Context be damned: reactions against Saviors and Survivors from the R2P camp

As an eighth-grader learning about American slavery, I had a fantasy. I imagined that some elite Marines and I could outfit ourselves in the latest combat gear and travel back in time to the year 1820. Once we arrived in the heart of the slavery era, we’d storm the plantations with superior weaponry and free the slaves. Problem solved. It would be awesome, and I’d be a hero.

Of course, as I learned in later study, the abolition of one of history’s most monstrous atrocities was not such a simple matter. Dismantling slavery meant the splitting of a nation, a civil war that sacrificed 600,000 lives, and a burning of the South that – while possibly justified – entailed extreme and morally repugnant violence. And of course, war was only part of the solution. There were the complex political negotiations, the recalibration of society that, 150 years later, is still incomplete.

I kept thinking of these episodes in my education as I read Richard Just’s August 27 take-down of Mahmood Mamdani in The New Republic. The article – a review of Mamdani’s Saviors and Survivors and Gareth Evans’s The Responsibility to Protect – concludes that Mamdani’s book is a paranoid failure, but that Evans proposes a refreshing idealism (though Just finds that the R2P proponent is a little too conservative in promoting his doctrine).

The review is one of the stronger all-out criticisms of Saviors and Survivors I’ve read. (I haven’t read Evans’s book yet, so I’ll limit my reflections to Just’s comments on Mamdani’s, which are the bulk of the review.) Just convincingly argues that the Save Darfur Coalition is not monolithically aligned with the architects of the Global War on Terror, and the links between SDC’s motives, the ideological milieu in which it blossomed, and the movement’s actual effects are not as cut and dry as some passages in Saviors seem to suggest.

But Just takes his criticism of Mamdani much further, practically dismissing his entire book as a misguided tirade, “chilling” and lacking in “humanity.” His allowances for the value of Saviors are miniscule. Just writes with apparent disdain that Mamdani’s emphasis on the importance of context – it “becomes something of a fetish” – has obscured the real issue of immediate violence in Darfur. He posits that an invasion of Sudan in 2004 would have stopped the deaths and killing.

It’s that last point that makes me think of my childhood fantasy of salvation. Just is right that the raw ideals of protecting those in danger are noble ones; I believe that, too. But context – not least, history – complicates things, in extreme and important ways. It is the political, economic and social context of my fantasy slave revolt (notwithstanding the pesky lack of time travel) that would have made my ninja assault on Southern plantations foolhardy. The people of 1860s United States had to solve the problem themselves.

The idea of solving Darfur through military intervention strikes me as being nearly as fantastic as my slavery-ending daydream. While I understand that for some people, the idea comes from a noble impulse, that in no way warrants the belittling of attempts to understand the context of what is going on. It sounds defensive, and it smacks of an unwillingness to consider any serious criticism of the SDC (and affiliate) position.

The Darfur conflict is a toxic and incredibly complicated brew of land disputes, power grabs, environmental catastrophe, ethnicized political rivalries and decades-long militarization. Rebels were not even fighting for the same goals; they had no unifying ideology. War and drought amplified historical injustices that spun out of control. All sides committed atrocities – though vastly more were by government-backed forces. It’s a war whose every cease-fire and ultimate resolution have screamed out for the need to address context, and this is one of Mamdani’s main points.

So the open hostility and then dismissal of all aspects of Mamdani’s arguments – which I’ve found characteristic of SDC hardliners in the blogosphere and at public events – is a posture I can’t reconcile. I get that people grate at the tone of the debate. I wouldn’t want to be on the wrong end of zingers like Mamdani’s “child soldiers” of Save Darfur remark, either. And in a media atmosphere saturated with lurid descriptions of Darfur’s ultraviolence, I also get how some readers might take a relative lack of focus on those aspects as flippancy.

In Just’s hostility, though – like a lot of other Save Darfur supporters who have reviewed Saviors and Survivors – he misses important points, and a chance for some meaningful self-reflection. Save Darfur’s misapprehension of the context of the Darfur tragedy is now well-documented and has had real consequences. A political affairs official with the U.N. Mission in Sudan (UNMIS), who asked not to be identified because she is not authorized to speak to the media, told me that rebels knew that advocates had helped stack the deck against their adversaries in the Sudanese government — skewing the peace process.  “Being a rebel became a favorite pastime in Darfur,” because it meant “wining and dining” by international organizations, the official said.

Based on tidbits like this, it seems to me like activists’ dismissal of context may have actually prolonged the conflict.

It all makes me wonder: even if you’re not willing to dismiss the movement outright, why not seek to improve it by fixing things that are wrong with it? The refusal to seriously engage with criticism makes SDC look more and more like the caricature lampooned on the Save Darfur Accountability Project blog.

Now, it’s not to the credit of Saviors and Survivors that its tone has apparently failed to get SDC and the most hawkish R2P advocates to listen. But even more so, the lack of a thoughtful reaction to the book’s most convincing criticisms is an indictment of the activists.

There are crucial questions that intellectual leaders of the Save Darfur movement have evaded, lost in the din of their more violent objections to Mamdani. The conflict is still frequently described in the less-well-managed sections of the movement and the media (including in Just’s review) as one between “Africans and Arabs,” obscuring its direct, material causes, not to mention using two categories that are not logically comparable. (SDC has attempted to reign in that description, but I’ve seen it persist everywhere.) Meanwhile, the objectives of the movement grow blurrier by the day.

