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“We Can’t Just Do Nothing”

Can a liberal be both opposed to imperialism and devoted to human rights?

Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror
By Mahmood Mamdani
(Pantheon, 398 pp., $26.95)

The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and For All
By Gareth Evans
(Brookings, 349 pp., $24.95)


IN THE SUMMER OF 2007, Mahmood Mamdani found himself at a meeting of activists and politicians, listening to sentiments that had by then become quite common among a certain class of politically active Americans. The speakers were calling on the United Nations to send peacekeepers to Darfur. Fed up with the inability of African Union troops—who were already on the ground in western Sudan—to stop the ongoing bloodshed, they insisted that U.N. forces could do better. The United Nations, explained one politician, echoing a view you could have heard on any number of college campuses at the time, would grant “mercy” to the people of Darfur.

Mamdani was appalled at what he was hearing. “The naivete of these assumptions was breathtaking,” he fumes in his new book, as he recalls the meeting. And it was not just this gathering that irked him. Other activists of his acquaintance were going even further. One friend was hoping that Americans would “impose a no-fly zone and ... hit selected targets.” Meanwhile a “highly respected activist” had even raised the possibility of the United States sending its own ground troops to Sudan, or mustering troops from other countries for the humanitarian mission. Could Americans solve the problems of Darfur? an incredulous Mamdani asked. “Not really,” the activist replied. “But what can we do? There is no other solution. We can’t just do nothing.”

What Mamdani was hearing was basically the position of most Save Darfur types from 2004 on, as it gradually dawned on the world that a genocide was taking place in western Sudan. Most favored sending United Nations troops to Darfur to replace an ineffective African Union force. Others thought that NATO or even American soldiers would be needed to stop the Sudanese government from murdering its own people and to establish the security that would allow millions of displaced Darfuris to begin returning home. Still others believed that the United States should take military measures short of an outright invasion of Darfur, such as establishing a no-fly zone. The particulars of these prescriptions varied, but what was common to all of them was a basic belief that the United States and its allies had a moral obligation to stop genocide and to relieve the suffering of the Darfuri people.

For Mamdani, all this was simply imperialism by another name. Now he has written a book outlining his demurral about Darfur, and attacking the movement in the West that argued for intervention in Sudan. Mamdani contends that Darfur was never a genocide. What took place in western Sudan beginning in 2003, according to him, was exaggerated and mangled by human rights activists in the West in order to gin up an excuse to invade Sudan.

Mamdani’s book—which The New York Times called “learned” and “important”—is only ostensibly about Darfur. He has bigger and more ambitious themes. He wishes to show that Save Darfur activists—and, more broadly, “human rights fundamentalists,” as he scornfully calls them—are the intellectual descendants of European colonialists, and also the ideological cousins of Dick Cheney. They have, he writes, issued “a clarion call for the recolonization of ‘failed’ states in Africa.” For Mamdani, the Save Darfur movement is more or less indistinguishable from the great imperialist enterprise of our time, which is the war on terror. “The harsh truth,” he argues, “is that the War on Terror has provided the coordinates, the language, the images, and the sentiment for interpreting Darfur.”

MAMDANI’S BOOK NICELY EXEMPLIFIES one pole in the old and ongoing struggle between two sometimes contradictory impulses of liberal foreign policy: the opposition to imperialism and the devotion to human rights. If liberals view anti-imperialism as their primary philosophical commitment, then they will be reluctant to meddle in the affairs of other countries, even when they are ruled by authoritarian governments—as in Sudan—that abuse their own people. But if liberalism’s primary commitment is to human rights, then liberals will be willing to judge, to oppose, and even to undermine such governments.

The differences between these two strains in left-wing thinking are stark, but they are not always obvious. That is because history has often conspired to paper them over—particularly during the Cold War, when the United States backed a number of awful dictators. Criticizing American support for Pinochet or Mobutu was consistent with both anti-imperialism and a healthy interest in human rights. Such situations temporarily exempted liberals from the trouble of disaggregating their philosophical commitments and establishing how well, or not well, they went together. But history does not always present such convenient circumstances; and since the end of the Cold War, every time the United States has undertaken a humanitarian intervention—or, as in Afghanistan and Iraq, interventions with humanitarian implications—this fundamental split has, in one form or another, returned to the center of the liberal debate.

While this question tends to come to the fore most dramatically in arguments over war, it is not fundamentally a question about war. The military is simply one among many means that can be used to interfere in other countries (though it is certainly the bluntest). The more basic question—is it right to interfere?—is the one that needs to be asked before we talk about invasions or air strikes or sanctions or International Criminal Court indictments or any other means of impeding abusive leaders and promoting human rights. And when you put the question to people on the left—when you ask them whether it is morally and historically correct for liberals to be in the business of promoting liberalism by undermining illiberal governments—you get a wide range of responses, which suggest that the old contest between the anti-imperialist impulse and the human rights impulse is alive and well.

IF MAMDANI’S BOOK DEMARCATES the anti-imperialist pole of this debate, another recent book speaks for the opposite side. It is called The Responsibility to Protect, which is also the name of a new international doctrine formulated by liberals who fall squarely in the human rights camp. Back in 2000, the Canadian government assembled a group called the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty to take up the question of how governments should respond to genocide and other mass crimes. Out of this group’s deliberations emerged the concept of “the responsibility to protect”—or R2P, as it has come to be known in the policy community. The commission’s co-chair was a former Australian diplomat named Gareth Evans, who, until recently, headed the International Crisis Group. Evans has written a book attempting to explain the doctrine, and to defend it.

