Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Epistemic Conditions For Foreign Engagement

Alan Kuperman's editorial (see below) may not be right about Darfur. Two claims struck me the most. (1) Sudanese rebel groups now try to provoke genocidal actions because they believe that humanitarian intervention would favor their cause. The more concern is expressed, the less incentive they have not to do thinkgs that will result in reprisals on civilians. (2) In the history of Sudan, the Arab ethnic groups have not always dominated. They have a history of being dominated. Some of their resentment is caused by their loss of grazing rights.

The rebels are not 'the good guys.' (I'm not sure I heard anyone claim this.) They are not inclined to participate and abide by peace agreements. They want to get into power. The well-being of civilians is not their primary concern.

What's more important, actions designed to promote protection of civilians might endanger them more. This was what happened after U.S. involvement in the Kosovo conflict.

This may be right. I don't know. That's the thing--I DON'T KNOW. The major obstacle facing would-be imperial powers like the U.S. (OK, more than would-be) is the one that doubtless faced all empires--How the hell do you know what happens after you invade an occupy a country? What are the factors in play? Which of these will matter?

In a certain way, this question is the question we ask in a tacit way before any significant action: How do you predict the future?

The question is doubly tricky (in a presumably different version), for the lovely dream of multinational humanitarian intervention, military or otherwise.

There are some difficult, maybe insurmountable problems that I think pile up. I'd like to say condition 1 (epistemic, not moral) for foreign engagement is: (1)Know the country's history. But then, when I think about Iraq, I think: Know history generally. Know your own history. Know what tends to happen in similar situations or even not that similar. The history of Rome is still a bit instructive. (Unfortunately, one of the things it shows is that it doesn't work to use minimal brutality. Half-hearted brutality has a host of problems that full-blown brutality avoids. Then again, that shows: Full-blown brutality is horrifying.)

Anyone who mentioned history during the buildup of Iraq was roundly jumped on. People would say 'Vietnam' and for some reason that didn't get to count. Not count? WHY, you might ask? How could anyone ever think that Vietnam was not relevant? Because it was history? Is there ANYTHING more relevant than history when contemplating war? (Even if it's not relevant in terms of the decision to go to war it is surely relevant in what you decide to do and how you engage. But of course, in Iraq, it would have been nice if someone had thought clearly about both these questions.)

Unfortunately, I think it might have been even dumber reasons that Vietnam was ruled out of court. Things like: That was a jungle. Iraq is a desert.

The problem is that if you contemplate history with a gimlet eye it will make you much less likely to expect success in any foreign conflict.

A second problem is: History according to whom? Surely there are many histories that point in vastly different directions. When I hear that Kuperman is an assistant professor I can't help but wonder: Where does he get his information. Field work? Books? Whose books? He must know Sudanese people, but what is their interest and agenda. But maybe this is because I once met an American scholar on the Andes region who vehemently supported the Shining Path.

What is compelling about his answer I think is less that it is obviously the right solution (it doesn't sound bad to me) but that it is reversable and causes less damage than humanitarian intervention. It is cautious. If there's anything you should be when it comes to giving guns to a bunch of people and sending them to face off with other people with guns, it's cautious.

In fact, it's quite easy to see how problematic the whole epistemic question when you think what conclusions you would draw if you asked two Americans about anything and compared their answers. Even the Sudanese might now know, fully, where cause and effect lie on the political dimension. (Sometimes it is obvious and this is one of those cases. But other times all you can do as an outsider--or sometimes as an insider--is make an educated guess.) That guess should include all that you know about history but not just all that you know about history but all that you know about the current situation, all that you know about human psychology and the general tendencies of people (e.g., people tend to resent foreign occupation). In the long run, you need to try and know almost everything. How you get there, I haven't a clue. Or not a good one, anyway.

How we got in Iraq I have quite a good idea. There were too many unknowns. The unknowns were knowable. In fact, they were known by quite a lot of people. Alas, they were known by the wrong people. I remember NPR interviewing a woman--someone in Iraq, I can't remember when or how--and she predicted virtually the exact chain of events that left us where we are now. I'm not talking about an expert. I'm talking about someone who sounded frightened, someone very ordinary, maybe even uneducated. Much of what she said--the resentment of the occupation, the internal turmoil between Sunni and Shia, the descent into chaotic violence--were things that seemed to me likely to happen. This may be why I remember it. So maybe sometimes it's not that hard. And yet it must be hard because why the hell do these people keep %#%$ing up? The Best and the Brightest. Now the Worst and the Slimiest.

So maybe condition (1) Leads to: Don't. Just, don't. Not if you can help it.

Op-Ed ContributorStrategic Victimhood in Sudan

By Alan J. Kuperman
Published: May 31, 2006
Austin, Tex.

