If there is a crisis in a remote place, and governments, newspapers and aid agencies start to agitate for ‘action’, you naturally begin to suspect that much of the information you are being fed is false. When Tony Blair starts talking about intervention, your suspicion turns into virtual certainty. This is not necessarily because journalists, officials, agencies and Blair are ignorant of the facts (although ignorance is invariably a contributing factor); it’s because the tragedy and the publicity exist in different universes. On the one hand, there is how things are — the grim, confusing, recalcitrant reality of events; on the other hand, there’s how the tragedy is presented, how it is packaged and sold, as a news story, as a political cause, as a fund-raising opportunity. Before long, the publicity takes on a life of its own, following a predictable cycle of distortion leading, very often, to excitement, impatience and, finally, error.
The latest crisis is in Darfur, western Sudan, where some 30,000 civilians are said to have died, and hundreds of thousands have been displaced. Blair wants to help these people, by using troops if necessary, and he is backed by the Tories. Almost any article you read about Darfur will tell you that the conflict there is between ‘Arabs’ and ‘Africans’, and that the ‘Arabs’ are the guilty party. According to Human Rights Watch, ‘The Sudanese government and the Arab Janjaweed militias it arms and supports have committed numerous attacks on the civilian populations of the African Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa ethnic groups.’ This is a convenient version of events in the world after 9/11: it plays well in the US where, for many, the word ‘Arab’ is a codeword for ‘terrorist’. The House of Representatives has unanimously adopted a resolution urging the Bush administration to call what is happening in Darfur ‘by its rightful name: “genocide”.’ The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum concurs: its ‘Committee on Conscience’ has issued a ‘Genocide Warning’ for Darfur.
Turning to the facts, one thing we can say for sure is that there is no ethnic conflict in Darfur between ‘Arabs’ and ‘Africans’. According to Alex de Waal, author of Famine That Kills, about Darfur, it is a crude oversimplification to speak of the Janjaweed militia as ‘Arab’. ‘The people of the region are essentially African,’ he says. ‘They are all black, and you cannot tell one group from another simply by looking at them.’ Sometimes the so-called ‘Arabs’ are darker than the ‘Africans’. Intermarriage over the centuries has meant that the ethnic groups are indistinguishable from each other.
The people of Darfur are all Muslim. Some speak a version of Arabic, although Arabs to the north of the Sahara, in Tunis or Cairo, would view it as a quaint dialect. The term ‘African’ is a new coinage when applied to Darfur: it did not exist 20 years ago. This whole vocabulary of ethnicity is the result of years of conflict, with one group associating itself with new, irredentist strains of Arabism, while the other sought foreign sympathy through the most ubiquitous label of victimhood known on the planet — ‘African’. Confusingly, the ‘Arabs’ in Darfur are often less Islamist than the non-Arab ‘Africans’.
It will be said that it hardly matters how we describe the participants of a tragedy: what matters is that we get involved and put an end to the suffering. Often this idea comes wrapped in the accusation that those who will not fall into line, immediately and completely, have no conscience. This was the sense of David Aaronovitch’s article in the Observer last Sunday, where he caricatured those uncertain about intervention as heartless realists, who mask their selfishness by mouthing clichés like, ‘It’s a rough old world’.
The tragedy in Darfur is certainly real enough. Alex de Waal, for one, supports the use of Western special forces, combined with a larger African Union deployment under African command and, crucially, linked to a political initiative. He may be right but, if so, it will be the exception that proves the rule. The record shows that, over the past 20 or more years, intervention in Africa has been, again and again, ineffective, counterproductive or disastrous.
The triangle of interests at the centre of humanitarian campaigns — government, the media and the aid agencies — push each other to ever more simplified versions of events leading, often, to botched relief efforts that are defended at the time by the selective use of evidence and followed up, if necessary, by a campaign of obfuscation to get the participants off the hook. The only ones without a voice have been the people who were the objects of the charity in the first place.
In 1992, for instance, there was famine and civil war in Somalia, and the aid agencies called for military intervention. American troops, under the UN flag, duly landed in December of that year, by which time, according to credible estimates, the famine was in decline. ‘Operation Restore Hope’ was meant to ensure the delivery of relief supplies but, within a few months, the intervention force had become one more participant in the country’s civil war. Using helicopter gunships, the US military killed hundreds of people, including many civilians.
In October 1993 a failed attempt to capture a local warlord ended in an aerial bloodbath. Along with an estimated 700 Somalis, 18 American servicemen were killed. The battered body of one was filmed as it was dragged through the streets. The shock produced by these images in America led to Clinton’s withdrawal of troops in March 1994. Somalia, already ravaged by civil war, was further destabilised by the UN intervention.
The genocide in Rwanda began in April 1994, some ten days after the troops pulled out of Somalia. Chastened by events in Somalia, the ‘world community’ — as it is often called, with unconscious irony — stood by and watched as, in three short months, some 800,000 people were hacked to death. In Somalia, troops had been sent in where they were not needed; in Rwanda, they were not sent in when they could, quite possibly, have saved a large number of lives. In Somalia, we had clothed ourselves in the mantle of compassionate activism; in Rwanda, we pretended to a just neutrality. Both positions were wretched and absurd.
The shadow of Rwanda has fallen over every subsequent crisis, yet we cannot bring back the dead of Rwanda by making new errors. At present, the debate in the West is mainly driven not by a sober assessment of the true situation and a principled, rule-based response to it, but by the manipulative blarney of characters like Bob Geldof and Tony Blair. The process of drumming up support for action — publicity, in all its forms — becomes more important than the action itself. If you examine the history of these crises you find that, at the time, few wanted to know about the awkward complexity of what was happening, while afterwards many want to remember the event as a glorious moment in their own sublime aesthetic progress.
Blair has perfected this cocktail of excitement and amnesia — he incarnates it — although awkward questions, from Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, are hard on his heels. He busily claims success in all these places, but we can be pretty sure that he won’t be around when we come to pay the bills. Osama bin Laden, after all, was a timebomb left over from the Afghan-Soviet war — with a 20-year fuse. Nothing is easier than to see a problem and pretend that we only have to send in troops to solve it. The chaos in Afghanistan and Iraq should have c
ured us of this illusion. If troops are used in Sudan merely to ferry around relief supplies, then the intervention will be symbolic: relief agencies, supported by civilian contractors, can do it more effectively. If they are deployed for combat, however, there is a distinct possibility that they will become participants in a conflict they cannot resolve, as happened in Somalia. Moreover, there is a serious risk, according to some experts, that armed intervention could precipitate a political crisis in Khartoum, leading to turmoil and possibly a coup.
The use of troops is so often a sop to our conscience, a comfort blanket, telling us we have done all we can. But it’s the people of Sudan who will pay the price. Using troops, with fingers crossed that no one gets hurt, nothing unexpected happens, is never serious. The real test of our convictions is always how many casualties are we prepared to take — and inflict — in pursuing our aims. Are we in it for the ‘long haul’, to adopt a Blairism? In Sudan, certainly, we won’t be: we will be there for a guilt-free photo opportunity.
Daniel Wolf was series producer of the Channel 4 programmes on emergency aid in Africa, The Hunger Business.