About Saving Darfur: Reflections on the
Carrot and the Stick

Stephen Eric Bronner

He who wills the end wills the means thereto. 

—Immanuel Kant

Revulsion has gripped the world over the continuing tragedy in Darfur.  Terrible civil wars between Northern and Southern Sudan have been taking place since independence was achieved more than fifty years ago.  Nearly 300,000 people have died due to illness, violence, and starvation while 2.5 million have been driven from their homes over the last four years, and the UN Integrated Regional Information Network reported on March 19, 2007 that 4.5 million are “conflict affected” and in need of humanitarian relief. The ongoing conflict ravaging the Sudan has produced more than 80,000 new refugees in the six months since February 2007 even while the government in Khartoum has shut down 52 humanitarian relief agencies that have been caring for the “internally displaced people” living in 153 camps. As the crisis of the Sudan spills over into Chad and the Central African Republic, where more than 450,000 hapless refugees linger without adequate sustenance or health care, international resolutions are greeted with indifference, and peace agreements already reached between the national government in Khartoum and the Southern rebels seem near collapse.

Governments throughout the world led by Britain and the United States have inveighed against the Khartoum government led by Omar al-Bashir calling for various punitive measures including travel bans, freezing assets, economic sanctions, a “no-fly zone,” and perhaps even military intervention. Letters of protest have been signed by leading progressive intellectuals, celebrities have entered the fray, divestment campaigns have begun at various campuses and state legislatures in the United States, and progressive organizations like “Save Darfur” and “Enough” have sprung into existence.  Frustration has become ever more palpable and, everywhere, the cry is heard: “Let’s do something.”

No less than representatives of the political mainstream, however, Western progressives apparently lack any innovative ideas concerning what is to be done. Most of their proposals blend calls for cooperation with threats of coercion and, usually, the contradictions are glaring. The idea is to provide a sliding scale of options or, in more sophisticated terms, a “Rubik’s Cube” of responses in which it is assumed that no single policy will work but that hope resides in the prospect of having these disparate ideas lined up correctly.[1] Little is articulated in the way of material incentives for cooperation, however, and too much reliance is placed on the use of sanctions and the type of military bluster favored by the Right. Thus, the integrity of the Left has been compromised along with its ability to frame the issues of war and refugees in its own terms.

Western military intervention in the Sudan is simply not a viable option. It will confront almost unimaginable obstacles, divide those seeking to save Darfur, generate international opposition, and create even greater animus against the West in the Arab world. Economic sanctions have rarely had much success and, other than the military option, they constitute the next to last resort: leverage and influence diminish once sanctions are instituted and divestment can only prove a minor irritant in the Sudan. To insist that the Sudanese government does not “want” to cooperate is to miss the point. Genuine diplomacy will articulate proposals that focus on the economic, political, and symbolic incentives – rather than the threats – that might bring about cooperation.

Clear commitments and promises of sustained western investment in the Sudan can be linked to the repatriation of refugees in Darfur. A genuinely national investment plan would offer economic and political incentives for all parties engaged in the old civil war between North and South to adhere to the peace agreements already signed. Such an approach would also fit logically with the call made by many progressive organizations for heightened diplomatic engagement between the Western states and the Khartoum regime. China has material interests in the stability of Africa. That country might be enticed actually to develop positive policies for the Sudan –rather than simply exert “pressure” -- if given a leading role in efforts to deal with what is rapidly becoming a transnational refugee problem and growing conditions of regional instability. Thinking about the Sudan and China in this way would give the grassroots actions favored by the Left  -- concerts, conferences, demonstrations, and the like -- a clearer focus and sense of purpose. Especially because military intervention is unrealistic, and sanctions won’t work, current ways of thinking need to be reversed. It is time to privilege the carrot over the stick.

None of the plans currently on the table will “save” Darfur because none of them, either alone or in combination, establishes a plausible connection between ends and means. Seeking cooperation while calling for punitive measures can only produce a contradictory enterprise. But that this embrace of mutually exclusive policy options is precisely what has been offered by organizations ranging from the International Human Rights Council to grassroots groups like “Save Darfur” and “Enough.” All of them either explicitly or implicitly call for extending the sanctions placed by the United States upon the Sudan into a multi-national enterprise. Few of these organizations are willing to rule out force against the Sudan in spite of the ominous risks. Mixed with all this is a legitimate call for grassroots organizations throughout the world to express their outrage against the Sudan, (as well as China), for the United States to engage the Sudan diplomatically, for the rebels in the South to unify their efforts against the North, and for the completion of the peace process. Calling for increased diplomatic recognition of the Sudan by the West—i. e., the installation of an ambassador by the United States–while pushing for punitive economic and military measures makes no sense and how symbolic protest will translate into policy remains unclear. There is no reason why the Sudan should believe, let alone seriously engage, those wielding the weapons of economic and military coercion while calling for peace.