The term “humanitarian intervention”—which, Evans takes pains to note, is only military in nature and therefore does not capture the full meaning of “the responsibility to protect”—has been in circulation since at least the nineteenth century; but during the 1990s, as the Cold War drew to a close and national interests briefly faded to the background of foreign policy, the question of when and whether interventions could be justified on purely moral grounds moved for the first time to the center of the international discussion. Out of the debates surrounding Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Kosovo came a number of similar ideas about how the international community ought to conduct itself in humanitarian emergencies. Evans credits Bernard Kouchner with helping to start the discussion by proposing, in the 1980s, a “right to intervene”—a phrase that earned widespread usage when the United States entered Somalia in 1992. It soon became clear, Evans writes, that other actors—from the U.N. Development Program, which in 1994 proposed the concept of “human security,” to the Sudanese scholar Francis Deng, who in 1996 co-wrote a book titled Sovereignty as Responsibility, to Tony Blair, who in 1999 defended Kosovo as “a just war, based not on any territorial ambition but on values,” to Kofi Annan, who coined the term “individual sovereignty”—were thinking along similar lines. The aim behind all these ideas was more or less the same: to complicate the traditional notion of state sovereignty by codifying the principle that governments could not be permitted to commit mass crimes against their own people.

But these efforts often ran afoul of politicians in the developing world, who thought that they sounded too much like imperialism. Evans’s commission—which included Michael Ignatieff, Lee Hamilton, and several developing-world politicians, such as former Filipino president Fidel Ramos and Cyril Ramaphosa of the African National Congress—wanted to find a way around this problem. Its answer was the phrase “the responsibility to protect,” which identified three obligations of the international community in the event of mass crimes: “the responsibility to prevent,” “the responsibility to react,” and “the responsibility to rebuild.” The commission emphasized that prevention was “the single most important dimension of the responsibility to protect.” In other words, this new doctrine was not chiefly about barreling into a country with troops to save a vulnerable population. It was more about using soft power to prevent awful situations from developing in the first place. (Military force could be used, but only as a last resort.) Four years after Evans and his commission issued their report, the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution endorsing the responsibility to protect.

R2P may sound like a banal idea, but in fact it is quite radical. The belief that governments have a moral responsibility to protect people in other countries who are potential victims of crimes against humanity, and that human rights in such extreme circumstances supersede state sovereignty, has not exactly been the norm throughout human history. Reasonable people can certainly disagree about the proper means for implementing this concept, haggling over when to apply it and how; but the idea itself is a genuine innovation in international politics, and—for liberals who wish to emphasize human rights over anti-imperialism—a welcome one.

Here is the tragic part. Having adopted this new doctrine in 2005, the nations of the world proceeded to sit by and watch Darfur burn—suggesting that R2P, whatever its power in theory, would not change the way the big powers behaved overnight. But if world leaders were slow to pick up on the practical requirements of the idea that they had just endorsed, another group of actors was not: the Darfur activists. Indeed, the speed with which the concept of R2P entered the popular discourse, eventually becoming the intellectual backbone of the Save Darfur movement, may help to explain why Mamdani wrote Saviors and Survivors. He seems to have taken stock of the liberal activists mobilizing around Darfur and concluded that those who advocate the motive of anti-imperialism against the motive of human rights were losing the battle for the future of the left. If this is the case, it is remarkable, because Iraq should have stacked the deck in Mamdani’s favor. Here was a costly war that largely failed to deliver the humanitarian benefits that its supporters had promised, while lending ammunition to the idea that America was a greedy imperialist power bent on occupying foreign lands. And yet many Americans—including plenty who opposed the war against Saddam—have seemed more galvanized in recent years by calls to interfere in Darfur than by calls to stop interfering in Iraq. Mamdani notes this, and makes clear that it drives him nuts.

Now a liberal occupies the White House, and so this battle of ideas acquires a new urgency. Taken side by side, these two books broach all the necessary questions. Which of these visions is more sober? Which is more logical? Which is more compassionate? And does one vision come closer than the other to capturing the essence of what it means to be a liberal?


THE PROBLEMS WITH Mamdani’s book start on the very first page, where he describes genocide incorrectly as “killing with intent to eliminate an entire group.” The Genocide Convention, adopted in 1948, defines genocide as an attempt to eliminate a group “in whole or in part.” This is an important distinction. Did the Sudanese government and its Arab militia allies try to eliminate every last member of every Darfuri ethnic group that was linked to the rebels? Of course not. But there is abundant evidence that they did try to eliminate significant percentages of these groups—directly, by massacring vast numbers of civilians; and indirectly, by chasing millions off their land and forcing them into camps, where many slowly died from disease and malnutrition.

The malicious intent behind these various strategies was not kept secret. In 2003, according to Human Rights Watch, the Sudanese government’s interior minister delivered a speech in Darfur to Janjaweed and soldiers. “He asked them to kill the Fur because the Fur had joined the rebellion,” one witness recounted. Another government official declared shortly thereafter: “Zaghawa, Fur, and Masalit have become rebels. We will burn everything down and only leave behind the trees.” And, in 2004, the Janjaweed leader Musa Hilal issued his infamous order: “Change the demography of Darfur and empty it of African tribes.” None of these quotations appear in Saviors and Survivors.

