What is the role of ignorance in allowing evil to thrive? Can ignorance be a form of acquiescence? When does ignorance of evil become culpable in itself? These are large questions, but ones worth asking of public intellectuals who presume to speak about the nature of evil, and on this basis particular instances of evil.
In his much-reviewed new book Political Evil, political scientist Alan Wolfe attempts to diagnose various forms of political naïveté among those attempting to respond to political evil (as opposed to the evil of individuals). If evil will always be with us, and will always be in some sense incomprehensible, Wolfe wants to argue—in the tradition of Orwell, Arendt, Niebuhr, and others—that we can speak seriously about the meaning of political evil, and work to halt the use of evil for political or ideological gain. He is contemptuous of those who look to international courts of justice or to misguided liberal human rights agendas, and of those who indulge in “indiscriminate” characterizations of atrocity crimes. He is particularly contemptuous of American-led advocacy efforts to respond to large-scale human destruction in Darfur. Indeed, Darfur is his test case for a principled realism, which allows us to diagnose and respond to events in maximally effective fashion.
At the heart of Wolfe’s claims is the argument that what occurred in Darfur beginning in early 2003 was not genocide but civil war, an insurgency that prompted a predictable counter-insurgency by the Khartoum regime. Wolfe acknowledged in a roundtable discussion at the New Republic (March 2009)—in which I and others participated—that he “was not an expert on Darfur,” but this confession has not prevented him from picking and choosing among historical and sociological facts and opinions in order to make the case that genocide had not occurred. Comparisons to Rwanda are wholly inappropriate, Wolfe argues in his new book and elsewhere, and responses of the sort required in Rwanda are correspondingly ill-considered when it comes to Darfur.
Wolfe gives no evidence of understanding in any meaningful detail the history of Darfur, or the regime in Khartoum that responded so brutally to the insurgency that had long been in the making. He gives no sense of understanding the nature of the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party, which seized power by military coup in 1989—deliberately aborting the most promising chance for a negotiated peace to end the civil war that raged for twenty-two years, from 1983–2005.
This longest civil conflict on the African continent resulted in the deaths of more than two million people, overwhelmingly African civilians in the South and in border regions, and disproportionately women and children. A signature feature of the NIF/NCP conduct during the war was the denial of humanitarian aid to huge conflict areas, including all the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan (in what is now North Sudan). Virtually all students of Sudan agree that this aid embargo in the 1990s, along with a campaign of displacement and extermination against the Nuba people, was genocide. I can think of no authoritative voice arguing otherwise. In his discussion of the question of genocide in Darfur, and the regime that orchestrated the violence there (including widespread, indiscriminate aerial bombardment of civilian targets), Wolfe neglects to mention this clear precedent for genocidal destruction directed against African ethnic groups.
Wolfe also dismisses as simplistic foolishness the distinction between Arab and non-Arab, or “African,” tribes in Darfur. The distinction between the two broad groupings is not always clear, for reasons of history, intermarriage, as well as political and economic circumstances. But to deny that there are people who identify primarily as Fur, or Massalit, or Zaghawa—and specifically as non-Arabs—is to reveal a deep ignorance of the Darfur region, as well as eastern Chad. Moreover, since Arab tribal groups have long been favored by the Khartoum regime (as a tactic for retaining power), the rift between Arab and non-Arab ethnic groups had been growing more intense, especially since what is generally known as the Fur-Arab war of 1987–89. Ethnic animosities were deliberately stoked by Khartoum, and as a result non-Arabs increasingly identified themselves as “African”—and were identified as such by Arab militias. Yet Wolfe has written that “the conflict [in Darfur] has never taken the form of Arabs killing Africans and has not been accompanied by the hate speech associated with Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia.” Every single human rights investigation of Darfur, whatever its ultimate conclusions about genocide, has found massive evidence of “Arabs killing Africans,” and the widespread use of racial hate speech has been continually and authoritatively reported for more than eight years.
