about Darfur will find their inbox bursting forth on a daily basis with stories of high-school and college students trying to “save” Darfur – but to therefore accept this notion that Darfur activism has more support than anti-war activism, based on corporate media coverage, serves to validate the bias that underlies their selection of stories. Save Darfur surely has a more developed activist infrastructure than the movement against the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and for obvious reasons receives favorable media coverage and sizable donations from major corporations while anti-war groups do not. Yet to attribute the elite’s bias against anti-war activism to the population at large simply does not seem to accord with the facts as we know them. One might instead draw the conclusion that the number of people in the U.S. opposing the war in Iraq has been relatively impressive given the near total dearth of substantive critiques of its true motives in mainstream discourse, as well as the usual ludicrous denunciations of “anti-Americanism” hurled at any figures who have felt even tempted to undertake such a project.

What is undoubtedly true, however, is that the political and media elite focus on Darfur as a region to be “saved,” while not doing the same for Iraq (or other crises of our making, such as Palestine or Afghanistan). This fixation on Darfur is not a coincidence, in Mamdani’s estimation. He notes that:

Perhaps Save Darfur should be credited with….depoliticizing Americans, especially those Americans who felt a need to do something in the face of disasters perpetrated by the Bush administration. The Save Darfur Coalition was able to capture and tame a part of this potentially rebellious constituency – especially students – thereby marginalizing and overshadowing those who continued to mobilize around Iraq. This successful displacement was indeed a model campaign, a successful lesson in depoliticization. (60)

Unlike the disaster of our making in Iraq, then, “Darfur is a place of refuge….It is a cause about which they can feel good” (62). Since the Save Darfur campaign limply calls on the U.S. to “do something” to address a conflict in which we are not the ones holding the guns, it is palatable to the establishment in ways that a campaign to end the occupation of Iraq or terminate U.S. arms shipments to Israel is not. Though it is unclear if Mamdani is arguing that Save Darfur set out to deliberately “capture and tame” insufficiently docile segments of the population, it does to some extent seem to have had this effect – a disastrous outcome at a time when the U.S. (not to mention its victims across the globe) could have benefited greatly from the emergence of more vibrant anti-imperialist social movements than what anti-war activism has been able to muster.

The point is hardly that we should be ignoring Darfur – rather, as Mamdani proscribes, we should act, but based on a careful understanding of the relevant facts. In this, the principle of solidarity must be at the forefront; that is, we should listen to the people on the ground, and not impose solutions from without.

In this vein, Saviors and Survivors could have benefited from additional source material from internal Darfurian and Sudanese opposition parties and movements. A fuller airing of their views would have given Darfur activists, whose campaigns Mamdani has critiqued rather perceptively, more of a basis (should they be seeking one) for righting their ships and launching a movement that stands in solidarity with Darfurians instead of for “saving” them.

At some points, word choice will likely open Mamdani to criticism. Mimicking the regrettable and ubiquitous logic of “anti-Americanism,” he notes that Save Darfur is on an “anti-China campaign,” and that “China claimed that the priority in Darfur was a negotiated settlement, and all powers needed to invest their energies to make this outcome possible” (51). Though factually correct, is China’s call sincere enough to merely repeat at face value? Further, is “counterinsurgency” a profound enough term to adequately describe the Sudanese government’s role in the Darfur conflict? (47)

These quibbles aside, Saviors and Survivors serves as a valuable warning against forcing the Darfur conflict into our ready-made “War on Terror” stencil – a convenient storyline for the West in which a nefarious Chinese-backed Arab cabal in Khartoum is perpetrating an ongoing genocide against the helpless and ready-to-be-saved Darfurian Africans. By advocating such an interpretation of the conflict, Darfur activists and commentators are allowing Darfur to be “not just an illustration of the grand narrative of the War on Terror but also a part of its justification.” (71) In his analysis of Save Darfur, Mamdani’s is an invaluable contribution in allowing us to understand Darfur in its own right, free from the ideological baggage of our time.

Kevin Funk is co-author, with Steven Fake, of Scramble for Africa: Darfur – Intervention and the USA. He maintains a website with his commentaries at www.scrambleforafrica.org.

Responses to “What Does Darfur Have To Do With The “War On Terror”?”
Sean Lee:

April 19th, 2009 at 7:03 am
You say that Save Darfur “advocacy is not in the interest of the victims, but rather, serves to buttress U.S. foreign policy aims,” but don’t say what exactly those aims are and why Mia Farrow, for example, would be interested in furthering them. You then state, “Mamdani is right to frame his analysis of the political economy of the Darfur conflict in the U.S. with the dominant paradigm of our times, the so-called ‘War on Terror.’” But you don’t really give us any concrete explanation as to why such an analysis is helpful or even accurate. Just because some call for military intervention doesn’t mean that it has anything to do with the “war on terror.” When there were people calling for military intervention to deliver aid in Myanmar agaist the wishes of Rangoon, was that also part of the “war on terror?”