Mamdani’s opening misstep in defining genocide sets the tone for how he will proceed. A glaring error here or there; a stubborn refusal to admit nuances and caveats, or to engage facts that are inconvenient to his argument; a chilling inability to weigh the real human costs of the policies he is advocating; and, most disturbingly for someone who has made his career as an academic, a bizarre ineptitude with logic—by which I mean that Mamdani’s central arguments do not finally prove what he seems to think they prove.

Following his errant definition of genocide, Mamdani’s next major conceptual error is his mischaracterization of the Save Darfur movement. He lumps Save Darfur activists together with the neoconservatives of the Bush administration: “One needs to keep in mind the central political thrust of the Save Darfur movement.... Its raison d’etre is to be sought in the War on Terror.” He seems oblivious to the highly inconvenient fact that the roots of Save Darfur were very much on the left. At the movement’s signature event—a rally in Washington in 2006 that drew thousands—the speakers included Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and that infamous neoconservative Al Sharpton. Mamdani does not even attempt to explain why, if Save Darfur’s message and prescriptions were so consistent with the Bush administration’s ideological outlook, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and company didn’t just invade Sudan. After all, they kindled to the use of American force.

In reality, instead of viewing themselves as allies of Bush, the Save Darfur activists by and large came to despise the administration for dragging its feet on the issue. What’s more, Mamdani never explains how Western intervention in Darfur could have plausibly provided any benefit in the war on terror. Had he bothered to think through the logic of his assertion, he would have realized that he had things exactly backward. Far from drawing the United States closer to an intervention in Darfur, the war on terror was likely one of the prime brakes upon American action against the genocide. By 2003, when it unleashed its destruction on Darfur, the Sudanese government was cooperating closely with Washington by providing intelligence on Al Qaeda. One of the reasons the administration may have hesitated to put more pressure on Khartoum to stop the killing was because it feared cutting off this intelligence pipeline.

Mamdani’s argument again and again founders on the question of America’s self-interest. He wants readers to believe that the notion of Darfur as a genocide was somehow cooked up to serve American strategic purposes, but he cannot provide a compelling explanation for what exactly those purposes were. Genocide, he instructs, has been “instrumentalized by big powers so as to target those newly independent states that they find unruly and want to discipline.” But why would the United States want to discipline Khartoum, which by 2003 was aiding the war on terror and was—finally, after years of intransigence—cooperating with the effort to bring peace to the southern part of the country?

At one point, seemingly out of a weary sense of obligation, Mamdani trots out the left-wing conspiracy theorist’s favorite key to all imperialist adventures: oil. Reprimanding Mia Farrow and Steven Spielberg for their Darfur activism surrounding the 2008 Olympics, he writes that they “seemed blissfully ignorant of the fact that part of the dynamics driving the contention between the United States and China in the region was that both were knee-deep in oil, the United States on the Chad side of the border and China on the Sudan side.” But having made a vague link to oil, he makes no effort to explain why picking a fight with Sudan would have benefited American oil interests. If it was Sudan’s oil that we were after, wouldn’t the simplest approach have been to normalize relations with Khartoum and let American companies do business with the regime? The cold fact is that the Darfur genocide was at cross-purposes with our strategic interests, which was why realists generally opposed doing anything about it. It would have been much better for American interests—for terror warriors and oil companies alike—if the Darfur genocide had never taken place. But alas, it did.

The point goes beyond Darfur. In trying to sell an idealistic foreign policy to Americans, presidents have often argued that our values and our interests are identical. But this is rarely, if ever, the case. Over the long term, Americans would probably benefit from the emergence of a freer world; but in the short term, promoting human rights and countering authoritarianism is often quite antithetical to our national interest—in Sudan, in China, and in Saudi Arabia, just to take three obvious examples. But the conflation of American values and interests is not just false; it is also damaging, because it gives fuel to those like Mamdani who want to see interests lurking behind every assertion of values. In their imagination, “human rights fundamentalists” are always a stalking horse for oil or anti-terrorism. This is how they conclude that human rights groups are indistinguishable from imperialists. I understand the temptation to conflate human rights with American self-interest—it is a strong arrow in the quiver of those who argue for American action against genocide—but “idealists” should understand that when we do this, we are only making the work of anti-American paranoids such as Mamdani much easier.

MAMDANI’S MOST CONSISTENT refrain is the word “context,” which becomes something of a fetish for him as the book wears on. He repeatedly accuses activists and journalists of failing to see the Darfur killing in context. “If ‘good Germans’ were taught to trust their leaders first and ask questions later, the good souls mobilized to save Darfur are taught to trust pictures above all else and ask questions later,” he observes. “Above all, they strip Darfur—and the violence in Darfur—of context.” And later: “It is the purpose of part two of the book to restore the historical and contemporary context of Darfur.” (Context works all sorts of miracles for Mamdani: not long ago, in the London Review of Books, he published a quasi-defense of Robert Mugabe titled “Lessons of Zimbabwe: Mugabe in Context.”) So let us take Mamdani seriously and see what the context that he provides actually proves.

