I’m guesting over at Bec Hamilton’s Promise of Engagement blog. She invited posts in response to Ben Wallace-Wells excellent piece in Rolling Stone magazine, entitled Darfuristan. He charts the way the international responses to the unfolding crisis in Darfur have led us into a quagmire. There were lots of points that interested me and several didn’t make it into my post. One thing that fascinates me – and I wonder if Bec’s book will address this – is the motivation that led us towards what I believe to be the wrong solutions.
ROUTE INTO A QUAGMIRE
Too often it seems to me that the people who have pressed the buttons have been led by deontological, rule-based or rights-based ethical theories. To the Amnesties or Human Rights Watches of this world, for example, Omar al-Bashir must be prosecuted because of his abuse of human rights. Breaches of human rights cannot be ignored. Rights are universal and absolute. We have a duty to respond. There are no grey areas.
On the other hand, the UN officials, diplomats or aid workers in Sudan often take a more consequentialist view. To them the aim is to ease suffering by weighing different courses of action and picking the one that does the best job. This might involve messy deals, turning a blind eye to abuses and so on – but an action is right so long as overall the suffering is reduced. Pragmatic deal making is the order of the day.
Given that the Save Darfur Coalition grew largely from roots in Jewish and Christian organisations, it seems that faith-based notions of right and wrong – and black and white moral judgments – have dominated the international debate. With such questions of good and evil it is easy to work out who is in the wrong and what to do: root out the evil. Rule-based philosophies have dominated the debate.
In the same way Wallace-Wells spells out the simple rule of thumb that governed President Bush’s attitude: genocide requires intervention. And…
For those who joined the Obama administration, the moral imperatives at stake in Darfur had been even more clear.
The journalist Samantha Power, the author of A Problem From Hell and now a member of the National Security Council, had been perhaps the genocide’s most vocal chronicler
Talk of “moral imperatives” and “problems from hell” suggests that Save Darfur’s analysis found a ready audience in Obama’s White House. There is no general calculus that suffering in the world should make us act so as to minimise that suffering and maximise happiness. Down that road lies “madness” – intervening in all the world’s problems. Instead we have a moral imperative, a rule which governs actions: genocide is happening so we must act. This allows us to pick and choose the conflicts in which we intervene, but also allows us to adopt a no-prisoners-taken approach. People like Nicholas Kristof would no doubt consider themselves enlightened liberals, but at the same time are happy to propose bombing Sudan in order to win peace.
In the other words, the same ethical processes have guided both administrations so I disagree with the next paragraph…
Darfur became the left’s Iraq, a counterpoint to the military interventionism of Bush’s neoconservatives, a place where a different vision of how imperial power might be exercised — to protect the targets of mass slaughter and to help rebuild their lives and restore their dignity — could be put to the test.
It’s not a counterpoint. For a European, like me, the similarities between Obama and Bush are sometimes more striking than the differences. Of course Obama has adopted a new policy where “cookies and gold stars” will play a role in dealing with Sudan. But at the same time, I worry that the US is simply too certain about what is happening in Sudan. It’s still a fist, but a fist in a kid glove. Moral imperatives are fine when you are looking for a military victory.
But they aren’t great at finding a negotiated settlement. That surely has to be the way forward for Sudan.
The question is: Are we trying to end the suffering in Darfur, or are we more interested in remaining true to moral imperatives? Why are we involved? Why do we care?