In 1969, a young Noam Chomsky sat down with William Buckley on the PBS show Firing Line to debate the motives behind the Vietnam War. Their conversation is riveting. Buckley is at his articulate, idiosyncratic best, arguing that American foreign interventions have historically been altruistic. But the coolly impassioned Chomsky keeps Buckley on his phlegmatic heels as he makes his case that America always holds its own industrial interests paramount. It's like watching rhetoric lose out to logic.
Today, as the chaos in Darfur erupts with new fervor, this 40-year-old argument seems oddly pertinent--yet also slightly dated. It is dated because, in light of America's misadventures in Vietnam, Iraq and Latin America, it has become difficult to believe in the altruism of foreign wars. The Buckleyan view comes off as "Greatest Generation" naivet√©. On the other hand, Chomsky's argument--that foreign interventions are necessarily self-interested--deserves to be revisited because, five years since the conflict began in Darfur, the risk-averse inaction of world governments has reached a jaw-dropping fever pitch.
The Buck-ley stops here
Reports from Darfur still read like an apocalyptic Jules Verne novel. Villagers are being slaughtered by men on horseback who are supported by antique Russian bombers--and the world powers are paralyzed. With this in mind, Chomsky's high-minded cynicism certainly feels problematic: the legitimacy of the kleptocratic Khartoum government is laughable and many concerned observers would welcome a heavy-handed unilateral intervention, diplomacy be damned.
However, the fact that no altruistic intervention has occurred (other than an impotent African Union force and a stalled UN deployment) lends weight to Chomsky's position. Few foreigners have economic interests in Sudan, which is why the international community cannot muster real urgency. China, the one country that does have significant Sudanese interests (it purchases 40 percent of Sudan's oil exports) has blocked economic sanctions by threatening to use its UN veto. Despite the reality that Khartoum does not wield coherent sovereignty over either Darfur or southern Sudan, China's President Hu Jintao has stated that "any solution [in Darfur] needs to respect the sovereignty of Sudan."
Darfurian manifest destiny
Perhaps we can contextualize Sudan's situation by examining America's past, when Washington's sovereignty over its ostensible territory was dubious. In the chaos of the 19th-century American West, rule of law was restored not when a foreign power undermined the American government's ability to commit genocide, but when the economically motivated expansion project exhaustively completed its oppression of the local populations. Only then did centralized authority become possible. Where Buckley might try to obscure that narrative with a moral analysis, Chomsky would probably agree with its frank simplicity.
The Sudanese government's logic and the logic of Manifest Destiny are two peas in a pod. Rural Sudan is a frontier. The conflicts in Darfur, as well as in southern Sudan, revolve around territorial sovereignty. As the government endeavors to drive out the locals to make way for oil exploration, rebels are resisting and attempting to solidify their own local control.
The inhumanity of the Khartoum government's westward expansion should be familiar to Americans who know their history (or have read Blood Meridian). In the 1840s, the Mexican government hired a man named John Joel Glanton to lead a band of mercenaries against Apaches who were harassing settlements in the vicinity of the American border. The "Glanton Gang" included white Americans, Europeans, blacks and Native Americans. Operating in places devoid of authority, they were unremitting rapists and murderers. They went beyond their mission of neutralizing Apache warriors, massacring Native American civilians on both sides of the border. The Mexican government finally declared them outlaws when they began killing Mexicans.
The tactics of the Janjaweed (mounted, nomadic Arab militiamen) are strikingly like those of the Glanton Gang. The Sudanese army is manned largely by people from the same populations it is persecuting. The fractured rebel groups may be the lesser evil, but given what they have seen and experienced, they are not likely to be committed humanitarians.
Slouching towards Bedlam
Recent developments confirm that Omar al-Bashir's government is out of control. It has been widely reported that the Janjaweed have resumed their attacks on Darfurian villages after a lull for the past two years. In a March 2 article in The New York Times, Nick Kristof argued that Sudanese forces are preparing to renew hostilities over oil wells along the border between northern and southern Sudan. (The 2005 treaty that ended years of civil war is fragile and looks likely to collapse.) Al-Bashir is no normal head-of-state. He is more like a warlord with a UN delegation.
The inaction of world powers can be explained by a number of infuriatingly sensible factors. First of all, no one stands to gain by acting. Military actions are expensive, and intervening in Sudan would be a poor investment. Perversely, this fact supports China's bankrupt justification for their support of al-Bashir. Beijing claims that abetting Sudan's economic development is the best way to promote human rights. Indeed, if the Darfurian people had links to American business, George W. Bush might have made a heroic entrance by now. Buckley's ideological heirs would doubtless be right behind him, superimposing humanitarianism onto his motives. Moreover, undermining the Sudanese forces would exacerbate an extant power vacuum in Sudan's rural areas. In other words, it would be a messy operation, and no one wants to be responsible for the cleanup. The second Iraq war has demonstrated that when you create a power vacuum, you get blamed for whatever chaos swoops in to fill it.
And chaos there would be, even if the Janjaweed went away and al-Bashir's bank account was frozen. Most observers reasonably fault the government in Khartoum for most of the problems. But rebel groups have committed their share of atrocities. Rebel-held areas are insecure and rife with violent crime. As many as two dozen rebel groups exist in Darfur, and they are frequently hostile to one another. The Janjaweed, too, are fractured. The government uses them as mercenaries, but they are essentially a disorganized class of militia, that begun to clash among themselves.
These facts frustrate the attempts of outsiders to impose clarity on the situation. Despite the obvious inhumanity of the situation, there is no obvious solution. Short of imposing martial law, it isn't clear that any type of intervention would put the country on a path toward healing. In other words, Chomsky's position--that foreign military intervention is always self-interested--prevails once again, this time for a different reason: doing right by a beleaguered foreign populous is often structurally impossible. With this in mind, none of us should be shocked by the fact that foreign incursions normally have baser motives. Indeed, the Buckleyan perspective could almost be mistaken for idealism were it not so consistently employed in defense of a corrupt status quo.
And what to make of Beijing's argument? What if economic development actually is the logical path out of Sudan's chaos? Admittedly, to deal with al-Bashir is to enrich an enormously corrupt leadership that is obstructing the country's development--so China isn't actually practicing what it preaches. But it would undeniably be harder to get away with murder in Darfur if the area was less impoverished and more tied to a central government Isn't that what happened in the American West?