The Guardian's Simon Jeffery today offers a helpful Q&A backgrounder on the humanitarian crisis in Darfur, Sudan.

I have not previously written here about Darfur, where more than a million people have been displaced and 30,000 have already died from hunger or at the hands of violent militias.

The United States Congress has declared, without a single dissenting vote, that the situation in Darfur is a case of "genocide." It is not clear that in doing so, however, they fully appreciated what such a declaration entails. They seem to have recognized that this declaration would make American intervention an option, but not that it would make such intervention an obligation.

Congress seems to regard this vote as simply a strongly worded statement of rebuke. Despite the unanimous votes on this declaration (422-0 in the House; unopposed voice vote in the Senate) there seems to be little sense that Congress expects or desires its declaration to result in action to stop what is occurring in Darfur.

This is partly why I haven't written, or known what to write, about this crisis. "This is horrible and someone ought to do something," is not a helpful contribution to the conversation.

One obvious problem for the United States post-Iraq is that the "world's only superpower" nonetheless may be powerless to respond. America's military is rather busy at the moment. The Army is still desperate for more troops in Iraq where, retired Gen. Tommy Franks tells us, the majority of our military will be occupied with an occupation for at least five years. The effects of this massive commitment in Iraq can already be seen in Afghanistan, where heroin-enriched warlordism and anarchy reign. In Afghanistan, a country the size of Texas, the size of America's force is slightly smaller than that of the police force that will be guarding the Republican National Convention at Madison Square Garden.

Congress is aware of this. They know that even as they condemn "genocide" in Darfur, the United States has few military options available for intervention. Khartoum and the Janjaweed militias also seem to know this. As does Pyongyang.

For Kim Jong Il and the Afghan warlords and the Janjaweed, the world has indeed become a safer place since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

It may be, however, that the lack of viable American military options for intervention in Darfur represents an opportunity to undo some of the damage of the past two years. It may remind our leaders that cooperation and multilateral action are a necessary source of strength, not a sign of weakness. It may also serve as a reminder that there exist more than just the binary options of total invasion versus "doing nothing."

The ascendance of that binary view is probably the main reason I have been reluctant to say more about the crisis in Darfur. When humanitarian concern has been conscripted into service to support arbitrary war, the genuine expression of humanitarian concern becomes more difficult.

As the primary pretexts for the invasion of Iraq evaporated — the supposed stockpiles of WMDs, the purported links to al-Qaida, the perjuries of Colin Powell's ignoble speech — humanitarian concern has become the last bastion of defense of the war.

Listen to Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz or to the editors of The New Republic — this humanitarian claim has become their final defense for the insistence that the Iraq war was necessary and wise. Before the invasion, of course, both Wolfowitz and the New Republic editors had explicitly stated that this claim alone did not constitute sufficient justification.

These bellicose humanitarians-come-lately have made it more difficult to express concern about tyranny, oppression or genocide elsewhere without seeming to embrace their binary perspective of "do nothing" versus invasion/occupation/privatization/(abandonment). This perspective demonstrates a failure of imagination, an ignorance of history, and a lack of vision — they cannot perceive the difference between a spectrum and a strobe light.

I do not know what Congress intends in the wake of its condemnation of "genocide" in Darfur. I hope that they regain their vision and see that they have more than only two options.

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  • Caleb

    Thanks for a thoughtful post. The binary construction of our options troubles me as well. But I’m left, apparently with you, wondering what one should do. Clearly, everyone seems to agree, we must do something. And I agree that “something” should not be “arbitrary war.” Then what should that something be? I say this not out of snideness, but out of genuine dismay about the situation in Darfur and an equally genuine uncertainty about what I/we can do to stop it. Economic sanctions, which seem to be the only “middle way” that bellicose humanitarians offer us, are a far cry from a solution. But so are pronouncements of “genocide” without some kind of intervention.

  • sterlin

    This may influence their decision…from the DOE:
    With the completion of a major oil export pipeline in July 1999, Sudanese crude oil production and exports have risen rapidly over the past few years.
    Sudan’s estimated oil reserves have doubled since 2001, with crude production reaching an estimated 345,000 barrels per day (bbl/d) in June 2004.
    Energy Minister Awad al-Jaz said in May 2004 that he expected crude production to reach 500,000 bbl/d in 2005.
    Note: Information contained in this report is the best available as of July 2004 and can change.

  • Edward Liu

    I thought, and still think, that the humanitarian crisis in the Sudan will suddenly become an actionable situation of critical importance if Bush loses the election, and that American troops will be deployed to the region in December if that occurs.
    — Ed

  • Nate

    US intervention in Sudan would just further nail the coffin into the relevance of the Security Council. Whether that would be good or bad depends on your point of view. The US could find no shortage of international partners for intervention, even if many cannot provide anything other than moral support. Unfortunately, many will stay on the sidelines including key UN players making any Sudan action a vertiable repeat of Iraq. Only Sudan is of much less strategic importance to the US. From a humantarian standpoint, there is no difference. Hundreds of thousands dead and suffering is hundreds of thousands dead and suffering.
    Why will the Security Council stay on the sidelines? China (and to a much lesser extent France) have oil interests in Sudan. Russia supplies arms to the government. Getting any kind of meaningful resolution much less UN force authorization is unlikely until the horses have left the barn. Moral bankruptcy hardly ends at the US.
    Sanctions did nothing to help the Iraqi people in the 90s, nor did they loosen Hussein’s grip on power. If we are to learn our lessons from Iraq, we must learn all of them.
    Is a pretty good blog covering the situation, the link covers some of the harsh geopolitical realities.
    It isn’t binary. War or military intervention cannot ‘fix’ Sudan. But nothing other than immediate application of violence can stop the genocide in the short-term.

  • Donald Johnson

    The sanctions people talk about with respect to the Sudan would be aimed at the leadership, on the theory that this would pressure them into restraining the militias they claim are operating beyond their control. No one to my knowledge advocates the sort of draconian sanctions that cut Iraq’s GDP by a factor of nearly five.
    The Iraqi sanctions were intended to cause civilian suffering in hopes that it would lead to a possible overthrow of Saddam, though as years passed the protests over dead Iraqi children got a little embarrassing. Well, not to most Americans, who didn’t know or care, but to the diplomats who had to defend the policy.
    Anyway, the word “sanctions” covers a lot of territory.

  • RB

    I have tried to express my frustration at the inaction of the international community in doing something to stop the killing, rapes and burnings. But I am left with the “This is horrible someone should do something” situation you described. I understand your point about this reaction not being helpful but I do not know what else to do. I have posted links to a few humanitarian organizations on my blog but aside from that what else is there than to yell an hope some hears and acts.

  • UMs to pray for Darfur

    Slacktivist talks of Darfur… he suggests the following FAQ if you haven’t picked up on what the US Congress calls genocide. The UMs will have an all day prayer vigil for Darfur……

  • anonymusrex

    I overheard this conversation on the train today, and I thought it well represented the majority of the newspaper-reading citizenry on this issue:
    Man #1: Hey, sounds like there’s a lot of hurt being put on those Darfurians.
    Man #2: Yep, the Congress voted unanimously that it was a genocide.
    Man #1: Yep.
    Methinks, much shifting still needs to be done if one wishes this current event to become more relevant to us.