Thursday, May 11, 2006

Sudan: just say 'NO' to military intervention

The British media, political commentators and armchair liberals have suspended critical thinking on Sudan over the past few years. Pundits of all persusions cheered George Clooney's recent visit to Sudan, demanding that the Sudanese government take action in response to the atrocities in Darfur. Those who once opposed western military adventures in Iraq (twice), now seem to have turned completely brown-nosed when it comes to Sudan.

'Diplomacy and promises are not enough' argue Oxfam. Everyone from the left to the right have demanded stronger intervention in Sudan. From the civil rights campaigner Jesse Jackson to the right-wing Daily Telegraph, everyone seem to be proposing that 'there can be no clearer case for humanitarian intervention'.

Even though Britain and the US stands in utter disgrace over Iraq, in Sudan, the Prime Minister Tony Blair and President George W. Bush can look good when they lay down the law to the Sudanese government. But Blair and Bush's interest in Khartoum is motivated by domestic concerns. The two leaders motives in Sudan are deserving of intense interrogation, just like the dodgy intelligence their government spun to justify the war in Iraq. New Labour, the Bush administration, and what I'd call, liberal imperialists are constantly on the lookout for human disasters in far-off lands in order to show what the West is for, or against. It's as though the West is on a mission to rediscover itself in Sudan. For our political elites, the conflict in Darfur is used soley to endow themselves with a new sense of moral purpose 'over-there'.

Indeed, there is a tragic crisis in Sudan, but western proposals about military intervention will not help to alleviate that crisis. The Sudanese will not benifit whatsoever from any of the West's fact-finding missions to the Darfur region. Also, what can deploying thousands of troops do? Deploying western, or foriegn troops in Darfur is nothing more than a political gesture, it's certainly not a practical measure that the Sudanese will benefit from.

In any case, Sudan has been a hell-hole for the past 50 years, the end of the Cold War has made the country even more unstable. So what on earth makes Blair, Bush and co think that they have a solution to the problems facing Sudan? Darfur has only become a issue for warmongerers like Blair and Bush since 2004. Could it be that they are seeking an easy intervention? An intervention that has no WMD's to worry about? The Gulf War Part 2 has been an unmitigating political nightmare. Britain and America's hunger to intervene in Sudan is surley shaped more by the fallout from Iraq than by recent events on the ground in Darfur.

Besides', why would Western intervention improve things for the Sudanese? From Sierra Leone to Somalia, out-side interference, in the post Cold-War era has made matters worse for those on the receiving end, not better. It was Britain who carved up eastern Africa and imposed an iron-fist colonial rule on it. Sudan was ruled by Britain and Egypt until 1956.

The West's sudden interest has nothing to do with Sudan per se. The motivation for intervention is homegrown. Look how easy it is to re-establish a sense of certainty about what's right and wrong in far-off places, much easier than addressing difficult and complex crisis at home.

During British colonal rule in the nineteeth century, expansion was presented as a moral mission, in order to save the local black population from invading Arabs. Today, the interests of the Sudanese people is no more at the heart of the West's intervention now than it was then.

Picture: Soldiers from the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment patrol Tal Afar, Iraq. This photo appeared on


At 4:37 PM, Blogger Matt M said...

Hi Courtney,

Although I think we've disagreed over Sudan in the past, I agree with a lot of what you write here.

My point of contention would be the idea that western intervention has to be militaristic in nature. I'm one of the "liberal imperialists" (we prefer "interventionists") who wants to see the UK take a tougher line on Sudan, but that doesn't mean I want British troops in Darfur. The stance I want to see New Labour take is threefold: 1) provide economic incentives for the Sudanese government to rein in the militias as much as possible, 2) use the UN to put pressure on the African Union to do the same, and 3) provide humanitarian resources (food, medicine etc) for those that need it most.

AU troops could provide a barrier between the civilian population and the militias - not to determine the shape of events, but at least to act as a buffer while the Sudanese short their problems out. The benefits of foreign troops to stability has been demonstrated recently, with the presence of French troops in Chad helping to dampen tensions between Chad and Sudan.

What's needed is not imperalism, nor isolationism, but an effective and controlled international policy which seeks to curb the violence while creating a space for the Sudanese to resolve their problems.

At 2:43 PM, Blogger Roland Dodds said...

Interesting piece, and an interesting post Matt. I unfortunately think that any type of foreign involvement that does not somehow contain a strong military presence is bound to fail like previous UN efforts in Africa.

