At the huge, inspiring antiwar march in New York yesterday, I noticed many placards with the massage, “Out of Iraq, Into Darfur.” They were held by members of a group called “Volunteer for Change,” described as “a project of Working Assets.” I wasn’t sure what to make of the slogan. Was it somehow satirical, playing on “Out of the frying pan, into the fire” and warning about a future Somalia-like intervention in Africa? Or was this really a call to take US troops out of Iraq and deploy them instead in “humanitarian” “peacekeeping” in western Sudan?
This morning I’ve done some Google searching and found the answer. It is, unfortunately, the latter. Since at least last year Working Assets has been urging people to petition President Bush to support “urgent international action” through the UN to “protect innocent civilians” in Darfur. Plainly the organization finds no contradiction between opposing imperialist military deployment in Iraq and supporting it in Sudan. Nor, perhaps, do many of those marching in Washington D.C. today to demand such U.S. intervention.
For many months now I’ve occasionally received emails asking me, “Why are you spending so much time attacking Bush Middle East policy, and ignoring the atrocities in Darfur?” There are many reasons I haven’t written on it, including the fact that I put opposing imperialist wars with their murderous consequences at the top of my list of things to do in my spare time, and the fact that I haven’t much studied the situation in Darfur. But I’ve sensed for awhile that some forces are using the alleged “genocide” in that region to divert attention from the ongoing slaughter in Iraq (and ongoing brutalization of the Palestinians by Israel), and to depict another targeted Arab regime as so villainous as to require what the neocons call “regime change.” They’ve mischaracterized the conflict as one between “Arabs” and “indigenous Africans” whereas (as I understand it) all parties involved are Arabic-speaking black Africans -- “Arab” “African” and “black” being distinctions more complicated than most Americans realize.
I’d ask those holding those signs yesterday to recall that in November 2001 a general at the Pentagon told Gen. Wesley Clark that in the wake of 9-11 the administration had “a five-year campaign plan” to attack not only Afghanistan but “Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Libya, Sudan and Somalia.” I’d ask Working Assets to observe that the Iraq War it opposes and the Sudan intervention is endorses are in fact part of that same empire-building campaign plan.
Last June a UN commission determined that what has been taking place in Darfur, however awful, does not constitute a genocidal policy by the Sudanese government. But Washington decided otherwise, and used the highly emotional concepts of genocide and “holocaust” to describe the situation. It has since pushed NATO to train African Union troops to provide peacekeeping operations in Darfur and advocated a direct NATO presence in the region, unprecedented in Africa. Last November, John Bolton, the bullying, bellicose, unconfirmed U.S. ambassador to the UN who has no history of concern for human rights, blocked a briefing by a UN envoy on Darfur to the Security Council prepared by Juan Mendez, Secretary General Kofi Annan’s special adviser for the prevention of genocide. In doing so he joined nations like China and Russia for their own reasons not inclined to take action against Sudan. But Bolton unlike the Russian and Chinese ambassadors pushed for such action. We know enough already, he says, now it’s time to move! Washington isn’t really much interested in the facts of the Darfur situation, any more that it was about the facts in Iraq before it attacked that country. It’s interested rather in what the neocons call “perception management,” and is doing a good job of managing the perceptions of even some progressives on the issue.
Today’s demonstration in Washington was organized by a coalition called “Save Darfur.” It describes itself as “an alliance of over 130 diverse faith-based, humanitarian, and human rights organizations.” The Jerusalem Post provides additional information: “Little known…is that the coalition…was actually begun exclusively as an initiative of the American Jewish community.” The American Holocaust Museum has been conspicuously involved, and while many people feel that the term “genocide” should be used very sparingly the Museum hasn’t hesitated to draw parallels between the Shoah and the Darfur situation. Joining Jewish organizations are evangelical Zionist Christian groups who see Sudan as a prime mission ground in these Latter Days.
And as advertised, diverse organizations capable of drawing someone like the admirably progressive actor George Clooney into giving an address at the rally.
We’re talking about a rally urging a US/NATO intervention in Africa’s largest country, legitimated by the UN strong-armed by a thuggish neocon-led administration in Washington. We’re talking potentially about regime change in Africa’s second-largest oil producer, in the context of planned U.S. strikes against Syria and Iran. Should anyone in the antiwar movement with a minimal knowledge or recent history be comfortable with that, or suppose that it could be fully benign?
A good contingent of students from my university took the bus to New York to participate in the New York demo. But other progressive students elected instead to bus down to the Washington Darfur demo the following day to demand, in effect, that Bush do something about Darfur. As though oppressors could be liberators.
I have no doubt that the Sudanese regime is vicious; a close friend from Sudan indeed assures me that that is true. I think it likely 200,000 people have, as charged, been killed by the Janjaweed forces. But I also know the viciousness of which “my” government is capable, and its proclivity for jumping on humanitarian crises (Kosovo, 1999, for example) to advance its own geopolitical strategic interests, which have nothing to do with anybody’s human rights. (In occupied Iraq, about 200,000 civilians had, according to Andrew Cockburn, been killed as of January 2006.) When President Bush meets “Darfur advocates” in the White House before the rally and tells them, “Those of you who are going out to march for justice, you represent the best of our country,” he indicates pretty clearly that they’re playing a supportive role in his effort to remake the “Greater Middle East.”
Throughout the country, the pious-sounding campaign on behalf of Darfur simultaneously prettifies U.S. imperialism -- if only by asserting the latter can despite itself do some good in this world. The honest campaigners are like Boromir, in the Lord of the Rings, asking, “What if we were to use the Ring . . . for good?” But you can’t use it for good! You can’t go “Out of Iraq, Into Darfur” without bringing the principles governing the former illegal intervention into the latter intrusion you’re so naively recommending. Imperialism’s not a friendly tool kit that can be used to fix the problems its own lackeys jot down on the collegiate “peace and justice” to-do list. It’s the problem itself.
By all means, may the people of Darfur, including those in the Justice and Equality Movement and the Sudanese Liberation Army (if indeed they represent liberation), using any means necessary, fight their oppression and seek international allies in the process. And let those Americans who’ve really studied the situation and wish to assist the struggle of Darfur’s oppressed provide such help as they can -- especially if they do so while fighting oppression globally without any skewed agenda. But let the U.S. antiwar movement not confuse friends with enemies, and in that confusion help those Martin Luther King Jr. once called “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”
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May 1: According to Reuters, the Washington demo yesterday drew “several thousand.” This morning’s Boston Globe had a full color front-page photo and article on the march, estimating the numbers at “tens of thousands.” The one in New York, drawing 300,000, missed yesterday’s front page.
Gary Leupp is a Professor of History, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion, at Tufts University and author of numerous works on Japanese history. He can be reached at: email@example.com.
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