Of all the unlikely places for America to be getting involved in another war, western Sudan has particularly little going for it. Unless you count a few million potential candidates for the Christian missionary business, there's little to interest outside entrepreneurs. What the country has in extraordinary abundance is problems. And thanks to a surprising chain of events, it looks as though some of these problems now belong to the United States, too.
America's reasons for getting involved are complicated, and there are so many highly charged factors--slavery, religious persecution, fundamentalism (both Christian and Muslim), dictatorship, murder, ethnic strife, rape and famine--that it's difficult to see through the tangle of complications. This has led to a drastically simplified view of what is actually happening.
The first oversimplification, dating back to Bill Clinton's presidency, is that Sudan means slavery. Though not the only serious human rights offender in the world, Sudan--not Brazil, not Egypt--caught the attention of human-trafficking activists. They, in turn, passed the fever on to congregations in African-American churches. From the churches, the issue spread into wider black political circles.
"My ancestors were slaves. African-Americans can relate to slavery more intimately, politically, socially and spiritually, than they can anything else," said talk-radio host Joe Madison in 2001.
It is this connection that first made Sudan an American political issue.
During the Clinton years, the political path led to the Democratic Congressional Black Caucus, Rev. Al Sharpton and what you could loosely call a liberal idea. But the antislavery idea was not quite enough to reach mainstream white churchgoers, key members of the Bush II voter base. Hence, oversimplification number two: The war in Sudan was essentially about the persecution of Christians by Muslims.
This "de-blacked" message made white evangelicals and Republican politicians comfortable, so on March 22, 2001, Republican Dick Armey, at that time House Majority Leader and ally of the evangelicals, said of Sudan: "It is the only place in the world in which religious genocide is taking place. People are being tortured, mutilated and killed solely because of their Christian faith."
The religion-driven interest in Africa led directly to the bizarre spectacle in Kampala last year, when mystified Ugandans listened to George W. tell them that God sent him there. In fact, he wasn't talking to them at all, but to Christian voters back home. Church groups, in this case white church groups, had also begun organizing around the issue of an abstinence-based AIDS policy in Africa. Without this link to his fundamentalist base, Bush would be unlikely to ever mention the continent.
But like slavery, the persecution of Christians is a side issue in Sudan, where some estimates put Christians as outnumbered two- or three-to-one by those with traditional beliefs in spirits and magic, and many of the people now counted as Christians are recent converts, the targets of European and American missionary campaigns (and in many cases still believers in traditional spirituality). Even by evangelical standards, there are some weird versions of Christianity on offer. The notoriously brutal Lord's Resistance Army, for instance, a Ugandan group also operating in southern Sudan, claims to want a society based on the Ten Commandments--and abducts children to be soldiers.
The Muslim/anti-Muslim explanation falls apart when you realise that there are also Christians in the north (including some historical communities that have been there for centuries) and some Muslims in the mainly Christian and animist south. Many American activists are attracted to the fact that the Sudan People's Liberation Movement are Christians. While this group is the main opponent of the government in the south of the country, in Darfur the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) is avowedly Muslim, and the other main opposition group, the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A) has a message of equality of religions under the law.
Fact is, the issue of self-determination for the south has been a contentious issue since the years before its independence in 1956, and it seems to cut straight across religious lines. Khartoum has been trying to run a centralized state, while the rebel leaders in the south of the country have wanted either to secede or achieve local power-sharing.
Against this shifting background, the Bush administration has decided to get more actively involved. Colin Powell was the natural person to lead the charge. After Somalia, there was no question of military involvement, but the State Department threw its weight behind the idea of peaceful negotiations.
This surprised the Sudanese. America, after all, had stood by while a number of other African countries melted down. Why pick on them? As far as they're concerned, they're trying to stop their state from falling apart.
Once they realized what was happening--that they were on the receiving end of televised visits from leading American evangelists--the Khartoum government denounced the American religious right for interfering in Sudanese affairs.
"Fears are rising that if American evangelicals continue to focus exclusively on the religious dimensions of the Sudanese war, there could be a backlash from Islamic fundamentalists, thus intensifying the conflict," wrote Matthias Muindi of Africa News in May 2001. "Analysts, mainstream Church officials, and aid workers are worried that the stance taken by the Christian Right might jeopardize relief operations and precipitate a humanitarian crisis in Sudan."
