Nick Kristof’s Calls for Force No Antidote to Genocide in Sudan

The New York Times’ man-about-the-global-village returned to his op-ed spot yesterday with a grisly timeline of how genocide might play out in Sudan over the coming months. Kristof sets the scene:

The place is southern Sudan, and the timetable is the next few months. The South, which holds more than 75 percent of Sudan’s oil, is scheduled to hold a referendum on Jan. 9 on seceding from the rest of Sudan. Here’s how one more [it] might unfold.

You can imagine what follows—it begins as “word trickles out of massacres and widespread rapes by tribal militias from the North in the boiling borderlands between North and South,” picks up steam when “the South issues a unilateral declaration of independence,” and really gets going as “tribal militias from the North,” respond by “sweep[ing] through South Sudan villages, killing and raping inhabitants and driving them south.” Kristof’s ghastly fantasy reaches a cinematic climax as Sudanese president Omar Bashir, seeing the raw chaos spreading throughout the south, wonders aloud “How can those people think that they can run a country?” Soon, “he calls for ‘peaceful negotiation with our brothers to resolve these problems and restore unity,’” but not before “warfare ripples through the Nuba Mountains and then Darfur as well,” leaving the world, and specifically Barack Obama, with a world-class mess to clean up.

Despite Kristof’s disclaimer that his only confident prediction is that events won’t unfold exactly as he describes, something similar may very well be in the cards for the Sudanese in coming months. Then again, it may not. But Kristof isn’t concerned with weighing alternatives, and where he goes next is more disturbing still. Kristof points out that while Obama’s recent focus on Sudan is to be applauded (“That’s terrific”!), “there’s a fatal flaw” in his approach: “The carrots being offered to Khartoum by Mr. Obama are juicy and smart,” but “I see no evidence of serious sticks.”

Fair enough, but what makes for a compelling model of tough-minded seriousness? Apparently, George W. Bush:

The Bush administration mapped out exactly what would happen to Sudan if it did not share intelligence on Osama bin Laden. C.I.A. officers met in a London hotel with two top Sudanese leaders. An excellent new book from Yale University Press, “Sudan,” reports that the C.I.A. officers explained that America would use bombers or cruise missiles to destroy the oil refinery at Port Sudan, the port itself and the pipeline carrying oil to the port Sudan decided to cooperate…Why shouldn’t we privately make it clear to Mr. Bashir that if he initiates genocide, his oil pipeline will be destroyed and he will not be exporting any oil?

Sorry, what?

There are plenty of reasons, moral and pragmatic, that the prospect of military strikes against Sudan is too stupid a notion to contemplate. Here are just a few.

In the first place, the idea that macho chest-thumping and threats of military violence should be central to Obama’s foreign policy constitutes either distressing naiveté or willful cynicism. We saw this movie on constant re-run over the last decade or so in the United States, and the ending was rarely positive. What good comes of American bellicosity in a situation that demands peaceful resolve above all else? Nothing as far as I can see, and yet it’s curious to note that Kristof is silent on what might be done before any genocidal violence breaks out other than threaten to contribute further to what would be an after-the-fact bloodbath.

But even if you believed that military intervention was the way to go…bombing pipelines? My unfailingly perceptive friend Nomvuyo Nolutshungu points out that depriving Bashir of oil revenue would hardly bring the violence to an end, and certainly not in the short term. If anything, we would likely see an uptick in fighting.

American intervention solely from the skies might just lead Bashir to ratchet up state aggression, not scale it back. Bashir demonstrates considerable cunning at testing other countries’ stomachs for confrontation. Igniting greater levels of violence would force the White House to decide just how far it’s willing to go prevent genocide from taking place on its watch. Needless to say, boots on the ground is all but out of the question, especially in the midst of withdrawal from two deeply unpopular wars and an economic depression at home.

At the same time, as Oscar Blayton argues in his smart analysis on the Social Science Research Council’s Sudan blog, American military intervention, in threat or deed, could very easily encourage the Southern Sudanese to engage the north in violent conflict with the understanding that the United States had its back. Neither of these scenarios auger well for peace. And we haven’t even discussed the effects that disrupting Sudan’s oil production might have on international oil markets, nor the US relationship with China.

Of all these things, I suspect Kristof is fully aware. Why, then, the repackaging of arguments for Iraq for sale in North Africa?

Again, Blayton: “These drumbeats of doom seem to be coming from those most interested in regime change in Sudan. Like snipers in the bush, many Westerners…are taking a page out of the playbook for the Iraq invasion, with the hopes that history will repeat itself.” Blayton pins the majority of blame on those “with an interest in a divided and weakened Sudan.” It’s not clear that Kristof should be pegged with membership in that category: his arguments derive instead from a misplaced, arrogant, and unexamined morality. Yet good intentions are hardly permission for the Times to allow their op-ed pages to become a launching pad for arguments justifying unprovoked American military aggression abroad…again.

Kristof seems to recognize this himself, but appears too intellectually exhausted to think through the issue any further. “Yes, [this] would be a dangerous and uncertain game. But the present strategy appears to be failing, and the result may be yet another preventable genocide that we did not prevent.” Hardly the clinching conclusion to a defense of the use of force.

If Kristof is taxed out from meditating on Sudan, perhaps he should silence his pen. Perhaps he should relinquish the bully pulpit of the Times’ editorial spread and make room for other writers on the subject: writers who refuse to shrink in the face of complexity, writers who reject abdicating their commitment to values and peace in a world that privileges violence.