Much of Saviors and Survivors is devoted to the history of Darfur and Sudan. Mamdani uses this history to make several arguments. One is that the Arab tribes of Darfur were not settlers in the region—that is, they were no less indigenous to the region than African tribes. Mamdani somehow persuaded himself that this view of Arabs as settlers and Africans as natives was one of the intellectual cornerstones of the Save Darfur worldview. “The Save Darfur movement and the intelligentsia that has gravitated around it assumes that Arabs are settlers in Sudan,” he asserts. He cites, by my count, just two examples to support this: one book and a statement from Brian Steidle, a former Marine who, while working for the African Union, became an early witness to the genocide.

I have been studying Darfur for years and not once prior to reading this book have I heard or read an activist base his desire to end the genocide on the supposition that the Arab tribes of Darfur were settlers. But even if we accept that this misunderstanding is in fact widespread, I fail to see how correcting it advances Mamdani’s argument that Darfur was not really a genocide. The settlement patterns of previous centuries do not have any bearing on the empirical question of whether, in 2003, local Arab militias, egged on by an Arab supremacist government in Khartoum, set out to murder members of tribes different from their own. And Mamdani makes no attempt to explain why these two issues would have anything to do with each other. He simply harrumphs, “It is assumed that Arab tribes of Sudan originate from Arab settlers who came from the Middle East, but in fact the Arabs of Sudan are as native to Sudan as most of its inhabitants,” and then proceeds to devote large swaths of his text to proving this assertion. The result is a perfectly interesting piece of historical knowledge, but one that tells us nothing about whether or not a genocide has taken place. If Mamdani’s opponents make points devoid of context, he delivers context devoid of a point.

He does something analogous when it comes to more recent history. Darfur activists have often noted the similarities between Khartoum’s scorched-earth campaign in southern Sudan and its tactics in Darfur. The history of southern Sudan is useful to understanding Darfur because it tells us something about the nature of the regime we are dealing with. If Khartoum had not just finished murdering hundreds of thousands of its own people in southern Sudan, its insistence back in 2004 that what was taking place in Darfur was really just a tribal conflict—and not a campaign of violence unleashed by the government itself—might have been a bit more believable. But Mamdani rejects the comparison between southern Sudan and Darfur, calling it “extremely misleading” and reprimanding Save Darfur types for failing to grasp the distinctions. He produces a number of dissimilarities between the two conflicts, such as the commonly known fact that many Darfuris, including the future leader of a Darfuri rebel group called the Justice and Equality Movement, were allied with the North during the North-South war. “In a historical sense, JEM—and not the Janjawiid—was a child of those who led and participated in the counterinsurgency in southern Sudan and who were subsequently disappointed by their marginalization in the Islamist alliance in Khartoum,” he announces, with satisfaction.

What he never explains is why such bits of context matter at all to our understanding of Darfur. The fact that there were differences between the two conflicts—of course there were: are any conflicts identical?—does not disprove the existence of one very relevant similarity. It is that, in both cases, the same ruthless regime, run by the same man, used extreme violence to counter rebellions and hold together an unwieldy country. That some of those complicit in the first crime broke with the government before the start of the second crime is, again, an interesting historical fact. But I have no idea why Mamdani thinks it advances the overall argument of his book.

Sometimes Mamdani’s precious context is not irrelevant to his argument, but actually undermines what he is trying to prove. He is convinced, for example, that one of the problems with our understanding of Darfur is that we are too quick to see the Arabs of Darfur as identical to the Arabs of Khartoum, when in fact they are quite different. “It is ... assumed that Arab tribes in Darfur and in riverine Sudan [Khartoum and its environs] are products of a single history of ‘Arabs’ and ‘Arabization,’ when they are not,” he admonishes. In the course of disproving this, he shows that Darfur and riverine Sudan were for most of history distinct entities with very different social systems, not natural parts of the same country. “If not for the Mahdiyya,” he writes, referring to the anticolonial movement that briefly ruled Sudan in the late nineteenth century, “we would speak of western Sudan and the Nile as two separate political entities, much the same way as we do of north and south Sudan.” Mamdani has a point: with the exception of a few decades at the end of the 1800s, Darfur was independent from the rest of Sudan for all of its history, until the British welded it to Khartoum in 1916. This information may vindicate Mamdani’s position that the Arabs who run the central government in Khartoum and the Arab tribes of Darfur are not one and the same. But he seems blind to where this logic leads.

THERE ARE ESSENTIALLY two ways to view the conflict in Darfur: as a civil war among the region’s tribes, or as a conflict between the center of Sudan and the periphery, in which the center (that is, Khartoum) used local Arab militias to defeat a rebellion that it feared would lead to independence for the periphery. There is clearly a grain of truth to both explanations. But just about everyone who follows Darfur—from the ICC, which has held Sudan’s president responsible for orchestrating the violence, to Darfuris themselves, who have repeatedly told interviewers that they mainly blame the central government for the violence—seems to agree that, at its core, this was a conflict pitting Khartoum against Darfur more than it was a conflict pitting Darfuris against each other. And the history that Mamdani is relating—of two distinct entities that were probably never meant to be part of the same nation-state—reinforces this interpretation. After all, if you have a center with only a tenuous historical grasp over a periphery, it becomes quite clear why that center would need to resort to mass violence to maintain its grip.