More deeply, though, there is a broad, glaring and abiding issue about the application of R2P in Darfur, and one good thing about Just’s article is that he acknowledges that this is one huge question at stake. From the Belgian Congo to late-colonial Kenya, saving locals from themselves has been an excuse for imperialist invasion and exploitation in Africa. In the era of the Global War on Terror, and of the hypocrisy in the United State’s policies in the Middle East, why shouldn’t anti-imperialists be deeply suspicious of ever more rights-based arguments for war, emanating from the world’s biggest military power?

Even when intervention has been directed at truly odious regimes, the result is poisoned by the context of imperialism in which it occurs. All liberals thought the Taliban was terrible, and Saddam, too; our invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq have not brought us any closer to long-term solutions for those countries. Haven’t they – especially in Iraq – created more death and oppression?

Indeed, in a half-century that included Vietnam and Laos and Fallujah and Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, shouldn’t American activists be looking at different ways to help? Or, when we propose running to get our guns, should the world take our earnest professions of idealism and good intentions at face value?

4 thoughts on “Context be damned: reactions against Saviors and Survivors from the R2P camp

  1. There are definitely some problems with Save Darfur and the international mobilization that has arisen around it.

    And yes, context is one of the issues that needs to be addressed. Mamdani, however, has shown that he is poorly placed to provide such context.

    His indictment of Save Darfur and other activists is about as denuded of context or nuance as the straw man he builds. Moreover, his context of the situation in Darfur is entirely based on secondary sources, whose authors have shown how he wrong he gets Darfur. Claiming (twice) that Darfur was a member of the League of Nations is only the most obvious and ridiculous of his errors. But the trend extends to his discussion of the British in Sudan, his confused parallels between Darfur and the Congo and many other issues.

    At the end of the day, Mamdani isn’t a scholar of Sudan, and it shows. (He has a history of this sort of scholarship — for example, his book on Rwanda.) For him to combine a false sense of expertise (he’s been looking at Darfur about as long as Nick Kristof has) and sophomoric rhetoric really just adds more heat than light to the subject.

    He has taken what could have been an insightful dialogue and turned it into a bout of self-righteous (and also vicious) shadowboxing.

  2. Sean, thanks for your comment. I especially appreciate the last sentence; I think that sentiment is widely shared.

    I’ve read the lists of factual inaccuracies on the SSRC blog, and if they’re correct — I have no reason to think they’re not, but I haven’t had a chance to go through all of them — they really detract from the book. A book that attempts to shake things up that much needs to be totally watertight factually.

    However, they’re also not the kind of inaccuracies that make me ignore the entire thrust of the book. (They have to do with misspellings, sloppy misplacements, stuff like the League of Nations thing.) And because no one else out there has attempted to so exhaustively connect the colonial and precolonial history of Sudan to the Darfur conflict, I’m not just going to dismiss the rest of the book because of mistakes that are annoying but don’t undermine the crucial arguments: that Darfur is a war about land, and that land issues exist in large part because of colonial corruption of the hakura system; second, that the conflict has been hugely misunderstood because media and activists have relied on the vocabulary of the GWOT. (I’m not personally convinced this makes them GWOT warriors, though).

    I’m really not convinced by this whole “Mamdani is a fake because he relied on secondary sources and only recently started studying Sudan.” If I want a primary source account of the violence in Darfur, I’ll turn to Human Rights Watch reports and Darfur: A New History of a Long War by Julie Flint and Alex de Waal. Mamdani provides the historical context, both recent and distant. And when he writes about colonial history, he does use primary sources, like the MacMichael papers. (In the sense of the historiography definition, as described by Wikipedia: “a primary source (also called original source) is a document, recording, artifact, or other source of information that was created at the time under study, usually by a source with direct personal knowledge of the events being described.”) It’s also interesting that many of the conclusions the reader can draw about the causes of the war and the value of SDC’s involvement are not substantially different from de Waal and Flint’s book.

    Regarding the claim that his insights are not helpful because he’s new to the study of Sudan, that in and of itself says little to me. Especially because — in stark contrast to Nick Kristof — Mamdani has a deep and long CV of involvement in African history. He’s an expert. Citizen and Subject is, I think, one of the most important books about colonial societies. When Victims Become Killers was a pretty impressive effort, too. Even if Saviors and Survivors is not quite of the same stature, it is written by one of the great minds in the study of African politics and society. Tossing it out the window because Mamdani has only been studying it for the last six years doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

    I hope I don’t sound like I think we should just accept every aspect of the book. I think your straw man comment is relevant; I’m waiting for someone to write a convincing anatomy of the SDC movement that shows it in a more nuanced light. I think there have been some good contributions on the SSRC blog to this effort.

    But writing it off as vicious and self-righteous seems a little too easy of a way to not have to address the contribution the book has made to the dialogue. Perhaps the book has overreached with its GWOT focus and criticism of journalists, but I remain astounded by the aggressiveness with which a lot of people reacted to it.

    Thanks again for your comment. I’ve added your blog to my RSS feeds. Looks like you and I have some interests in common… salamli 3la Beirut!

  3. Eamon, if you’re interested I have a copy of a superb review of When Victims become Killers. Send me your email address and I’ll forward it to you. Portions of Richard Just’s review in TNR were excellent, but Just isn’t familiar with the rest of Mamdani’s work, and it showed. This other review puts Mamdani in a stronger, more interesting intellectual context (starting with Citizen and Subject).

  4. I’ll get over my immense jealousy at you living in East Aftica (I lived in Rwanda awhile, now New York) long enough to say I love this piece, which I first read on the Making sense of Darfur blog. As someone working in human rights, it’s wonderful to see a journalist write in such an accessible and balanced way about such a complex topic.

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