Both you and Mamdani seem to be putting any exercise of American power in the same basket as Bush’s “war on terror” when the latter is only a subset of the former, not the other way around. Furthermore, how can we explain the time when Save Darfur activists were at loggerheads with the CIA because of Salah Gosh’s visit to Washington? That visit, during which the Sudanese Mukhabarat and the CIA were exchanging intelligence and building a working partnership, was explicitly part of the “war on terror,” yet it was opposed by the same groups Mamdani accuses of serving as the “humanitarian face of the war on terror.” Ironically enough, in a book that is supposed to be about “Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror,” Gosh isn’t mentioned a single time.

Nanne op ‘t Ende:
April 19th, 2009 at 8:26 am
Dear Kevin,
I am Dutch and had to look up ‘quibble’ to understand what you were saying in your conclusion. A quick google gave me this definition:

quib·ble (kwbl)
intr.v. quib·bled, quib·bling, quib·bles
1. To evade the truth or importance of an issue by raising trivial distinctions and objections.
2. To find fault or criticize for petty reasons; cavil.

This confused me not a little: am I to understand that you think the distinction between counterinsurgency and – say – crimes against humanity to be trivial? The whole ICC process to be an attemtp to evade the truth about Darfur?

You say some other confusing things as well, like: ‘The merits of these [Mamdani’s] particular conclusions will have to be properly evaluated by academic specialists’ but nevertheless ‘Mamdani [is] wielding these historical arguments… to launch a withering attack on Save Darfur activism’. Am I wrong to assume that if Mamdani’s conclusions are false, he is using bogus arguments in his attack? Yet you do not seem to be concerned?

When the save-Darfur prominent Mia Farrow says the activists should leave it up to the Govenment to decide how to best help the people of Darfur, this must be interpreted as a carte blanche to the Government? Help me out here: are you suggesting that the save-Darfur movement might prevent the US Government from doing what it believes best? Or that it would be up to the save-Darfur movement to determine the Government’s best course of action to prevent it from going astray?

Or what about this: yes, there were many more protesters agaist the war in Iraq than there were people participating in Darfur manifestations. But the anti-war protesters did not care much about the people of Iraq? Okay…? But let’s turn this around: wasn’t the point of those protests to say there was no good cause to invade Iraq? And, If anything, doesn’t this prove that there are many more people in the US who think critically about foreign intervention than there are people who might possibly count a military invasion among US Government’s possible actions to help the people in Darfur?

Hold on, here is something else that makes me wonder what you mean to say: ‘the political and media elite focus on Darfur as a region to be “saved,” while not doing the same for Iraq (or other crises of our making, such as Palestine or Afghanistan)’. Now, I can see how the CIA involvement in Afghanistan contributed to the present crisis in the country – although I think it takes a touch of arrogance to believe ‘we’ (USA?) made it – but Palestine? Errrr. Perhaps you are suggesting that without US support Israel had long ago been whiped off the map and the problem had no longer been there?

It would probably be a bad idea to understand Darfur in terms of the war on terror. But who really thinks of Darfur that way? People feel for the victims in Darfur and they wished something were done to stop the suffering. Tibet is another example of a crisis that generates a lot of protest world wide and that has celebrities drawing attention to the plight of the Tibetan people. And just as with Darfur I sometimes wonder why Tibet generates this level of attention where other crises fail to do so. Could it possibly be the war on terror? Or is it just people’s strong desire to seperate right from wrong that recognises an opportunity to express itself?

It would be very interesting indeed to investigate the phychological and social mechanisms that underlie this identification with particular causes, and Darfur certainly makes a fascinating example. I have a feeling that researching this seriously would lead to a very different book from S&S: one that would involve less wielding of questionable historical arguments against Save Darfur activism, and more genuine desire to understand how people perceive their world; how they see their Government’s role; what drives them to become involved in human rights activism; or why they would support this cause and not another. And I seriously doubt the war on terror has much to do with it.

Kevin Funk:
April 21st, 2009 at 6:02 pm
Since I am currently on the road and with limited internet access, I’ll try to address the most interesting points raised in the comments.

Sean, of course not every projection (real or threatened) of military power by Washington can be best interpreted as part of the “War on Terror.” But many, though of course not all aspects of the political economy of the Darfur conflict (some of which are explained below) can be accurately interpreted through this lens.

The question of what exactly U.S. foreign policy designs are for Sudan is an open one. My interpretation is that the U.S. sees Sudan as being too important to treat with anything but kid gloves. It being the largest country in Africa, with a prized strategic location, ample oil reserves, and a government that has proved a willing partner in sharing “counterterrorism” intelligence with the U.S. (part of the War on Terror, of course), Sudan is firmly on Washington’s radar as an ally it would like to cultivate. In fact, at several points during the Darfur crisis, Washington has floated offers to try and normalize ties with Khartoum, much to Save Darfur’s consternation. My impression is that Washington is basically using Save Darfur, content to reap the propaganda effects of the movement’s propensity for blaming “Arabs” (who are backed by another enemy, the Chinese), while for the most part not actually ceding to Save Darfur’s demands for the reasons given above. This anti-Arab demonization, of course, feeds into public support for more interventions (part of the War on Terror) in Arab countries.

