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An Imperialist Indifference

Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide

By Gerard Prunier

(Cornell University Press, 212 pp., $24)Darfur: A Short History of a Long War

By Julie Flint and Alex de Waal

(Zed Books, 152 pp., $19.99)

Among Empires: American Ascendancy and Its Predecessors

Arundhati Roy wrote a few years ago that the "New Imperialism is already upon us.... There isn't a country on God's earth that is not caught in the cross-hairs of the American cruise missile and the IMF checkbook"; and Juan Cole, in a recent essay that finds similarities between the American occupation of Iraq and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French and British invasions of Egypt, notes that "in each case, the ruling cliques of the countries invaded were decried as despots who oppressed the local population and menaced the interests of the West." Well, yes; but Saddam Hussein was a despot who did oppress the local population and menace the interests of the West.

But these progressives, who need imperialism almost as much as the imperialists do, may be looking for the modern colonial instinct in the wrong place. For it takes more than the projection of power to make an empire. Indeed, sometimes the analogy with imperialism may be proved by the absence of gross military action. If there is a place in the world in which the United States may bring to mind imperialism's sordid contempt for other regions and other races, it is not Iraq. It is Darfur, where we have shamefully done nothing. As the left has kept busy in recent years assembling the case that American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are neocolonial in nature, a genocide has been taking place in Sudan; and the West--led by the allegedly trigger-happy Bush administration--has dithered, hoping that the African Union would solve the problem on its own, and that diplomatic threats would force the Sudanese government to call off its militias, all the while denying what has been perfectly obvious for some time now: that the simplest and quickest way to end the genocide, and to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocents, would be for Western troops to go to Darfur in the manner of a good old hegemon and stop the killing.

Colonialism is a rotten thing, and it should be opposed; but too many liberals are wrong, or at least insufficiently imaginative, about where to locate the Western colonial impulse in contemporary international politics. Perhaps the modern equivalent of colonialism is not the presence of Western troops in Iraq, but rather the absence of Western troops in Africa. That sounds like an odd proposition. How can America be acting on a colonial instinct by not acting at all? Quite easily, in fact. The peculiar ugliness of the colonial worldview can reside not just in over-reach, but also in under-reach. The common link is indifference: the capacity not to care, or to care far too little, about the suffering of others; to dehumanize others by abandoning them to their destruction. These days Darfur is the victim of Western indifference--but not for the first time. The colonial history of Sudan holds a precedent for the American indifference that we are witnessing today.

Darfur, a region the size of France, sits on the western edge of Sudan. It is, literally and figuratively, on the country's periphery; and its modern history has been defined by the strained politics of its relationship with Khartoum, which has struggled since independence in 1956 to hold the outer marginalized reaches of the country together. In this respect, Darfur's plight bears more than a passing resemblance to the situation of southern Sudan, where largely African populations--among them a significant percentage of Christians--waged a decades-long rebellion against the Arab Muslim government in Khartoum, a rebellion that ended only last year when a peace accord promised the south significant autonomy and increased representation in a national unity government. But if Darfur has something in common with the south, it also has a story all its own. That story is ably told by Gerard Prunier, who offers a more complete account of the pre-colonial and colonial history of the region, and by Julie Flint and Alex de Waal, who focus illuminatingly on the region's recent history and the origins of the genocide.

Darfur is home to numerous African tribal groups, including the Fur, the Masalit, and the Zaghawa. Landownership traditionally operated according to a system of hereditary land grants known as hakura. Between the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries, waves of Arab migrants arrived in Darfur--first nomads, then traders from the east. Some Arab groups were given land grants under the hakura system. Others were not. Beginning in the seventeenth century, the Fur established a sultanate over much of the territory, with Islam as its official religion. To their south the Fur raided for slaves, and to their north and east they traded with Egypt.