What follows from all this is that there is one key to solving the Darfur crisis: changing Khartoum’s behavior. If Darfur were just an internal tribal civil war, there would have been little that outsiders could have done to stop the violence. But as we learned in the Balkans, if there exists a government that can be held responsible for orchestrating genocide—as opposed to just a random and confusing collection of ethnic groups—then it is often quite possible to stop the killing through diplomacy, threats, and punitive military force against that government.

ANOTHER BIT OF CONTEXT that Mamdani is eager to trumpet is the oppression that the Arabs of Darfur have often suffered at the hands of African tribes. He points out that while Arabs have long constituted the ruling class in riverine Sudan, “the opposite was the case in Darfur,” where many Arab tribes have been denied land rights and generally treated like second-class citizens. “If Darfur was marginal in Sudan, the Arabs of Darfur were marginal in Darfur,” he writes. “In other words, the Arabs of Darfur were doubly marginalized.” None of this is untrue. But what does it prove? It certainly does nothing to diminish the horror of what was done to the African tribes of Darfur beginning in 2003. History is replete with examples of formerly oppressed groups committing terrible acts. Mamdani should be familiar with this phenomenon, since he wrote a book about the Rwandan genocide called When Victims Become Killers.

Mamdani never comes out and says that his evidence of historical Arab suffering is somehow exculpatory on the question of genocide. But what are we to make of sentences such as this one? “In the Sultanate of Dar Fur ... it is Fur that developed as the identity of power and Arab that became a marginal and insurgent identity.” Situated as this evidence is in the middle of a book dedicated to arguing that the Darfur genocide was not really as bad as we think, the implication seems quite clear. This is a breathtakingly offensive insinuation. History rarely presents clear through-lines of group morality. People who suffer during one era are perfectly capable of inflicting suffering during another era, and the existence of prior suffering is not a defense against contemporary human rights abuses of any kind, much less genocide. This is “context” at its ugliest.

OF COURSE MAMDANI is happy to ignore context when it suits him. A key theme in his book is that the Iraq war was worse than the Darfur genocide:

The year 2003 saw the unfolding of two very different armed conflicts. One was in Iraq, and it grew out of war and invasion. The other was in Darfur, Sudan, and it grew as a response to an internal insurgency. The former involved a liberation war against a foreign occupation, the latter a civil war in an independent state.... We have the astonishing spectacle of the United States, which has authored the violence in Iraq, branding an adversary state, Sudan, which has authored the violence in Darfur, as the perpetrator of genocide.... And yet, as we have already seen, the figures for the total number of excess dead are far higher for Iraq than for Darfur.

I think it unlikely that more civilians have died in Iraq than in Darfur, but credible estimates vary wildly in both conflicts, and it is certainly possible that there have been more deaths in Iraq. Mamdani has a long analysis of death statistics from Darfur aiming to show that far fewer people have died there than we think. I have no idea whether he is right, but however you calculate mortality in Darfur, the number of deaths there has been considerable. Most observers believe it was in the hundreds of thousands.

Whatever the true statistics, the number of civilian deaths in Iraq has been appalling. And yet surely a context artist such as Mamdani should be willing to see that the varying circumstances of the deaths in Iraq and Darfur matter a great deal. The people killed in Darfur were civilians deliberately targeted for massacre, rape, and expulsion by the government. The destruction in Iraq after 2003 was caused not by American soldiers but by extremists who were seeking either (in the case of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia) to establish an Islamist theocracy in Iraq or (in the case of Iraqi militias) to kill as many Sunnis or Shia as possible. These people killed many American soldiers, but mostly they just killed Iraqis. And the primary mission of American soldiers was to protect Iraqis against these killers. It is true that our military did not always carry out this mission well, and horrors such as Abu Ghraib underscore that America is capable of cruelty of its own. Yet the fundamental reason we stayed in Iraq after 2003 was to stop Iraqis from being murdered, and to increase the odds that Iraqi democracy would survive. Is Mamdani really incapable of seeing no difference between an effort, however deeply flawed, to give Iraqis control over their own destiny, and a bid by an authoritarian government to hold together its country through a deliberate policy of extermination, rape, and displacement?

Mamdani also thinks nothing of twisting history to deliver the context he wants. Many historians have noted the destructive role that Muammar Qaddafi played in Darfur over the years—using the territory as a base from which to attempt to overthrow the Chadian government, flooding the region with weapons, and backing the creation of a Darfuri group called the Arab Gathering that helped to lay the groundwork for genocide by heightening the atmosphere of racialism in western Sudan. But Mamdani, while acknowledging Qaddafi’s role, wishes to pin much of the blame for the genocide on a different leader: Ronald Reagan. “Two individuals,” he writes, “more than any others, played a key role in stoking local into regional conflicts.... Although Qaddafi was the first to appear on the scene, Reagan would loom larger.” Mamdani’s retelling of Chad’s history is designed to assign more of the blame to Reagan for the country’s instability—and hence for the problems that leaked into Darfur.