Wrangling between the Sudan and the international community is currently taking place over the implementation of a policy that would introduce a force of 22,000 troops under the “hybrid” command of the United Nations and the African Union to patrol the IDP camps. Three thousand troops are already in place but the last phase of the operation is proceeding at a snail’s pace. Various neo-conservatives like Robert Kagan as well as important US State Department Officials like Susan Rice and President Bill Clinton’s former National Security Advisor, Tony Lake, have already called for unilateral military action by the United States against the Sudan. Some voices on the left are now echoing these suggestions. Others are calling for a “quartet” of outside nations to mediate the crisis in Darfur. In order to make sure that its “bark” will not prove bigger than its “bite,” however, many progressives seem willing to entertain the dangerous suggestion that mediation by such a quartet “must be prepared to push ideas based on their assessment of what is required, not only what the parties state that they are willing to accept.”[2]

How this is to be accomplished, of course, is another matter. It is ludicrous to believe that 22,000 troops will produce stability for the 153 IDP camps in Dafur, which is as large as France, or prove capable of dealing with the complexities of the Sudan whose size is roughly that of Western Europe. Or, to put it in slightly different terms, this nation is 30 times the size of Rwanda and 100 times the size of Sierra Leone. Aside from its own military force, moreover, the Sudan has eighty different tribal militias and its peoples speak hundreds of different languages. Indeed, tragically, it is as if interventionist liberals have learned nothing from Iraq. They are, once again, ignoring obvious constraints on effective military action. They are, again, underestimating the potential for resistance. And, again, hardly a whisper can be heard about an “exit strategy.” Nor has much time been spent worrying about how military intervention might destabilize any or all of the nine states bordering the Sudan or that “regime change” in Khartoum could generate a new set of civil wars from which the refugees would undoubtedly suffer the most. Interesting is how the assumptions regarding military intervention, as surely as the demands by Tony Blair for the introduction of “no-fly zones,”[3] have been carried over from those that spawned the disaster in Iraq. 

On the European Union’s 50th Birthday (March 25 2007) Bob Geldof -- the singer/songwriter/mogul/activist and organizer of the fabulous Live-Aid Concert in 1985 that raised more than $100 million for famine relief in Africa -- brought together a remarkable set of progressive artists and intellectuals to protest the murderous events taking place in Darfur.  Dario Fo, Umberto Eco, Jurgen Habermas, Vaclav Havel, Seamus Heaney, Bernard Henri-Levy, Harold Pinter, Franca Rame and Tom Stoppard signed a letter calling for international economic sanctions against the Sudan that would also include travel bans and the freezing of individual assets in western banks. “Forbid them our shores and our health service and luxury goods,” according to Geldof, and the crisis can be ended in three weeks.  Unfortunately, however, he and his friends didn’t bother to consider that international economic sanctions are virtually impossible to coordinate, Arab nations will never agree to restrictions on travel, banks and health services exist outside the West, and conversion of currency is a simple maneuver.

The intentions of these signatories were surely honorable. But their stance was neither brave nor innovative. It was instead thoroughly establishmentarian and totally conformist. There has been enthusiastic praise for the use of economic sanctions against the Sudan not only from Republicans, but all across the American political spectrum. But the fact is that sanctions are already in place. More than 130 firms currently trading with the Sudan, including the two leading oil companies, are already prevented from doing business with the United States, using its financial institutions, or employing the dollar as currency for their transactions. The impact of these sanctions on the policy decisions made in Khartoum has been negligible. And that only makes sense. The Sudan is among the top 20 least trade dependent states in the world and, of particular importance insofar as sanctions impact mostly on the poor, it ranks 139th – or among the lowest nations -- on the UN Human Misery Index. 