I personally consider myself a realist who believes in the liberal political ideals within the west, but I am unsure if any action in Sudan would produce positive results. The lesson from Iraq should be that all nation building exercises are going to be very costly, and we should be aware of this before getting into these operations.

At 10:43 PM, Blogger Daniel said...

I agree with Courtney for ones, although you owe a good suggestion to solve the human suffering there! Naturally the west and USSR partially propelled the conflict. Given Westers military intervention not accepted one can neither make all those weapons and soldiers dissapear in one day, or year.
Neither do I believe the trade justice folk that things can get solved by "simply" creating fair trade and arms control. Economies don't work that way. Behind trade justice Westerners stand unscrupulous other Westerners, or where ever they may come from.

At 2:50 PM, Anonymous Maria said...

On the Open Democracy Forum (admittedly in December) you made the following claim:
>>>I think you need another example of where 'strong' Western forces have stabalised and protected foreign populations. It was the former colonial power Portugal that sent troops (with blue helmets) to East Timor. Under the guise of a 'UN' mission, Portugese troops were basically whitewashing it own repressive legacy, by acting as if they were the saviour of the people in that region of Indonisia - rather than their oppressors.

So again, the example you gave is actually another good example of the mess that Western intervention has made, in destabilising a Third World country - then using the ensuing mess to argue for more interference >>>

I replied (only recently) but here wish to raise it again in the hope of getting some response/having some debate.

It is becoming increasingly fashionable to deride the intervention in East Timor, to misrepresent its history and to write it off as a failed state.
Every communique by Bin Laden mentions East Timor - whether characterising Kofi Annan as a criminal for his role or justifying the Bali bombings for the very very late support given to East Timorese independence by Australia. The only written statement on East Timor I have found by George Galloway was in a Tribune article - less than 18 months after independence - classifying it as a failed state because of (the quite correct) Human Rights Watch criticisms of the police force for human rights abuses. With that threshold for classification as a failed state, all states would be 'failing'. And so it goes with the soi-disant left/right who need to emphasize the futility of any 'humanitarian' intervention.
Courtney --- please read a basic history of East Timor. It was never part of Indonesia and never claimed as part of Indonesia by Indonesian nationalists until the invasion of 1975. East Timor did suffer a genocide at the hands of the Indonesians - people may argue about the exact 'count' of deaths/massacres/executions but the evidence is there to support this characterization (including the imposition of the Indonesian language, and forced resettlement of East Timorese).
The UN never recognized the legitimacy of Indonesia's annexation(although Australia and most Middle Eastern states did); thus, the official UN position was that East Timor was in the process of ‘decolonisation’ – giving the Portuguese - who did abandon them to the Indonesian onslaught – a formal role as the former colonial power. So what Third World country was being destabilised?? Indonesia or East Timor? Prove your case that East Timor was 'stable' - even if repressed -under the Indonesians.

The UN was brought in to administer a referendum that was effectively on independence (after Habibbie offered a referendum on autonomy) but Indonesia retained its 'responsibility' for security. May I remind you that the vote for independence(by rejecting autonomy) was 78% out of 98.5% voting--despite the well-documented violence and intimidation that supporters of independence faced. You claim that the Portuguese manipulated the UN to send in Portuguese troops when the pro-independence vote was met by Indonesian troops and Indonesian supported militia unleashing further terror and quite literally burning down East Timor and destroying its infrastructure.
What a comfortable simplification to fit your narrative. East Timor was certainly abandoned for 25 years by all states (Portugal sometimes went through the motions of protest) and the traditional left. However, there were significant groups and individuals in Australia(most significantly), the USA (quite effective),the UK(particularly good on documentation), and Japan,etc who kept the issue alive; there were massive popular protests in Australia and Portugal and smaller-but very significant - campaigns in the US, UK, Japan and other countries after the Indonesian violence surrounding the referendum.
The initial intervention(agreed through the UN but an ad hoc coalition ) was led by Australia , with on-the –ground - military support from the following countries: UK, New Zealand, Thailand. Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea, Canada, Ireland and with specialist support from USA. As this moved into a later phase – the transitional phase – other countries became involved in providing policing and military support – yes Portugal, but also Jordan, Brazil, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka inter alia.
Right now there are serious problems in East Timor about governance and development; certainly some of these are the product of the decisions taken by the UN about its constitution, its parliament and the personnel whom it supported/put in place( yes too too often the Portuguese-speaking East Timorese diaspora rather than the younger generation who organised the internal campaigns or the older generation who fought the Indonesians). There certainly is a little speck of truth in highlighting the significance/role of Portugal in its control of telephone network, etc.
Yes it is aid-dependent but less so and for a shorter time than many many states; during the Indonesian occupation it was sustained as the poorest part of Indonesia and its resources were plundered or destroyed (eg coffee production). Yes there are problems of corruption, and inadequate political representation, but all this was certainly worse under Indonesian occupation.(I can document this)
When I was in East Timor and traveled widely, I met no one (literally) who did not have a relative or did not know a neighbour killed by the Indonesians. I heard endless accounts of the day-to-day fear that people lived in if they were seen as critical of the Indonesians and of the varied strategies they deployed to 'find out what was going on' and 'to whom it was safe to talk .' I certainly discovered the living meaning of political oppression and repression.
If you have any 'care' for/about the East Timorese, get serious. Stop feeding the extreme Islamist agenda that sees it both as a 'humiliation' and as 'proof' of the failure of the criminal and infidel UN and the west or the left/right sloganisers with your sneering dismissal.
Produce a proper critique - based on evidence and analysis, organise some constructive campaigning, decide how to support the East Timorese.
East Timor has just become a slogan for those who want to claim it as a ‘success or failure’ of the UN ..and so it goes but not for me. If anyone out there wants to have a serious discussion about what we can/should learn from the East Timor experience and/or what we can do to support a people who suffered one of the most appalling atrocities, let us start a discussion. I am happy to have a full, open discussion, to provide evidence and analysis, but not to exchange slogans.