In 1874, Turco-Egyptian authorities assumed control of Darfur. (They had ruled much of Sudan since 1821.) But a decade later, a charismatic mahdi, or Muslim holy man, led a nationwide revolt, ending the occupation of Sudan and creating a new regime. Though he died soon after assuming power, his lieutenant ruled Sudan until the British defeated him in 1898, establishing colonial control over Sudan that they would not relinquish for more than half a century. Darfur was spared British rule, but only briefly: Ali Dinar, a relative of the last Fur sultan, reached a deal with the British to preserve Darfur's independence. He ruled the territory for eighteen years before making the miscalculation of siding with the Ottomans in World War I. In 1916, the colonial Sudanese government invaded Darfur, killed Ali Dinar, and ensured that thereafter the region's fate would be linked to the rest of Sudan's.

Britain governed Sudan differently from its other colonies. The apparatus of its colonial authority was unusual: rather than being technically under British rule, Sudan came under joint British and Egyptian sovereignty. (This was always something of a sham, since Egypt was itself governed by Britain; and in later years, as Egypt moved toward independence, Britain would prove quite effective at blocking Egyptian influence in Khartoum and governing Sudan as it pleased.) More significantly, Britain permitted no settlers into Sudan, and generally took a minimalist approach to running the country. And even in the context of this hands-off rule, Britain's administration of Darfur stood out for its lack of initiative.

After seizing the territory in 1916, Britain installed a system of "indirect rule," meaning that colonial authorities governed through existing tribal leaders. As Prunier explains, these tribal leaders "were usually incapable of implementing any form of technical or administrative progress or of dealing with problems of education. This suited the local British administrators, who believed that education and technical change would only ‘spoil’ their charges." In the end, Prunier writes, "the Khartoum administration did almost nothing, good or bad, in its late-acquired province." It was not only Darfur that was neglected. Southern Sudan was not just ignored, but also sealed off from the rest of the country. "To justify neglect," M.W. Daly remarks in Imperial Sudan, his history of British colonialism in the country, the government "declared the south unready for exposure to the forces of modernity. The south would be ‘closed’ to outsiders and allowed to ‘develop’ along ‘indigenous’ lines, free from the contamination of Islam, Arabic, and itinerant traders.... Southern Policy became a charter for institutionalizing backwardness."

These policies were implemented by the Sudan Political Service, which was, in Prunier's words, "as much, or perhaps more, a club than an administration." Members were recruited directly from Oxford and Cambridge to administer swaths of territory in Sudan, where "spartan, adventurous life was an extension of the life of the English public school." Theirs was a different sort of racism from the active scorn shown to indigenous subjects by British settlers in other colonial outposts. More than despising the locals, members of the Sudan Political Service enjoyed living among them in what they saw as an authentic native environment. This benign neglect by a malign order was not just a matter of administrative convenience; it was also an approach to colonization built around a kind of institutionalized condescension. There were variations in the way different regions of the country were administered, but by and large the pattern held. Prunier describes Darfur as a "gentleman's playground." He notes that a Sudanese author once said the British regarded the southern part of the country as a "human zoo."

Britain's approach to governing Sudan reminds us of a sometimes neglected attribute of the colonial spirit: its deep indifference toward its surroundings. In order to colonize people, you must be fundamentally unmoved by their humanity. To be sure, there are other elements in the mentality of colonialism, and these other imperial instincts consort awkwardly, or in contradiction, with the indifference I am describing: the missionary instinct, or the "civilizing" instinct, both of which led Westerners to care too much, rather than too little, about the affairs of those they colonized, and to express this concern in nasty, intolerant ways. And the economic interest of European imperialism was certainly the most morally and emotionally deadening influence of all.

But it was the instinct toward indifference that was most plainly on display in imperial Sudan, though it existed in some degree everywhere the British ruled, including places where colonization took a very different form. In Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya, Caroline Elkins documents the horrific abuses meted out in a British colonial prison. Kenya's colonization was quite unlike Sudan's. British settlers arrived in the country and expropriated land from Africans; this led to the Mau Mau rebellion, which in turn led the British to take gruesome countermeasures, including the creation of a gulag. But there, too, indifference was in evidence: to expropriate someone's land, and certainly to torture someone, you must not care what happens to him. The imperial dehumanization of Kenya was very different from the imperial indifference of the British administrators of southern Sudan, who regarded their subjects as amusing specimens living in a "human zoo." At its most aggressive and at its most passive, imperialism in Africa was a policy of not giving a damn.