Embracing right-wing foreign policy assumptions has created a situation for Western progressives in which their completely legitimate moral outrage has been combined with – as in Iraq -- a completely naïve and hence illegitimate pseudo-realism. Liberal foreign policy analysts and organizations of the Left have thus been unable to develop any diplomatic alternatives, or initiatives of their own. The media has given enormous attention to the United Nations Children’s Fund goodwill ambassador, actress Mia Farrow, for condemning the “genocide Olympics” planned for Beijing in 2008 and getting Steven Spielberg (who is currently serving as an artistic advisor for the televised event) to write a letter to President of China, Hu Jintao, expressing his dismay for China’s support of the Sudan. “Credit goes to Hollywood,” wrote Helene Cooper, on April 13, 2007 in The New York Times. And, in a way, that is fair enough. But, then, Spielberg’s letter never received a response. China did dispatch Mr. Zhai Jun, a senior foreign policy advisor, to the Sudan – he visited three refugee camps, discussed the crisis, and then returned home. On May 9, 2007 The Daily Telegraph in London reported that China and Russia would sell new helicopters and military equipment to the Sudanese.

There is nothing wrong with attempting to mobilize world opinion and express outrage at what is taking place in Darfur. But such celebrity diplomacy is ultimately based on little more than an opportunity for the Sudanese government – or its allies--to avoid being shamed. If these nations were so concerned about being shamed, however, they would not have pursued the policies that they pursued in the first place. The idea that the shame wrought by a group of celebrities and the western media will somehow outweigh the massive material interests that China derives from buying more than 60% of the Sudan’s oil, while serving as a prime supplier of its military needs, is simply ludicrous. Attempts by Hollywood celebrities to exert Western media pressure on the Sudan, a nation concerned with very different priorities, is similarly no substitute for meaningful policies. As things now stand: Western intellectuals and celebrities make their demands, the Sudanese should accept, and if they don’t …better not to think about it. Their idea of diplomacy essentially rests on the belief that either Khartoum will capitulate to their demands or it will face more drastic alternatives. This approach has not only proven unsuccessful, but counter-productive. It has helped drive the Sudan into the arms of Russia and, especially, China.   

Striking is the lack of reflection, the mixture of desperation and incoherence, and the inability on the part of both the mainstream and most of its progressive critics to specify the end that the tactics they propose should realize in Dafur and the Sudan. Some are content to emphasize the need to “patrol” the IDP camps and guarantee security for humanitarian relief efforts. But this view is short sighted. Closing these nightmare IDP camps and repatriating the refugees is the only goal worth talking about and this means keeping the eyes on the prize. Unless repatriation is understood as the end that progressive policy should serve, its framers will be culpable for the creation of a new refugee population in Darfur and neighboring states that will make the lingering tragedy of the Palestinian or Iraqi refugees seem minor in comparison.

Repatriation policies will require over the long haul not only a great deal of money, which the United Nations lacks, but security and access to the villages in which the refugees used to live. This latter concern requires -- as a prerequisite --peace between the rebels in Darfur and the government in Khartoum. Negotiation between the parties makes some form of meaningful cooperation between Khartoum and concerned parties in the rest of the world indispensable. For that negotiation to be successful, however, incentives must be articulated that speak to the interests not merely of those languishing in the camps but, ironically, the politicians sitting in their offices in Khartoum.  If punitive measures can only prove reckless, divisive, and ineffective – so that the “bite” of interventionists will inevitably be weaker than the “bark”—talking about them as serious policy options will undermine the trust necessary to create the kind of cooperation that is sought by other policy options.

The reality is that the Sudan simply does not know what to do with the refugees in Darfur: it has become the prisoner of its own policies. The costs of relocating them are higher than leaving them to rot in this western part of the Sudan, or terrorizing them through the use of nomadic tribesmen known as the Janjaweed. More refugees are thereby generated and more violence. Regional insecurity is also heightened and tent communities have been created – comprising tens of thousands of IDPs – that now encircle Khartoum. It is a vicious cycle that is draining the resources of the Sudan even as it seemingly allows for no exit.  Complicating matters further is the possibility of a new civil war between the government in Khartoum and the provinces of the South.  An election is coming up in 2009 – agreed upon in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed in January 2006-- that will allow the Southern provinces, which retain most of the country’s oil and resources, to decide whether their citizens wish to secede from the Sudan. This prospect provides a possible incentive for the Khartoum government to resume the old civil war, prevent unity among the rebels, and maintain the numerous tribal militias. Should that take place, of course, more refugees will spill over into Darfur.