This is a pretty good description of what's happened over the last three years. In the words of a December 2002 State Department report on religious freedom: "The U.S. Government has made it clear to the [Sudanese] Government that the problem of religious freedom is one of the key impediments to an improvement in the relationship between the two countries. High-level U.S. officials and U.S. Missions to international forums have raised consistently the issue of religious freedom with both the Government and the public."
The "Peace Envoy" sent by the Bush administration in 2002 to oversee their Sudan engagement was none other than retired Senator John "Saint Jack" Danforth, who last month replaced John Negroponte as Ambassador to the U.N. Danforth is an ordained Episcopalian minister who has described himself as "a warrior doing battle for the Lord."
On paper, the U.S.-led diplomatic effort has seen modest success, with a ceasefire declared in April and a power-sharing agreement between the government and the rebels accepted in principle by both sides. But the mysterious Janjaweed militias continue their marauding like a vision of hell: bands of fanatical, machine-gun-toting Arab horsemen spreading death and terror among the black population.
The Janjaweed talk of jihad and racial superiority. This kind of talk has helped give rise to oversimplification number three among foreign observers: that it is all about a racial division.
Take a look at pictures of the Janjaweed, and you will see that in large part they are as black as the "blacks" they're murdering. "Arab" in Sudan is mainly a cultural identity, meaning "Arabic-speaking." With as many as 134 languages and 497 ethnic sub-groups catalogued in the country, there is a wide spectrum of ethnic identities available, including many Arabized groups that only recently switched from a traditional language to Arabic. In America, the idea that the population is neatly divided into two racial groups--blacks and Arabs--has taken root in people's minds. It's a useful and easy distinction--but it's not true.
The root cause of the Darfur conflict is actually ecological, with prolonged droughts and rapid desertification driving poor pastoral "Arabs" to take over the lands of even poorer settled "black" farmers. With extensive damage to the ecology throughout the region, what we see as ethnic conflict is really resource conflict at root, with religion even further down the list of factors.
Khartoum has denounced the Janjaweed in public, with President Omer al-Bashir calling them "thieves and gangsters." A few unlucky recruits have been sentenced to amputations for theft and some have even been threatened with crucifixion, but this month Human Rights Watch published documents proving that it is Khartoum that has raised, armed and directed them all along.
It's a pattern seen elsewhere in Sudan in recent years. Rich merchants in Khartoum--often retired generals or civil servants--pay desperate nomads in the interior to do their dirty work. They pretend that the motives are Arab solidarity, religious fervor or vengeance for historical wrongs. Once the land has been cleared, the paid thugs are amazed to discover that the new owners are their military patrons--and that they are still poor.
The stories are horrific. Men are rounded up for execution, villages are burned, women taken as sex slaves; little girls and old ladies are raped, the victims are told (by other black people, remember) that they are animals who deserve to die because they are black. Even in the refugee camps, the displaced find Janjaweed standing over them, fingering their weapons. Now under pressure to provide a police force, Khartoum has the option of handing out police uniforms to these same gangs of murderers.
Given the sudden and serious involvement of the State Department in Sudan, and considering the significant grassroots interest in the issue, why isn't the U.S. doing more?
Recent developments don't match the story promoted by Al Sharpton, Franklin Graham and the evangelicals. There is no anti-Christian element in the depredations of the Janjaweed; the victims of the brutal ethnic cleansing program in Darfur are, in fact, Sunni Muslims. And anyway, there may be little that the United States--or anyone else--can actually do.
During his time in the Senate, "Saint Jack" Danforth was known for his opposition to U.N. peacekeeping, and it is clear that the American engagement in Sudan has been predicated on the assumption that there will be no need for a military operation there. There has been some success for the American effort in a few specific policy areas, but recent events demonstrate that the government of General al-Bashir has treated the peace project with utter contempt.
Evidently, without a military component to international engagement in Sudan, Khartoum's policy elites have a free hand for internal matters--just as long as they go along with the U.S. line on the War on Terror. This is the deal that the United States usually offers its clients in the third world. Thus they were outraged when threatened with U.N. sanctions, a particularly cruel policy that--as proven in both Yugoslavia and Iraq--hits not the rich but the poor, and tends to inspire people to rally around the flag and support their leaders.
