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The TNR Roundtable Part 9: What Should Obama Do About Darfur?

Is Darfur really a genocide? That is the central question.

Click here to read Part 8: The ICC's Botched Decision--And Why Obama Should Support It.

Click here for links to each part of the conversation.

From: Alan Wolfe
To: Alex de Waal, Richard Just, Andrew Natsios, Eric Reeves, Elizabeth Rubin

Alex de Waal would like this discussion to get back to the concrete, specifically to the question of what the Obama administration ought to do about Darfur. But to answer that question, we first have to know what we are dealing with, since any effective policy depends upon a correct definition of the situation. What then are we dealing with? A civil war? An insurgency? Genocide?

The question of genocide in particular cannot be avoided because everything else flows from it. It is because Eric Reeves is convinced that genocide is ongoing that he urges forceful action. And it is because de Waal does not agree with Reeves that he recommends a solution in which the United States plays a behind-the-scenes role urging the Sudanese to develop their own political solution to the conflict.

There is, moreover, what can only be called a genocide narrative than runs throughout any discussion of mass atrocities taking place in the world today. No one contributed more to the development of this narrative than Samantha Power, who, as we all know, may just play an important role in fashioning the Obama administration's response to the ICC ruling. This narrative runs roughly as follows. We should never conclude that the defeat of the Nazis and the death of Stalin ended the era of genocide. There have been many other genocides since. Because with the exception of former Yugoslavia they take place outside Europe, we prefer not to pay attention. Indeed our leaders typically go to great lengths to avoid using the term genocide. Such indifference allows terrible crimes to continue and horrendous criminals to escape punishment. The world's conscience is the most powerful tool at our command to stop the killing. We should never be afraid to call things by their proper names and we should bring as much pressure to bear on our governments as we can to stop the killing.

This narrative never quite fit Darfur, for both former President Bush and former Secretary of State Colin Powell did call the killing in the region genocide (although neither did much about it). But is it? And if it is, what defines it?

De Waal's response suggests that when it comes to genocide numbers matter most; 150 casualties a month does not come up to the genocide threshold. I will let Eric Reeves or Elizabeth Rubin respond to that, if either of them care to, but I happen to believe that as cold hearted as it may sound, de Waal is right. It is not just that numbers do matter when we reckon with genocide. So does the fact that the numbers have come down from the height of the conflict. If a situation of mass killing can be brought under relative control through negotiation, it cannot be genocide.

At the same time, de Waal leaves open the question of whether what took place during the darkest of years in Darfur was or was not genocide; he argues that now we should be primarily concerned with what is ongoing. I am not so sure. A number of prominent observers of the situation there, including Fabrice Weissman of Doctors Without Borders and John Holmes, the U.N.'s emergency relief coordinator, have questioned the appropriateness of the term genocide. Weissman, for example, points out that the conflict there has never taken the form of Arabs killing Africans and has not been accompanied by the hate speech associated with Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia. Holmes, in turn, has been highly critical of Save Darfur for its rhetorical inflation. If the situation in Darfur was not genocide from the start but was instead what Weissman calls a very nasty civil war that spiraled out of control, then what is ongoing cannot be a slowing of genocide because there was no genocide to begin with.

For those who disagree with this conclusion, and I expect that many do, the fact that Obama is now president, as well as the fact that his team includes people such as Power and Susan Rice, the latter of whom has described the situation there as ongoing genocide, suggests the possibility that finally we may be able to trust an American president to get things right by taking a firm stand against one of the greatest evils known to man. But if it turns out that Darfur is the wrong place to apply the genocide narrative, doing so could cause far more harm than good.

This is why the decision of the ICC not to include genocide among the charges leveled against Omar Al Bashir is so important. Bashir, of course, has reacted as if he were so charged by denouncing the decision in the strongest terms and throwing out the humanitarian aid organizations. This is what demagogues do and no one has made the case that Bashir is a nice guy. But over time I think the court's decision will be viewed as an attempt to apply pressure on the Bashir regime while at the same time avoiding the inevitable case for military intervention once genocide is found to exist. If so, then Darfur activists can take heart that the question of Darfur is not being ignored. But the Obama administration can also rely on the ICC decision to treat Darfur as a crisis that needs attention without drawing parallels to genocides that have taken place elsewhere.

Click here to read Part 10: An on-the-ground reaction to the ICC arrest warrant. 

Click here for links to each part of the conversation.

Alan Wolfe is a contributing editor at The New Republic.

By Alan Wolfe