The British left Sudan in 1956. During the next several decades, Darfur continued to be neglected by Sudanese authorities, but this time it was the governing elite in Khartoum, rather than the British, who were guilty of indifference. By the 1980s, according to Flint and de Waal, "Darfur's towns and villages had scarcely better services than in the days of the British." Meanwhile, ethnic tensions between Darfur's Arabs and non-Arabs were on the rise. Partly, this was the result of politics: election campaigns led to demagoguery as parties courted different demographics, which in turn led to a heightened awareness of ethnic distinctions--distinctions, it should be noted, that are considerably more subtle and difficult to disentangle than, say, the difference between a Zimbabwean and an Arab from the Middle East. Also to blame were environmental factors: as drought and desertification caused the total amount of arable land to shrink, the traditional lifestyles of Arab nomads and African farmers began to bump up against each other; a severe famine during the 1980s exacerbated tensions further. Droughts as well as political upheaval in Chad led to an influx of Arabs from northern Chad that altered Darfur's ethnic balance. Then there was the pernicious influence of Muammar Gadhafi. Libya's leader spent years seeking to overthrow Chad's government, and he used Darfur as his base. Arms flowed into the region, and so did Gadhafi's brand of Arab supremacism.

As Arab militias, known as Janjaweed, began to arm themselves, the frustration of the Fur, Zaghawa, Masalit, and other non-Arab Darfuris with their region's neglect by the Khartoum government grew. Darfuris had once been active in the Islamist movement that brought the National Islamic Front (NIF) regime to power in the 1980s, but by the late 1990s, according to Flint and de Waal, they "began to abandon the Islamist movement in droves as the movement itself began to fragment." In 2000, Sudanese dissidents circulated a publication called The Black Book: Imbalance of Power and Wealth in Sudan. The book's "meticulous statistics proved what everyone knew but never articulated: that the vast majority of government positions in Khartoum, from cabinet ministers to their drivers and all the bureaucracy in-between, were held by members of three tribes which represented only 5.4 per cent of Sudan's population."

By 2003, Arab-African violence was endemic to Darfur. Two non-Arab rebel groups, the Sudan Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement, soon announced their presence with attacks on government installations. The latter was less secular but also more politically sophisticated, since its leadership contained Islamists who had grown disaffected with the NIF. The NIF's response was swift and brutal: it unleashed its Janjaweed proxies--already armed with weapons and grievances, following decades of ethnic tension--to terrorize the African populations of Darfur.

The most prominent Janjaweed leader is a brutish figure named Musa Hilal. The son of an Arab sheik who had for decades wielded considerable power in Darfur's tribal politics, Hilal rose to prominence in the 1980s. As his elderly father gradually went blind and became bedridden, Musa was elevated to the leadership of his clan. An Arab supremacist with a sizeable ego, Hilal was the perfect vehicle for Khartoum's decision to fight the Darfur rebels by means of genocide. It was Hilal who would issue the now-infamous order to a regional military commander in 2004: "Change the demography of Darfur and empty it of African tribes." Hilal is a central character in Flint and de Waal's book, and they paint a compelling portrait of a man driven by racism and egomania. (In Prunier's account, he is mentioned only in an end note--an odd omission. And neither book, it must be said, lays out much of a plan for ending the killing. All three authors make clear their revulsion at the international community's weak response, but these are works of history, not policy.)

Hilal may be a loathsome figure--just last week the U.N. Security Council issued sanctions against him--but he has had plenty of help from other loathsome figures with far more power: namely, members of Khartoum's ruling elite. They supplied airplanes, troops, and--most of all--confidence to members of the Janjaweed that their crimes would go unpunished. The result has been hundreds of thousands dead, and millions evicted from their homes and driven to refugee camps, and women raped en masse. Flint and de Waal describe what the genocide has looked like in practice:

“With air support, the Janjawiid [sic] spread out across Darfur, attacking defenseless communities. Villagers were ... shot, stabbed, burned alive, and butchered. Bodies were mutilated and left in the open, there to be seen by anyone who might consider returning. In one village, sixty-six villagers were tortured in the local dispensary before being killed--some hanged by their feet, others decapitated. In another, schoolgirls were chained together and burned alive.... Government and Janjawiid forces destroyed everything that made life possible.”