Wolfe acknowledges almost none of these well-established facts, nor does he seem aware of the sheer number of organizations that have declared the realities of Darfur to be genocidal: Physicians for Human Rights, Human Rights First, Justice Africa, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Committee on Conscience, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, and even the U.S. Congress in 2004. Scores of genocide scholars, international human right lawyers, and other researchers, along with the last two U.S. presidents, have made the same designation. (Although the two largest human rights groups—Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International—have hesitated to use the word “genocide,” opinion has been fiercely divided over the issue within these organizations. Jennifer Trahan, a lawyer formerly with Human Rights Watch, has written masterfully on why the very evidence that HRW itself has assembled constitutes overwhelming evidence of genocide.)
Wolfe contends that the conflict in Darfur was a civil war. The conflict indeed began in civil war, and after the ill-conceived Darfur Peace Agreement of May 2006 violence did not always fall along Arab-African lines. But April 2003 was a turning point. That month, a string of rebel victories in western Sudan culminated with a successful attack on el-Fasher air base in North Darfur, the most important military installation in all of Darfur. Following this humiliating loss—of equipment, of aircraft destroyed on the ground, and the capture of the commanding air force general—the NIF/NCP regime unleashed an avalanche of violence, by its regular and Arab militia forces.
This violence was not directed against the rebels, but rather against the essentially defenseless African civilians and villages (primarily those of the Massalit, Fur, and Zaghawa) that were perceived as the rebels’ base of support. Ultimately, hundreds of thousands were killed or died as a result of violence. Millions more were violently displaced—an estimated 2.7 million people, according to the biggest figure offered by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. This figure did not include the almost 300,000 who have fled to eastern Chad, or those displaced but not in refugee camps. Wolfe nowhere mentions this, nor that Khartoum denied humanitarian assistance to these acutely needy civilians.
The scale of destruction is also a critical issue for Wolfe, yet he is uninformed about the number of civilian dead in Darfur. He cites without qualification, for example, a figure that had been proffered by Alex de Waal—150 dead per month—and concludes that this scale of human destruction cannot possibly constitute genocide. But that figure of 150 dead per month was based solely on the violent deaths physically confirmed—at the time (2009)—by the incompetent and enormously constrained UN/African Union Mission in Darfur, which had very little access to where fighting was actually occurring. The number does not include those who died from causes directly related to violence, or deaths from disease and malnutrition consequent upon displacement in this harsh land. It is a worthless figure.
Wolfe gives no evidence whatsoever of having confronted the vast body of evidence and literature that addresses the question of human mortality to date in Darfur. The minimum credible figure, which omits a great deal of early deaths, comes from a study published two years ago by researchers from Belgium’s Center for Research in the Epidemiology of Disasters (The Lancet, January 2010): approximately 300,000. My own assessment, based on a survey of all extant evidence, suggests that the figure is closer to 500,000. Either figure suggests that it cannot be on the basis of numbers that we discount the possibility that genocide has occurred in Darfur.
Beyond arguing that genocide did not occur in Darfur, Wolfe attacks the Darfur advocacy movement—as inconsistent, ignorant, unrealistic, and simply wrong in its conclusions. He argues that it was actually counterproductive insofar as it encouraged the rebel groups to continue fighting in the hopes of Western intervention. Wolfe offers no evidence for this conclusion, because there is none. By the time of the Darfur Peace Agreement the rebels realized that the West would offer nothing more than expedient, deadline-driven diplomacy.
Calls for Western humanitarian intervention had indeed been made, though much earlier than Wolfe acknowledges, and at a time when countless thousands of lives might have been saved. On February 25, 2004 in the Washington Post, I concluded a piece by arguing:
The international community has been slow to react to Darfur’s catastrophe and has yet to move with sufficient urgency and commitment. A credible peace forum must be rapidly created. Immediate plans for humanitarian intervention should begin. The alternative is to allow tens of thousands of civilians to die in the weeks and months ahead in what will be continuing genocidal destruction.
There was no such humanitarian intervention, and over the past eight years several hundreds of thousands have died. The dying continues, but we don’t know the full extent of it because mortality and malnutrition data and reports are suppressed by the UN at the behest of the Khartoum regime.