Amid this mess, then, a real issue of sovereignty is at stake for the government of Omar Bashir and dealing with the situation requires more than calls for unity among the rebels and support for their cause. It is also not as if the rebels were all angels committed to democratic government. Fifteen rebel factions from rival tribes with very different customs and languages are currently fighting the government in Khartoum under the rubric of the Sudanese Liberation Movement. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement is near collapse and only one faction has signed the Darfur Peace Agreement of May 2006. Tribal and religious loyalties still outweigh commitments to democracy and nationalism, and even rebel leaders in Darfur are more concerned about shares from oil revenues and investment for their clienteles than solving the problems of the IDPs in Darfur. The Los Angeles Times reported on April 14, in fact, that humanitarian organizations as well as refugees have been subject to violence and atrocities by the rebels. Therefore, it is not merely a matter of calling upon the Sudan to bring about “peace.” Even while insisting that China and Russia diminish their arms sales to the Sudan, which would still leave the North with a strong military advantage, western progressives must also highlight in their propaganda, and mobilizing efforts, the importance of having all rebel factions sign and adhere to –whatever their flaws -- the peace agreements on the table.  

Given the likelihood of a vote in favor of secession by the Southern provinces, or what shape the rebel opposition will have in two or three years, it makes little sense to speak about what a genuinely representative government would look like for the Sudan. Even were a temporary alliance achieved between previously hostile Arab and non-Arab factions in Darfur, (and the South), the stage might be set for a new round of civil wars. The real issue involves bringing together these rebel factions in hope of having them sign the Darfur Peace Agreement. Conscience International put forward a plan for regional conflict resolution conferences in El-Fasher, El-Geneina, and Nyjala during a visit by its members to Khartoum in March 2007. If followed, the glare of national and international politics would be dimmed; more people might become involved in the process; and perhaps even a bit of pressure could be brought to bear on leaders of the factions from below. Attempts at conflict resolution in the provinces might thus prove useful. Nevertheless, national policies must supplement such local initiatives.

To be sure, the Sudanese government must be convinced of the need for implementing its three-stage agreement with the UN. The completed first phase introduced hundreds of UN police advisors and civilian staff into Darfur while the second, which is basically in place, calls for a heavier support package comprising six helicopters and 3,000 troops; the third phase, which will bring in another 20,000 troops, is what remains the bone of contention.  Amenable to a force under the control of the African Union,[4] which would then coordinate efforts by the UN and the Sudan, Khartoum has a legitimate point in demanding that senior officers for this “hybrid” operation should come from its own continent. This would allow for an African solution to an African problem, which is important given the memories of colonialism, and provide further recognition for both regional and Sudanese interests in conjunction with those of the IDPs. 

Virtually nothing has been said either by mainstream politicians or progressives, however, about the need for a new economic strategy. Such an approach would need to transcend the current reliance on economic sanctions and instead address the tripartite interests of Khartoum, the Southern rebels, and the IDPs. Whether implemented through institutions associated with the nation-state, or an international economic consortium, such a strategy would basically rest upon lifting sanctions while using a certain fixed amount from every dollar invested in the Sudan for sustaining and repatriating the IDPs. It would be tied to “benchmarks,” or demonstrable evidence, concerning the disarming of the Janjaweed. Western corporations and states might argue that investment first requires security and that projects would be subject to the ebbs and flows associated with shifting tactics by the participants to the crisis in Darfur and the conflict in the Sudan. Such an objection is legitimate. Investment under unstable conditions is, indeed, a gamble. Western corporations and states would have to decide whether, in the case of the Sudan and the crisis in Darfur, humanitarian convictions might trump the risks involved.

There are also dangers to be considered. Investment tied to repatriating the refugees would benefit the government of Omar al-Bashir as well as Darfur and the South. There is nothing imprudent about such an investment plan, however, and there are legitimate reasons to hope for positive outcomes. Khartoum might, first of all, recognize that securing new investment is worth abandoning the Janjaweed. The Sudanese leaders of the North might also take the opportunity to lessen the costs generated by their disastrous policy in Darfur. They surely intuit that, unless investment becomes more diverse, the Sudan will increasingly become an economic colony of China. The prospect of Western investment might suggest to the Khartoum government that its Darfur policy is undermining its geo-political interests, Sustained investment in the North, even should the South secede, would still allow it to act as a dominant player in the region and in Africa. That human rights organizations –currently so suspect by the government in Khartoum – would probably have to administer the funds should not prove decisive. Were Western corporations and states to offer a new bold and innovative investment plan there would be a real incentive for the Khartoum government to adjust their policies appropriately. Or, putting it another way, an intelligent political investment strategy could conceivably aid the refugees in Darfur by offering an economic incentive for peace that would appeal to both parties to the old civil war that is in danger of being resumed.    