THOUSANDS of Americans who wear green wristbands and demand military intervention to stop Sudan's Arab government from perpetrating genocide against black tribes in Darfur must be perplexed by recent developments.

Without such intervention, Sudan's government last month agreed to a peace accord pledging to disarm Arab janjaweed militias and resettle displaced civilians. By contrast, Darfur's black rebels, who are touted by the wristband crowd as freedom fighters, rejected the deal because it did not give them full regional control. Put simply, the rebels were willing to let genocide continue against their own people rather than compromise their demand for power.

International mediators were shamefaced. They had presented the plan as take it or leave it, to compel Khartoum's acceptance. But now the ostensible representatives of the victims were balking. Embarrassed American officials were forced to ask Sudan for further concessions beyond the ultimatum that it had already accepted.

Fortunately, Khartoum again acquiesced. But two of Darfur's three main rebel groups still rejected peace. Frustrated American negotiators accentuated the positive — the strongest rebel group did sign — and expressed hope that the dissenters would soon join.

But that hope was crushed last week when the rebels viciously turned on each other. As this newspaper reported, "The rebels have unleashed a tide of violence against the very civilians they once joined forces to protect."

Seemingly bizarre, this rejection of peace by factions claiming to seek it is actually revelatory. It helps explain why violence originally broke out in Darfur, how the Save Darfur movement unintentionally poured fuel on the fire, and what can be done to stanch genocidal violence in Sudan and elsewhere.

Darfur was never the simplistic morality tale purveyed by the news media and humanitarian organizations. The region's blacks, painted as long-suffering victims, actually were the oppressors less than two decades ago — denying Arab nomads access to grazing areas essential to their survival. Violence was initiated not by Arab militias but by the black rebels who in 2003 attacked police and military installations. The most extreme Islamists are not in the government but in a faction of the rebels sponsored by former Deputy Prime Minister Hassan al-Turabi, after he was expelled from the regime. Cease-fires often have been violated first by the rebels, not the government, which has pledged repeatedly to admit international peacekeepers if the rebels halt their attacks.

This reality has been obscured by Sudan's criminally irresponsible reaction to the rebellion: arming militias to carry out a scorched-earth counterinsurgency. These Arab forces, who already resented the black tribes over past land disputes and recent attacks, were only too happy to rape and pillage any village suspected of supporting the rebels.

In light of janjaweed atrocities, it is natural to romanticize the other side as freedom fighters. But Darfur's rebels do not deserve that title. They took up arms not to stop genocide — which erupted only after they rebelled — but to gain tribal domination.

The strongest faction, representing the minority Zaghawa tribe, signed the sweetened peace deal in hopes of legitimizing its claim to control Darfur. But that claim is vehemently opposed by rebels representing the larger Fur tribe. Such internecine disputes only recently hit the headlines, but the rebels have long wasted resources fighting each other rather than protecting their people.

Advocates of intervention play down rebel responsibility because it is easier to build support for stopping genocide than for becoming entangled in yet another messy civil war. But their persistent calls for intervention have actually worsened the violence.

The rebels, much weaker than the government, would logically have sued for peace long ago. Because of the Save Darfur movement, however, the rebels believe that the longer they provoke genocidal retaliation, the more the West will pressure Sudan to hand them control of the region. Sadly, this message was reinforced when the rebels' initial rejection of peace last month was rewarded by American officials' extracting further concessions from Khartoum.

The key to rescuing Darfur is to reverse these perverse incentives. Spoiler rebels should be told that the game is over, and that further resistance will no longer be rewarded but punished by the loss of posts reserved for them in the peace agreement.

Ultimately, if the rebels refuse, military force will be required to defeat them. But this is no job for United Nations peacekeepers. Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia show that even the United States military cannot stamp out Islamic rebels on their home turf; second-rate international troops would stand even less chance.

Rather, we should let Sudan's army handle any recalcitrant rebels, on condition that it eschew war crimes. This option will be distasteful to many, but Sudan has signed a peace treaty, so it deserves the right to defend its sovereignty against rebels who refuse to, so long as it observes the treaty and the laws of war.

Indeed, to avoid further catastrophes like Darfur, the United States should announce a policy of never intervening to help provocative rebels, diplomatically or militarily, so long as opposing armies avoid excessive retaliation. This would encourage restraint on both sides. Instead we should redirect intervention resources to support "people power" movements that pursue change peacefully, as they have done successfully over the past two decades in the Philippines, Indonesia, Serbia and elsewhere.

America, born in revolution, has a soft spot for rebels who claim to be freedom fighters, including those in Darfur. But to reduce genocidal violence, we must withhold support for the cynical provocations of militants who bear little resemblance to our founders.

Alan J. Kuperman, an assistant professor of public affairs at the University of Texas, is an editor of "Gambling on Humanitarian Intervention: Moral Hazard, Rebellion and Civil War."


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