Wolfe would have us believe that by incorrectly characterizing a “civil war” as a genocide, the U.S. human rights advocacy community made appropriate action impossible. Wolfe cites in his New Republic piece comments by Alex de Waal—certainly a Darfur expert—as authority for denying that genocide exists. While true of de Waal’s professed beliefs now, de Waal himself has offered no cogent explanation of why he abandoned his politically unconstrained assessment of Darfur from August 2004:
This [counter-insurgency campaign in Darfur by Khartoum] is not the genocidal campaign of a government at the height of its ideological hubris, as the 1992 jihad against the Nuba Mountains was, or coldly determined to secure natural resources, as when it sought to clear the oilfields of southern Sudan of their troublesome inhabitants. This is the routine cruelty of a security cabal, its humanity withered by years in power: it is genocide by force of habit.
Furthermore, de Waal and his coauthor Julie Flint found compelling evidence of genocidal intent in their 2005 book, Darfur: A Short History of a Long War:
The ultimate objective in Darfur is spelled out in an August 2004 directive from [Janjaweed paramount leader Musa] Hilal’s headquarters: “change the demography” of Darfur and “empty it of African tribes.” Confirming the control of [Khartoum’s] Military Intelligence over the Darfur file, the directive is addressed to no fewer than three intelligence services—the Intelligence and Security Department, Military Intelligence and National Security, and the ultra-secret “Constructive Security,” or Amn al Ijabi.
Hilal, the most notorious of the Arab militia leaders, would be as good as his word, and was present at many “demography-changing” attacks. Here is one as described by the UN’s Integrated Regional Information Networks in early 2004:
In an attack on 27 February 2004 in the Tawilah area of northern Darfur, 30 villages were burned to the ground, over 200 people killed and over 200 girls and women raped—some by up to 14 assailants and in front of their fathers who were later killed. A further 150 women and 200 children were abducted.
All the attackers were Arabs; all the victims were non-Arab or Africans. This attack occurred two days after my warning in the Post. It is one of thousands of examples.
It seems pointless to create a greater compendium of Wolfe’s ignorance, his dismaying factual errors, and his finally superficial pronouncements about one of the greatest mass atrocities of the past century—and one that continues to this day in the form of a grim “genocide by attrition.” Well over two million Darfuris—overwhelmingly Africans—remain displaced, and humanitarian conditions are extremely precarious. At least one highly informed UN official believes that international humanitarian organizations are permitted to operate only because their potential expulsion offers leverage to the regime, particularly in forestalling international action in the border regions of Blue Nile and South Kordofan, where many hundreds of thousands of people have been recently displaced—and denied all humanitarian assistance by Khartoum. Again, virtually all the victims are Africans.
In a recent interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, Wolfe spoke of my writings, in this space and elsewhere, as “arrogant to the point of contempt.” I won’t presume to characterize my passion in writing about Darfur, but I certainly feel contempt for Wolfe’s facile and destructive claims about Darfur. Whatever power his analytic framework in Political Evil has is vitiated by the ignorance demonstrated in his account of Darfur.
Wolfe declares sententiously that “When confronted with political evil, we are better off responding to the ‘political’ rather than to the ‘evil.’” Whatever one thinks of this peculiar bifurcation, it implies our obligation to accept that “moral precision is a precondition for political precision,” as one reviewer has remarked.
It is precisely this moral precision that escapes Wolfe. For if what has occurred in Darfur is not genocide but “only” massive crimes against humanity—as all human rights organizations and inquiries of consequence agree—then Wolfe believes an entirely different response is required. A genocide occurred in Rwanda, and thus intervention was warranted, and genocide has not occurred in Darfur, and thus intervention is not warranted. This logic avoids the discriminating political assessment Wolfe believes is necessary in guiding international responses to political evil. One reason that Human Rights Watch has hesitated to describe the Darfur conflict as genocide is precisely that it resists the crude notion that genocide is the only appropriate threshold for robust international action. Wolfe, in a grim irony, ends up personifying the ignorance that prevents appropriate political responses to evil.
Eric Reeves has worked as a Sudan researcher, analyst, and advocate for more than thirteen years. He is author of A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide (2007).