But it is also crucial to understand that the plight of the IDPs has become a transnational problem that reaches beyond Darfur and into the Central African Republic, Chad, and other nations bordering the Sudan. Seeking aid for humanitarian agencies and catering to the needs of the refugees is essential. But it is a stopgap measure. Far larger funds are required to resuscitate not merely the African Union, which would play an important role in dealing with this problem, but the virtually bankrupt Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHRC) that has already successfully repatriated 12,000 IDPs in Darfur. Here a “quartet” -- or a “quintet” -- could actually do something useful. Important participants would have to include the Arab League, the European Union, Russia, and the United States.  Any transnational undertaking in Africa, however, must also include China: it has accounted for nearly 20% of economic growth in Africa, written off more than $1billion in debts, provided loans of nearly $1 billion for 55 projects in two dozen African nations, and increased its trade with Africa from $6 billion in 2000 to what will probably amount to $100 billion by 2010.

Many are suggesting that the western economic dominance of Africa is at an end. Whether that claim is overstated or not, (requirements for building the infrastructure of Africa by 2010 are put at $17 billion), even a moderately successful resolution of the refugee problem will depend upon the degree of cooperation achieved between the China and the West. China has consistently called for a diplomatic solution to the crisis, and it has recently created a new cabinet-level position for African diplomacy centering on the Sudan. But it has also contributed 300 troops to the hybrid undertaking of the UN and the African Union. China is increasingly becoming a world actor, not merely a world power, and perhaps this nation should finally be accorded some responsibility by the West for implementing a concrete policy rather than for exercising the inherently elusive “influence” that intoxicates so many progressives.

Perhaps it might even be appropriate to raise the possibility of a joint effort undertaken by China and the rest of the quartet to complement a political investment strategy with direct financing of humanitarian organizations capable of sustaining and repatriating the refugees across boundaries. This would obviously benefit Khartoum by giving a genuinely important role to its most important ally. Western nations and organizations could share the burdens associated with resolving the crisis while China could garner some positive publicity for a humanitarian undertaking without compromising its economic interests in the Sudan and the region.  In any case, there is no sensible option for progressives than to develop proposals for peaceful intervention that can coordinate the interests of the refugees with those of the region and the Sudanese.

As pundits speak about the growth of “compassion fatigue” concerning Darfur, usually without mentioning the devastating lack of positive proposals offered by the political mainstream, now is the time -- echoing an old slogan -- to give up the cant and return to Kant. He was, after all, the greatest advocate of linking ends and means. The new strategies advocated here have a speculative character. They would undoubtedly prove difficult to implement and there are myriad details to be resolved. But they speak to the need for an authentic policy of the Left. These proposals also dovetail nicely with progressive calls for increasing diplomatic contacts, seeking civil peace in the Sudan, and generating grassroots enthusiasm for dealing with the IDPs. They offer humane, cosmopolitan, and coherent alternatives to the more traditional reliance on economic sanctions and military threats that has failed so miserably in the past. None of them, moreover, is set in stone. Each is intended merely to spark discussion and provoke use of the critical intellect. If nothing else, when taken together, these proposals project a way of thinking about the seemingly intractable crisis in Darfur that refuses to accept the parameters of the given. Thus, perhaps, they might just inspire the hard work associated with imagining the possible.


[1]John Prendergast, “The Answer to Darfur: How to Resolve the World’s Hottest War” for the International Crisis Group and the Center for American Progress, (2007) pg. 7 www.enoughproject.org

[2] Ibid., pg. 10

[3]  In response to information that Sudan has been flying arms and heavy military  “With Sudan’s limited number of fixed wing aircraft it would be a logistical nightmare maintaining a no-fly zone in an area the size of Texas.” www.cnn.com/2007/WORLD/Africa/03/29/Ussanctions.Sudan.reut/index.html. Attesting to the desperation felt by many students of the Sudan, though he offers a non-fly zone as an option, Eric Reeves also knows that it won’t work; see, www.sudanreeves.org/Article157.html

[4] Note the discussion in Stephen Eric Bronner, Peace Out of Reach: Middle Eastern Travels and the Search for Reconciliation (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2007).


Stephen Eric Bronner is the Senior Editor of
Logos. Currently Distinguished Professor (Professor II) of Political Science at Rutgers University, his most recent book is Peace Out of Reach: Middle Eastern Travels and the Search for Reconciliation (University Press of Kentucky).