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Mamdani On Darfur

Readers of this website not long ago were provided with a discussion of recent turns in the Darfur crisis prompted by the decision of the International Criminal Court to indict Omar al Bashir for crimes against humanity. None of us had available to us at the time Mahmood Mamdani's new book Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror. The discussion would have been enriched if it had been in our hands.

Mamdani, the Herbert Lehman Professor of Government at Columbia University, offers one of the most detailed histories of this part of Africa available to readers in the West. Just as importantly, he has a point of view that is not all that widely held and argues for it with unusual vigor and persistence. Darfur is not genocide. Guilt and innocence can be found on all sides of the conflict. If we hold that we have a responsibility to protect Africans we believe victimized by genocide, we simply take our place in a long list of Westerners meddling in other countries with no right to do so. In fact our "right" to intervene deprives Africans of their right to be citizens, for by ignoring the hard won sovereignty they have fashioned for their states in the wake of Western colonialism, we strip them of the capacity to direct their own affairs in ways chosen by themselves.

I believe that Mamdani's views deserve a wide hearing, especially among TNR readers who believe that the case for genocide in Darfur is open and shut. Read him and a lot of what you believe about eternal conflict between Africans and Arabs, the kind of justice meted out by the International Criminal Court, or who holds the responsibility for violence in the region will be challenged. I was therefore pleased to see that his book was given a respectable review in the New York Times.

At the same time, I have to wonder why Mamdani is so unwilling to acknowledge that any course of action in Darfur, whether Western inspired or Africa-determined, can produce unintended consequences and ugly repercussions. Mamdani offers little in the way of policy recommendations, and so one is left with the impression that in his view we in the West ought to let events in Africa unfold as Africans will unfold them. Yet if it is problematic to blithely ignore state sovereignty, can we simply turn a blind eye to what vicious leaders can and will do to their own people? Even while recognizing that Western humanitarianism has often possessed an unacknowledged neo-colonialist attitude toward Third World people, are we to throw out all traces of Kantianism and conclude that what happens to other people is one of our business? Should there be no United Nations and no International Criminal Court? Ought we to dispense with the U. N. Convention on Genocide and its Declaration of Human Rights?

Mamdani's book clears away a lot of misconceptions and pokes huge holes in simple moralizing. But it is a work that stops once the deconstructions are complete. It is because I found Mamdani's arguments persuasive that I wanted him to address some of the more difficult questions. I would love to know what he thinks Barack Obama and Susan Rice ought to do about Darfur. He says that genocide did take place in Rwanda but not in Darfur, prompting me to wonder what made the one situation so different from the other.

Given the fierce urgency of his prose, I would be curious if he thinks that there are such things as rogue states or whether tyrants really do exist.

One of the peculiarities of arguments about genocide is that one can hear calls for intervention from both the neoconservative right and the humanitarian left. The only place the narrative is questioned is on the paleoconservative right and the anti-imperialist left. It is because the consensus is so broad that we need books such as Saviors and Survivors. But by failing to address questions of what we can and should do in Darfur, Mamdani left me as frustrated as I am when I read Kenneth Pollack or Paul Berman. They too easily make the case for intervention, all too often downplaying the difficulties along the way. He warns us against our hubris but leaves us with the impression that no intervention is better than flawed ones. I find myself not persuaded.