But his historical account brazenly inverts causality. As J. Millard Burr and Robert O. Collins demonstrate in their book Darfur: The Long Road to Disaster, Qaddafi began supporting efforts to overthrow the Chadian government within months of taking power in 1969, and he finally (though briefly) conquered Chad in late 1980. All of this happened before Reagan became president. Mamdani writes that in the 1980s “the Libyans learned from the United States and shifted from a direct confrontation to a proxy war.” A few pages later, he says it again for good measure: “The Reagan administration embraced proxy wars with missionary zeal following the U.S. defeat in Vietnam. Once again, the lesson was eagerly emulated by governments in the region.” This is absurd. It is true that Reagan backed a brutal man named Hissene Habre in his bid to evict the Libyans from Chad, but Qaddafi had been backing proxy forces in Chad since 1969. He hardly needed the United States to teach him how to do it. (This tendency to deny agency to Africans is something that David Rieff noticed in his review of Mamdani’s book on Rwanda in these pages in 2001.)

Qaddafi’s behavior in Chad was, in sum, both destructive and imperialist from the moment that he seized power. The idea that he was not responsible for his own actions—that he “learned” them from Reagan—is flatly ahistorical. And like so much else Mamdani writes, it has no logical bearing on the question of whether genocide took place in Darfur, and what the United States ought to have done about it.

Perhaps Mamdani’s most annoying rhetorical tic is his repeated condescension toward the world of journalism. “Africa is usually the entry point for a novice reporter on the international desk, a learning laboratory where he or she is expected to gain experience,” he writes, more or less implying that journalists are too young or too stupid to understand the stories they are covering. Later he accuses journalists such as Philip Gourevitch of having sketched a “pornography of violence” in their coverage of Africa, and of reducing “a complex political context to a morality tale unfolding in a world populated by villains and victims who never trade places and so can always and easily be told apart.” There is something reality-averse about Mamdani’s attack on journalism that reminds me of the way right-wingers used to carp about mainstream media coverage of Iraq during the dark, violence-filled days of 2006. Where in our media is the good news from Iraq? conservatives would howl. But the news from Iraq was bad not because the press turned away from good news, but because for a long time people were dying there in large numbers. The same goes for Darfur, especially during the early days of the genocide. When Reuters reports that a village has been attacked and dozens of people are dead, is that the “pornography of violence”? Or is it simply an empirical account of what just happened in Darfur?

SO IS THERE ANY value at all to Saviors and Survivors? Yes, there is. Even the most accurate narratives have analytical weaknesses, and our prevailing narrative of Darfur is no exception. Mamdani’s attack on the dominant Darfur narrative is broadly wrong, but some of his complaints are worth taking seriously. Writers (including myself) have not always emphasized that the majority of the killing in Darfur took place during the first few years of the crisis. Mamdani is right, in retrospect, that there was a lag between what was happening on the ground and how activists and journalists in America responded. By 2006, when the Save Darfur movement began to gain some momentum, the bulk of the destruction was largely complete.

At the same time, however, the notion that the genocide ended in 2005 is not quite correct either. On plenty of occasions in 2006, 2007, and 2008 there were reports of devastating attacks against civilians by Janjaweed and government forces. Given what transpired in Darfur from 2003 to 2005, I do not think it was illegitimate to view these later attacks as the continuation of a genocidal policy, albeit one carried out at a somewhat lower intensity than before. It is also important to remember that nearly three million Darfuris remain in camps. The Sudanese government shows no interest in helping these people return home, and it feels no compunction about obstructing the work of the NGOs that are keeping them alive, most recently by expelling numerous aid groups in retaliation for the ICC’s indictment of President Omar Bashir. To have forced millions of innocent people into camps and then, on a whim, to evict the aid workers who are keeping them from dying—is that a policy of ongoing genocide? I am not quite sure what to call it. Whatever it is, it is spectacularly cruel.

Mamdani's other complaint worth taking seriously is his allegation that American journalists and Save Darfur types focused on Arab attacks against African tribes while ignoring Arab attacks on other Arab tribes. If you look at all of these attacks, he says, it becomes clear that the conflict in Darfur was a contest between those without land and those with land, not between Arabs and Africans. Mamdani is certainly right that the contours of the conflict—who was attacking whom—were quite a bit messier than most Darfur activists in the United States understood. And he is probably right that we in the media underplayed the role of land in these disputes.

Yet the Darfur genocide was never fundamentally about what individual tribes did to each other. As Mamdani himself shows, there has been tribal friction in Darfur for a long time. What was different this time, especially from 2003 to 2005, was the behavior of the government, which found itself threatened by African rebel groups and unleashed destruction on African tribes in retaliation. That was what caused so many people to be killed in such a short time. Mamdani never makes any real effort to mount a case that this did not happen. Indeed, he cites a Fur leader describing what had unfolded in his homeland: The government “fanned the flames, used the Arabs against the Africans.... Our problem is not with the Arabs, it is with the government.” If only Mamdani had paused long enough from his ideological fulminations, he might have realized that in the Fur leader’s words lay the essence of what had taken place in Darfur.


THE PARTICULARS OF Mamdani’s argument about Darfur fail badly. But what of his bigger idea—his contention that human rights promotion is often synonymous with imperialism? Late in his book Mamdani gets to the responsibility to protect, and denounces it as “a call for an international regime of total paternalism.” Does this view have any merit?

