As the crisis in Sudan’s Darfur region worsens and negotiations to end it drag on, an international consensus is emerging around a “muscular” policy based on public denunciation, severe economic sanctions, and, increasingly, threats of military force. But none of these steps, taken alone or together, can bring about the ends that their often well-intentioned advocates seek. On the contrary, they risk reproducing the havoc that such measures have unleashed in Iraq and elsewhere in recent years.
In the US, cautionary voices have been notably absent even among staunchly liberal newspapers like the New York Times. Foreign policy advisers to the Democratic Party and neo-conservatives alike have called for “action” against Sudan — demands that have been echoed by an international group of intellectuals and celebrities ranging from Umberto Eco, Jurgen Habermas and Harold Pinter to Bob Geldof, George Clooney, Mia Farrow, Matt Damon, Mick Jagger and J.K. Rowling.
Meanwhile, French troops, with the support of other EU members — notably Austria, Belgium, Ireland, Poland, Romania and Sweden — are now deployed for putatively humanitarian reasons in the Central African Republic and Chad, where they have already clashed with Sudanese government forces.
The International Crisis Group, Human Rights Watch and many other organizations support this deployment, while Save Darfur, despite describing itself as a non-political “alliance of more than 180 faith-based, advocacy and humanitarian organizations,” has, in fact, been pivotal in setting the policy agenda.
This agenda’s interventionism is incremental: tougher economic sanctions, demands that China exercise its influence, creation of a “no-fly zone” and military force against the Sudanese army. The assumption is that only real pressure will finally force Sudan’s government to embrace the UN-African Union (AU) peacekeeping force, negotiate with the West, disband the feared janjaweed militia, allow refugees from the country’s brutal civil war to return to their villages and make peace with Southern rebels.
But realizing these aims requires cooperation from the government in Khartoum, whereas each of the proposed measures would only heighten tensions or prove useless. Existing Western sanctions, for example, have merely driven the Sudanese regime into the arms of China, Indonesia and Malaysia. Indeed, investment in Sudan has actually grown US$2.8 billion over the last year.
Efforts to “pressure” the Chinese appear similarly futile. Darfur is hardly a high priority for China, which accounts for 20 percent of African trade and buys 60 percent of Sudan’s oil.
Growing talk — both in Europe and the US — about boycotting the Olympics has proven utterly ineffective in influencing China’s behavior in Tibet. Would the threat of a boycott really prove more successful vis-a-vis Darfur?
Likewise, even proponents of a no-fly zone are doubtful about its potential efficacy. After all, Sudan is the size of Western Europe, and Darfur is the size of France, with 158 refugee camps. Strategic constraints would almost certainly overwhelm enforcement.
Finally, there is the “military option,” which would merely justify fears in Sudan of Western “imperialism.” Worse, given the splintering of rebel forces in the South, where an estimated 80 tribes and clans control their own militias, a military response could generate a power vacuum in Sudan and destabilize the nine countries — many of them fragile or failed states — on its borders.