Those urging military action in Darfur have in recent days been joined by influential US and UK policymakers. The Islamist government of Sudan has not only encouraged so-called Janjaweed militias to run riot in the rebellious province, where roughly 200,000 have died. It is also refusing to admit 20,000 United Nations peacekeepers, who would supplement 7,000 overburdened African Union soldiers already there. The west is showing signs that it has had enough. This week, Tony Blair, British prime minister, urged a no-fly zone over Darfur. There have been hints of a US “Plan B” to be implemented in the new year, and this newspaper reported on Wednesday that the US had drawn up plans for a naval blockade.

There is a hitch, though, to any international intervention. China buys two-thirds of Sudan’s oil and has invested $7bn there. Hence Khartoum’s double-digit growth, its stock exchange, its new office buildings. China – like Russia before the Kosovo war or France before the Iraq one – might exercise its veto on the UN Security Council. Therefore, some Nato “coalition of the willing” might have to “go it alone” in Darfur. Prominent former officials from the Clinton administration have urged just such a course. But Darfur is a problem the west should touch only with a very long stick.

Omar Hassan al-Bashir, Sudanese leader, says there are fewer than 9,000 dead and that all this talk of mass killings is only the pretext for invading a Muslim country. He is either lying or mistaken, but that does not matter. Much of the Muslim world believes the US attacked Afghanistan for its natural gas reserves, not because of 9/11. Anti-Americanism is such a powerful force that whenever the US involves itself in anything, US power becomes the issue. American public opinion, sensing this, has grown isolationist. A common strand
of thought in the wake of November’s elections is that the world – not just the Muslim world but an important part of Europe, too – has pronounced its verdict on US influence; now let the world see how it likes the consequences. Americans may have enough patience to unravel the misadventure in Iraq, but they are not calling for an encore. Only 7 per cent of Americans consider Darfur a top foreign policy priority, according to an NBC News poll in October.

George W. Bush, US president, tried to raise the temperature
by describing Darfur as a “genocide” at the UN in September. This was a mistake. Genocide, as most people understand it, means trying to exterminate a race. But under the 1948 convention that the UN uses, it means a variety of acts, including non-lethal ones such as “causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group”, that are “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”. The words “in part” mean that almost any indiscriminate killing of civilians can constitute genocide. Meanwhile, International Criminal Court prosecutors announced on Thursday that they were preparing the first Darfur-related arrest warrants, another mistake. Threatening leaders with life sentences in the Hague turns a situation that might conceivably be resolved by diplomacy into a fight to the death.

One can argue about whether this is a genocide, but the pictures being evoked in western minds are oversimplifications. Darfur is not just sadists on one hand and victims on the other. It is a war. We have only the vaguest picture of what kind of war it is. Is it a race war, pitting the Arabs of Khartoum against the blacks of Darfur? Is it a civil war over money and natural resources? (The rebels, too,
have looted aid convoys and clashed with African Union peacekeepers.) Is Khartoum running a classic, Guatemalan-style, dry-up-the-fishpond counter-insurgency? Or is this just one front in a brewing east Africa-wide war of Islamist expansion, of which the guerrilla war in Chad and the threats of Somalia’s new fundamentalist leaders against Ethiopia are all a part?

Which of these wars do we think we are joining? On whose side? The aftermath of toppling Saddam Hussein shows this question to be nearly unanswerable. But it would be hard to intervene without making enemies. The one action with the best chance of changing the mind of Khartoum – destroying or blockading its oil industry – would greatly impoverish the 35m Sudanese who are not Darfuri.

The decision about which war to fight would be taken out of western hands the moment troops started landing. The number of troops necessary to pacify Darfur is often placed at 20,000, with only 5,000 elite western troops necessary to do the “heavy lifting”, as The New Republic puts it.

These numbers may be wild underestimates. What if Khartoum attacked the Christian south again, confronting Nato – much as Slobodan Milosevic did when he began razing Kosovar villages after air attacks – with a choice between exposure of its hypocrisy or a massive commitment of ground troops?

Some people seem to be nostalgic for the pre-September 11 days when the west could fight symbolic wars against marginal countries in the name of human rights. Others see a chance to restore the west’s humanitarian credentials, after the political quagmire in Iraq. This betrays a short memory and mistakes the war’s outcome for the war’s rationale. Iraq, too, was once a humanitarian cause.

But the lesson – not just of Iraq but also of the debacles in Somalia and Kosovo that made it possible – is that there is no such thing as a humanitarian invasion. The west can destroy the Sudanese government and punish its leaders, as in Iraq. It can support one group of brigands over another, as in Kosovo. It can feed people for a while, as in Somalia. However, humanitarian their motivations, though, military operations turn political the moment they are launched, with consequences that are wildly unpredictable.

The writer is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard

Get alerts on USSR when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Comments have not been enabled for this article.

Follow the topics in this article