Enter Gareth Evans, and with a powerful rebuttal. His book is not exactly scintillating: it features charts, was written by a politician turned policy specialist, and contains sentences such as this one: “The World Summit Outcome Document was clear about that, but in doing so did no more than reflect the spirit and letter of the reports leading up to it, all of which emphasized that, at all stages of the conflict cycle, less intrusive measures were to be preferred to more intrusive ones, and that persuasion was always to be preferred to coercion if it could produce the necessary results.” But I encourage readers to persevere. There is an unmistakable humanity that emerges from its dry pages—a humanity that is utterly missing from Mahmood Mamdani’s book.

That is because the essence of the responsibility to protect is an insistence that the fate of people matters more than the sovereignty of governments. Traditionally, Evans explains, “what happened within a state’s borders and its territorial possessions, however grotesque and morally indefensible, was nobody else’s business.” “In the history of ideas,” he simply and accurately adds, “there have been few that have prevailed to more destructive effect.”

To be very clear: Evans is not insisting that the sovereignty of governments is meaningless. Probably because it was formulated by a blue-ribbon commission, his doctrine is loaded down by various attempts to make it sound as banal and unthreatening as possible—even to truly awful governments that deserve to feel a bit more rattled by it. Evans emphasizes, again and again, that military force must be a last resort, and that R2P is more about using diplomacy and measures other than military action to prevent mass crimes than it is about reacting to them with force. This is reasonable enough. Even the most ardent defenders of the responsibility to protect will concede that we must work within the international system that we have. We cannot right every wrong, and we cannot go to war every time a ruler does something terrible to his own people, and we should not propose international doctrines that create an unrealistic sense of what is possible.

But Evans sometimes bends too far in the direction of caution. For one thing, his benchmark for when force is required is excessively conservative. While he calls Darfur a clear “R2P situation,” he argues that an invasion of Sudan would do more harm than good, and instead calls for “sustained diplomatic, economic, and legal pressure to change the cost-benefit balance of the regime’s calculations.” It is true that, with some 17,000 peacekeepers already on the ground and with large-scale killing no longer taking place, the time for an invasion of Darfur has passed. What Evans never acknowledges, however, is that an invasion in 2004—when the genocide was in its worst phase, with civilians being chased from their homes and murdered at an astonishing pace—might have saved hundreds of thousands of lives. In the case of genocide, force must sometimes be a first, or early, resort if it is to have any mitigating effect. This is a matter of effectiveness, not ideology.

Evans also ignores the fact that there are strong arguments for keeping certain punitive military measures, such as targeted air strikes, on the table today as we deal with Khartoum. And he is too sanguine about the ability of the United Nations to serve as a central vehicle for enforcing the responsibility to protect. The U.N. serves many valuable purposes, but it is a harsh place where considerable power is wielded by authoritarian countries such as Russia and China that, for obvious reasons, have little interest in seeing R2P vigorously enforced. If the responsibility to protect is to be put into practice, most of the heavy lifting will have to be done by liberal governments working through alliances like NATO or maybe a League of Democracies, rather than begging, probably in vain, for Russian and Chinese cooperation in New York. Witness what happened in Sudan: Turtle Bay delayed for years before finally sending troops to Darfur. And plenty of lives were lost during that time.

Yet all Evans’s disclaimers and caveats, all his excessive faith in conservative institutions such as the United Nations, cannot hide the fine and heady idealistic thrust of his doctrine: the dignity of humans cannot be an afterthought to the rights of governments, particularly when those governments do not represent the will of their own people. Surely this must be a core value of liberalism. Yet it is a value that Mamdani cannot grasp. Mamdani maintains that the African Union should be entrusted with situations like Darfur because “unlike the big powers that direct U.N. interventions ... practically every country in the African Union can see itself in Darfur’s shoes, and that makes a world of difference.” But Mamdani conflates peoples with governments. Practically every government in the African Union can see itself in Darfur’s shoes, and that does make a world of difference—because so many African governments are autocracies that do not want to have their own brutality challenged, and are therefore reluctant to forcefully challenge the brutality of others.

And so it was that, in the midst of the genocide back in 2006, the African Union actually held a summit in Khartoum. Today the organization is headed by none other than Muammar Qaddafi, the man whose imperial adventures helped lay the groundwork for the Darfur genocide. If, like Mamdani, you prioritize the protection of leaders and governments, then the African Union is clearly up to the job. But if, like Evans, you prioritize the protection of the rights of people—well, then things are quite a bit more complicated than Mamdani and the other post-colonialist simplifiers would have you believe.

AND WHERE DOES OUR president come down in the internecine liberal struggle between human rights and anti-imperialism? Seven months into his administration, it is still hard to tell. In my heart of hearts, I cannot quite believe that Obama subscribes to the dogma that anti-imperialism and the protection of sovereignty are higher liberal values than human rights. During the campaign, he explicitly endorsed the responsibility to protect, and he has surrounded himself with some R2P enthusiasts, such as Susan Rice. Yet in July, when asked about R2P at a press conference in Italy, Obama gave a muddled and equivocal response. “On the one hand we think that respecting the sovereignties of nation states is important,” he said. And “on the other hand, where you have nations that are oppressing their people, isn’t there an international responsibility to intervene?” The problem, he said, speaking in his seminar mode, “is one of the most difficult questions in international affairs. And I don’t think that there is a clean formula.” He then added that there are “exceptional circumstances in which I think the need for international intervention becomes a moral imperative,” but went on to say that “the threshold at which international intervention is appropriate ... has to be very high.” He criticized those who believe that “state sovereignty is sacrosanct,” before concluding by saying he preferred to “not hypothesize on particular circumstances” but instead “take each case as it comes.” It seems clear that this is a president who has yet to decide where exactly he stands on the relative merits of sovereignty and human rights.