You noted that Gosh has been condemned by Save Darfur (though, notably, the Enough Project gave him a tentative endorsement as a more moderate figure who could overthrow Bashir in the wake of the ICC indictment; I was also surprised that Mamdani did not mention him). Yet despite this very obvious issue that Save Darfur could focus on, the intelligence-sharing relationship with one of Khartoum’s most notorious thugs, when has Save Darfur ever made any real noise about this? This would seem to represent a staggering subservience to the power centers in Washington, which Save Darfur seems desperate not to offend.

To the second commenter, “quibble” is also used to refer to a disagreement of relative unimportance in the grand scheme of things. Of course if Mamdani’s historical arguments are wrong, then he is wrong to condemn Save Darfur for failing to accept them, though many of his other critiques of the movement would stand regardless.

You raise the interesting question of why Tibet garners more attention than many other crises. The simple explanation is that we focus on the crimes of others (not ourselves or our allies), and especially those of official enemy states or competitors in the global arena (amongst which China figures prominently). Sudan offers a double bonus for Washington – the chance to both demonize China for its alliance with Sudan, and harangue Arabs for the reasons already mentioned.

Sean Lee:
April 22nd, 2009 at 2:57 am
Thanks for the response, Kevin.

I’m afraid, however, that it sounds like you’re trying to have your cake and eat it too. The fact of the matter is that Sudan’s involvement in the “war on terror” puts US intelligence in bed with the regime in Sudan, not actively trying to dethrone it. Now there are always competing trends in government; different agencies have competing priorities and varying worldviews. The Pentagon, the CIA and the State Department don’t always see eye to eye. But to pretend that Darfur has much of anything to do with the “war on terror” (except in the opposite way that you and Mamdani seem to think it does) is counterintuitive and inaccurate.

As for the the “anti-Arab demonization,” which “of course, feeds into public support for more interventions (part of the War on Terror) in Arab countries,” as someone who lives in an Arab country, I can’t say that I agree at all with such a cartoonish picture. Again, the fact of the matter is that with only a couple exceptions (Damascus being the only one on the state level), from Morocco to Jordan and down to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, the US has excellent relations with pretty much all the Arab regimes. If there is any demonization going on, it’s against Islamist groups, and again, only then when it’s in Washington’s interest, since Ankara and Maliki in Baghdad both have good relations with Washington. Furthermore, Washington’s midwifing of the CPA between the North and South seems to be direct evidence against a caricature of Washington belligerently drumming up anti-Arab sentiment in order to justify the invasion of another Arab country.

As for Gosh, Prendergast has publicly criticized the CIA’s involvement with him several times, including here and here. Likewise, Gosh’s trip to the UK was also criticized by human rights groups active on Darfur.

Finally, a worldview where human rights groups are just subservient to “power centers in Washington” and where these power centers are just itching for an excuse to invade Arab countries is remarkably and disconcertingly similar to the official line in Khartoum.

Kevin Funk:
April 23rd, 2009 at 7:23 pm
Again, Washington does not seem to be seeking to overthrow the Bashir government, though that plainly has a lot to do with the “War on Terror” – namely, Sudan’s strategic usefulness, and particularly the intelligence-sharing relationship. The wave of Darfur activism does help to give Khartoum a black eye, however, and Washington rides it try and push Sudan to make concessions to draw it firmly back into the Western fold. And plainly when people hear (and buy into) endless stories of the savagely cruel “Arab” perpetrators of the crimes in Darfur, that ends up giving the U.S. a freer hand to act in the region.

Of course Save Darfur has officially condemned Gosh, though it has never been a focal point of their activism: again, oddly, since it would be something we could get our government to address much more easily than we could affect changes in Chinese policy (which has been often been Save Darfur’s focus).

I made no mention of human rights groups being “subservient to ‘power centers in Washington,’” and do not believe that to be the case. Nor do I believe that the Save Darfur Coalition fully fits the bill as a human rights organization, in the strict sense of the term. However, Save Darfur and the U.S. government, even under the Bush-era extremists, do share more of a similar ideology than many would like to admit.

Vagn Sparre-Ulrich:
April 24th, 2009 at 3:51 am
This question of Save Darfur being a vehicle for American interests in Sudan is not an either-or. It is my conviction, that the US government has several lines of thought on the Sudan issue. But I believe too that the US government basically is interested in a unified Sudan. The US wants to put Sudan securely into the Western camp for many reasons (strategic placement south of Egypt, oil fields etc.). So the strategy is to put pressure on the Beshir government at several fronts in order to push it into submission. So what the US is doing is using several vehicles in order to obtain this objective: pressure on the Darfur conflict (support for several humanitarian agencies for example), support for ICC indictment of Beshir, support for the South (militarily and economic development), probably support for Darfur antigovernment guerillas through Chad (through proxies) etc. So, cooperating with Gosh and Sudanese intelligence is not contradictory to these other strategies. But the different actions taken as a whole sends a powerful message to the Omar El Beshir government: Either you behave or… And it seems as if Beshir does not want to behave! The US policy is based on the stick and the carrot in Sudan. Eric Reeves and his cronies are just (innocent?) representatives for one leg of US policy on Sudan.

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