At 4:06 PM, Blogger Courtney Hamilton said...

Hello Maria,

If there's one thing I'd like to say, is firstly, my knowledge, at present, of the history of soical problems facing East Timor are sketchy to say the least.

I tend to agree with your sentiments around the western raised issue of 'failed states' in the third world. The words 'failed state', has become highly fashionable these days amongst the political elite at the UN. It has become a substitue for the words 'rogue states', except this time, a 'failed state' is begging to be propped up by an outside power, preferably western.

At 2:27 PM, Anonymous Maria said...

Dear Courtney
I don't want to distract/take over this thread --since the issue of Sudan is so important. Can you start another one -- perhaps more general on 'interventions' --what/when/how/to what extent they succeed and fail? East Timor and Cambodia are two of my interests.
and that despite Indonesia propaganda and semi-successful attempts to build pro-Indonesian militias, there was not/is not anything in its history that can provide a basis for conflicts being classified as ‘civil war’ or even ‘civil conflict’.
It is not any 'western government' that is characterising East Timor as a 'failed state' but some sections of the left -eg Galloway and various self-described leftist posters - and Islamist commentators -- whose object of scorn/attack is the UN and 'western humanitarian intervention.' This links with right/left use of the same style and discourse of sloganeering.
Some other supplementary points on East Timor:and the campaigns around it.
1) The UK media tends not to publish the full text of Bin Laden’s statements. Bin Laden also mentioned East Timor as a justification for the attack on the UN HQ in Iraq, referring specifically to Sergio de Mello’s role as overseeing the UN’s role in East Timor. In his latest communiqué he again mentions East Timor. People tend to focus on Islamist activity in the Middle East; there is also a ‘project’ for a Caliphate covering South East Asia, which is why East Timor is always mentioned..
2) East Timor – aside from never being part of Indonesia – is/always was not Muslim;
People overwhelmingly subscribed to either/both animism and Catholicism. Under the Indonesian occupation, attendance at/participation in the Catholic church increased massively as a form of cultural resistance. The Prime Minister is a Muslim- of ultimately Yemeni descent – and Muslims comprise less than 4%, approximately the same percentage as Protestant Christians. The movement(s) for independence – including the Catholic church - and the government have always been very careful not to cast the struggle as in any way a religious one and to promote religious tolerance. Given that there were physical attacks on churches and massacres that occurred within them by Indonesians and the continuing threats from Bin Laden and other Islamist groups, this has been remarkably successful. Mainstream Muslim groups in Indonesia also never presented this as a religious conflict.
3) Both John Pilger and Noam Chomsky – high profile figures on the left -did report/comment extensively on the situation in East Timor….so I should acknowledge their roles as individuals.
4) For a good overview of East Timorese history pre 1992 and then an updated chapter covering the events of 1999 see John Taylor. The Price of Freedom (Zed Books,1999, earlier version was Indonesia’s Forgotten War). If there is interest, I can recommend a number of books/articles/websites that cover the 1999 massacres and post –independence developments.
I will make some comments on Sudan on this thread soon and hope you open up another for a more general or even ET specific one


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