Meanwhile Obama has given “human rights fundamentalists”—a phrase that Mamdani uses with derision but to which I answer with pride—other reasons to be concerned. His secretary of state all but told the Chinese during her initial visit to Beijing that human rights would not be a priority in our relationship. Meanwhile, in Darfur, Obama has proceeded with glacial caution. It took him nearly two months to appoint a special envoy, suggesting that Sudan was not the priority it should have been; and now that the envoy is in place, there have been indications that Obama intends to take a conciliatory posture toward Khartoum. One activist who has met with Obama's new envoy, Scott Gration, several times told The Washington Post, “He thinks that to keep banging on Khartoum is not the right way.” Last month, Gration criticized U.S. sanctions against Sudan while testifying before Congress. Those who care about Darfur are alarmed at what they see as Obama’s betrayal. The title of a June email from the Save Darfur Coalition summed up this consensus: “Your action vs. Obama’s inaction.”

There were passages in Obama’s Cairo speech that were encouraging. It was hardly the most full-throated defense of human rights that anyone ever heard from an American president, but at least it acknowledged, obliquely, the central problem in this debate: the difficult relationship between imperialism and human rights. Obama conceded the ugly legacy of colonialism early in his speech, saying that it “denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims”—not a controversial or courageous notion, but in certain settings worth reiterating—before going on to make a fine plea for universal values (“all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose”). He seemed to be implying—why couldn’t he have made it explicit?—that it is possible to reject colonialism and affirm the activism of human rights. Since this is not the way everyone on the left feels, it would be important to hear a liberal American president say so. It would be even more important to see him act on it.


THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN colonialism and human rights is also the specter that hangs over these two books. In The Responsibility to Protect, Evans notes the importance of ensuring “that R2P is seen not as a Trojan horse for bad old imperial, colonial, and militarist habits.” Mamdani, of course, rejects the idea that it could be anything else. The list of problems with Mamdani’s argument is long—there is the inconvenient fact, for example, that R2P’s intellectual roots lie partly in the Balkans, where the West sought to protect Muslims from Christians, the exact opposite of what a colonialist would have advocated. But the chief flaw is perhaps the simplest one: all his anti-colonialist outrage notwithstanding, he misunderstands the evil of colonialism.

For Mamdani, colonialism seems to be just a matter of one continent involving itself too heavily in the affairs of another continent—a jurisdictional abuse. But what was it that made colonialism so vile, so repugnant? Surely the essence of colonialism was the denial of freedom. The provenance matters less than the crime. If you read accounts of the savageries that attended European ventures into Africa, and then read accounts of what has taken place these past few years in Darfur, you will be struck by the similarities between them. It is no coincidence that the historian M.W. Daly has described postindependence governments in Khartoum as governing Darfur by “internal colonialism.” And this phenomenon is not unique to Sudan. Today many African tyrants treat their people with the same contempt Europeans once did. Is it a consolation for the victims that their oppression does not come from the West?

To side with Mamdani’s notion of anti-imperialism is to side with these tyrants. And to side with tyrants is to side with something that very much resembles colonialism. This is the contradiction within Mamdani’s worldview. It is also, in the end, the reason that the left’s great disputation between anti-imperialism and human rights presents a false choice. There is no need to pick sides. To be for human rights always and everywhere is to be against the ugliness of colonialism. And Mamdani’s anti-colonialism? It is, paradoxically, an apology for the closest thing our world now has to the colonialism of old.

This is all rather abstract. But one last tale will make things a bit more concrete. Remember those advocates who caused Mamdani such consternation with their calls for U.N. troops or even the United States to take action in Darfur? You might have assumed that they were Americans. They were not. And the scene Mamdani describes was not a campus rally. The gathering of activists and politicians that he narrates took place in El Fasher, a city in Darfur. And the people he quotes as arguing for intervention were Sudanese. It so happens that the views they expressed were identical to the arguments one would have heard from Save Darfur activists here in the United States—and this is because, unlike Mamdani, many of us who advocated for Western intervention in Darfur cared what the people of Darfur actually wanted. Had they told us that they wanted no part of outside intervention, we would have stopped agitating. But they told us the reverse. They gave numerous indications that they expected the world to come to their rescue—most famously in 2006, when Darfuris gathered in a camp and chanted, “Welcome welcome USA, welcome welcome international force!”

Confronted with such views, Mamdani turns patronizing. “Hard as I found it to believe this, I could not deny the evidence of my own eyes and ears,” he writes. “The external intervention had produced an internal agency: IDPs [internally displaced persons] demanding to be rescued. Desperately believing in another world, they remained innocent of the politics of this world.” These people, innocents? Surely they are some of the most disabused people who ever lived. But Mamdani believes he knows better than the people of Darfur about what should or should not be done to help them. Does such condescension and indifference not itself come with a whiff of colonialism?

Richard Just is the managing editor of The New Republic.