Who else could act? The African Union has a paper commitment to promoting peace and security, but their current plans call for a force of 300 troops, which will make little practical difference (and they don't even have the resources to provide those without someone else paying for it). Though a U.N. force of similar size would be just as useless, at least it would signal a symbolic political engagement with the idea of action, something that has been lacking up to now.
What's necessary under circumstances like these is a show of strength and resolve from serious, professional military forces who are prepared to shoot back. After that, an African-led international force, either under a U.N. mandate or conceivably under African Union auspices, can take over. The British Army quickly brought peace to Sierra Leone on this basis, where the national government's paid mercenaries and the U.N. alike had failed; the U.N. operation under Kenya's Gen. Dan Opande was then able to consolidate the initial success, returning Sierra Leone to peace and stability.
If the United States and the Bush Administration were serious about Sudan, they would demand immediate withdrawal of the Janjaweed under the threat of U.S.-backed military intervention to protect the people of Darfur. This could be brokered through contacts already established through the peace negotiations, and the U.N. could probably be bullied into going along with it, even at short notice. The African Union would find it difficult to avoid participating in such an operation, the moral case being so simple. There are even African troops available if the money is found to pay for them.
It's feasible. Many of the displaced people are already concentrated into camps, and it would be a fairly simple matter to secure perimeters for airlifting food and medicine. Others, though scattered in rebel-held areas and too frightened of the government to head for the camps, understand that disease and starvation are greater threats than the Janjaweed. And now that the rains have started, they will start dying faster and faster.
"Ten thousand dead so far" is an oft-repeated figure. Wishful thinking. According to the Sudan Tribune, 135,000 is closer to the mark, with hundreds of thousands of other potential casualties on the horizon. The crucial problem in protecting them, in giving them the food, shelter and protection they need, is not the difficulty of the military operation, or even the cost. It is the political support.
The paralysis of American policy in Sudan is best explained by the fact that neither of the two oversimplifications explained earlier can be applied to the present situation in Darfur. Slave- trading is not an issue in this region; neither is "religious genocide." Indeed, one can doubt whether there is a religious motive at all. In the 90s, Khartoum's attacks against the Nuba people targeted Christians and Muslims, churches and mosques--indiscriminately. As for oversimplification number three--that of a racially divided society--both the Republicans and the Democrats seem to have swallowed it.
At this point, some are wondering if this would have happened at all, had the religious right not decided to help out in Sudan in the first place. What Khartoum seems to fear is that the outside help given to the rebels in the south will give other marginal groups ideas above their station. This, it is suggested, is why they are being so brutal in putting down the rebellion in Darfur.
What will happen next? Predictable things. The Khartoum elites will get richer, and the poor will continue to kill each other. Darfur will be forgotten soon enough. The survivors, if there are survivors, will join the mass of displaced and destitute people who drift hopelessly around the country, which already has the highest proportion of internally displaced people in the world. Maybe they can move to someone else's traditional land and find work on a private development scheme, thus helping to create more environmental damage and displace more subsistence farmers--and the disaster of Sudan will move on to a next phase, with fresh victims identified by a convenient label and fresh stooges riding in to pull the trigger.
Ultimately, with so many similar wars taking place around Africa, there's no particular reason for the United States to intervene here. Without the simplified religious and racial interpretations of the conflict, the case for American involvement collapses.
In the end, is Sudan really America's problem? In a better world, the African Union would get its act together and prevent the monstrous abuses of innocent people that take place on a daily basis in many African countries. But things have now reached a stage where America cannot very well just pack up and leave. Ten years after the Rwanda genocide, which most agree could have been prevented with little bloodshed by an appropriate and credible display of force, another African massacre on a similar scale cannot be accepted with equanimity.
There are no major oil reserves, no lucrative pipeline deals--nothing, in fact, but an opportunity to prevent the deaths of several hundred thousand destitute, sick and starving people. Under normal circumstances this would not be enough to persuade the White House and the State Department to get involved. But whether most Americans care or not, the Republicans are now wedded to Sudan. And like the best of marriages, this one was made in heaven.