Khartoum's strategy was simple: genocide as an instrument of counterinsurgency. To speak crassly, the strategy has been very effective, and so it continues to this day.

It is not quite accurate to say that the West has ignored the Darfur genocide, since we know quite well what has been going on. More precisely, the West has been indifferent. We have taken the trouble to know, but not the trouble to care. A handful of heroic journalists have risked their lives to make sure that the story of Darfur reached the world, and humanitarian workers from groups such as Doctors Without Borders have risked their lives to provide aid to the displaced Darfuris living in camps--despite the best efforts of the Sudanese government and the Janjaweed to make conditions so unsafe that aid providers will elect to leave. State Department officials have sought to cajole and intimidate the Khartoum government into reining in its proxies, to little effect. And religious groups have mobilized, notably in the rally that took place in Washington this past weekend.

But micro-passion is no match for macro-indifference; and while the marchers are to be applauded, the constituency of those who really care about Darfur is not nearly large enough to compel President Bush to take decisive action. Nor have strong-enough constituencies emerged in Europe, where presumably, in the wake of the Iraq war, the thought of Western military action for just about any reason is impossible to support. Better to let hundreds of thousands die than to risk the appearance of neocolonialism. And even among those Americans who desperately wish to see the genocide stopped, the discussion seems haunted by the specter of imperialism. The postcard distributed by the admirable Save Darfur Coalition is deliberately ambiguous in this respect: it calls on Bush to "support a stronger multinational force to protect the civilians of Darfur." If this means a NATO force led by the United States, then it offers a realistic plan for stopping the genocide. But one assumes most Americans who sign the postcard are thinking in less hawkish, and therefore less realistic, terms: increased funding for African Union troops, or perhaps a mandate for United Nations intervention.

The most important political fact about this evil is that neither of these options will put an end to it. The African Union, which already has troops on the ground in Darfur, has proved impotent to protect civilians. As for the United Nations, its preparations for a mission to Darfur are moving at a snail's pace, even as Khartoum maneuvers to prevent blue helmets from entering the country at all. No, the only end to Darfur's genocide will come when a NATO force, which might well have to be led by the United States, arrives in the region prepared to destroy the Janjaweed and, if necessary, to subdue Khartoum's military as well. As Lawrence F. Kaplan has pointed out, "the mostly progressive voices calling for action in Darfur have become caught in a bind of their own devising": they want Darfur saved and they want American power curbed. They cannot have both.

Indifference, then, remains the defining instinct in the West's relationship with Sudan. And this is the wrenching irony: not to do anything about Sudan is precisely the imperialist thing to do. For this reason, Darfur and our anti-imperialist integrity will die together. It is the old indifference that historians will detect in Bush's empty statements calling on Khartoum's leaders to stop the killing, when he knows full well that he could persuade them to do so by deploying troops rather than words; and in the bizarre logic of a United Nations that will not even call this genocide by its proper name; and--I do not mean to be too harsh here, but the result is the same--in the political demand of protesters that we simply provide more support to the African Union and the United Nations, when it is clear that neither organization will ever, on its own, be able to stop the killing. During the Bosnian genocide, remember, insisting that it was a European problem was finally a way of expressing the limits of one's concern, because it was obvious that the Europeans were not going to solve it.

We do not wish to be colonialists. Haven't we meddled in the rest of the world enough? Haven't we, imperialists that we are, already put enough countries in "the cross-hairs of the American cruise missile"? When America acts abroad, isn't it invariably acting in the brutal and selfish tradition of Napoleon in Egypt and Britain in Kenya, inevitably re-enacting the pathologies and the depredations of colonial powers? Many believe this; but perhaps they have things backward. It may be that in Darfur, and elsewhere, it is when America does the least that we indulge the colonial instinct the most. For a great power, inaction is just another form of action. By not acting in Darfur, we act to allow a certain outcome. Not all intervention is exploitation or oppression. The logic of non-intervention may also be haughty and heartless. And Sudan, apparently, is still a zoo.

Richard Just is the deputy editor of The New Republic.