Sudan: why now?

Britain's proposed intervention is a post-Iraq political stunt.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

This is a bit of random text from Kyle to test the new global option to add a message at the top of every article. This bit is linked somewhere.

Britain’s political and media pundits have spectacularly suspended critical thinking over the past week.

Many of those who dissected in minute detail everything Tony Blair said and did over Iraq are now cheerleading his proposed intervention in Sudan. The Observer, which backed Lords Butler and Hutton as they slapped the government on the wrists over Iraq, welcomed Blair’s claim that Britain has a ‘moral responsibility’ to tackle Sudan’s crisis, declaring: ‘there can be no clearer case for humanitarian intervention.’ (1) The only criticism of Blair, including from supposed troublemaker Andrew Gilligan, is that he’s offering to do too little, too late (2).

Yet Blair’s interest in Sudan is motivated by expedient, domestic concerns every bit as deserving of interrogation as the dodgy intelligence he used to justify the war in Iraq. From Sierra Leone to Kosovo to Iraq (twice) and now Sudan, the New Labour government has inexorably sought out humanitarian crises; it is constantly on the lookout for dire human tragedies in far-off lands through which it can demonstrate what New Britain is for and against. At a time when few of the old certainties hold at home, Blair and co are attempting to rediscover a sense of moral purpose ‘over there’.

There is no doubt a terrible crisis in Sudan, stemming from a 17-month conflict between nomadic Arabs and their African farming neighbours in the Darfur region, over scarce resources, dwindling water supplies and agricultural land. But Britain is proposing little that might help to alleviate the crisis. How will the people of Sudan benefit from the British and American governments’ current fact-finding expedition to ‘determine whether genocide is being committed in the Darfur region’? That looks like a cynical attempt to draw a distinction between a morally good West and darkest Africa where apparently unspeakable things occur (3).

If there is a genocide being committed by Arab militias against black Africans in Darfur – in which, according to news reports, an estimated 30,000 have been killed and over a million made homeless – what could the deployment of 5,000 British troops proposed by General Michael Jackson do to stop it? That, too, would be a political gesture designed to boost Britain’s moral standing, rather than a practical measure that might benefit the Sudanese.

Ask a few basic questions of Britain’s newfound concern for Sudan, and it becomes clear that there is more to this than a humanitarian desire to help out. Why now? There have been civil tensions and conflict in Sudan for the past 50 years, and great instability in eastern Africa in the 15 years since the end of the Cold War.

Some aid charities claim that, while the situation in Sudan remains desperate, with a shaky ceasefire in place in Darfur the ‘worst is over’, or certainly things are a little better than they were 10 or 12 months ago (4). Yet Sudan has only become a burning issue for Blair over the past couple of weeks. Britain’s desire to intervene is shaped more by the fallout from Iraq than it is by events in Sudan. As Gulf War II proves both a practical and political disaster – leaving Iraq in a mess and causing embarrassment for the British and American governments at home and abroad – Blair is seeking an easier intervention, one that can be presented in simple black-and-white terms of good and evil (with no WMD to worry about) and which is unlikely to be met with much opposition.

Why Sudan? As some commentators have pointed out, far graver things are taking place in the Congo. And why should we accept that Western intervention will improve things for the Sudanese? Outside interference has been the source of conflict, tension and economic instability. Sudan, carved into the map of eastern Africa by the old colonialists, was ruled by Britain in condominium with Egypt until 1956. Its long-running civil conflict, the one between the mainly Muslim north and the African and Christian or pagan south, was prompted by the granting of independence and reflected divisions entrenched by colonial rule.

In more recent times, America’s post-Cold War attempts to make a pariah of Sudan, culminating in President Clinton’s 1998 bombing of a pharmaceutical factory that he wrongly claimed was making chemical weapons, have exacerbated tensions and caused widespread suffering. The evidence suggests that outside intervention in Africa only inflames and perpetuates tensions.

But Britain’s sudden interest has little to do with what is happening on the ground in Sudan – it is motivated by homegrown concerns. For all the claims that Blair was Bush’s poodle over Iraq, in fact the New Labour government has been one of the most interventionist of recent times. Crisis and uncertainty at home have forced the government to look for a sense of moral purpose elsewhere. As we have noted on spiked, there is a moral vacuum at the heart of Western society today, where our leaders appear incapable of reaching a moral consensus on anything from child-rearing to road-building to genetic engineering. The old institutions that gave society some coherence have declined in influence and the public have lost respect for traditional values.

In such a climate, the international stage has become more tempting to Blair and his supporters. How much easier to re-establish a sense of certainty about right and wrong in faraway places – by toppling Saddam and statues of Saddam in Iraq, or by making grand declarations about the evils of genocide in Sudan – than by addressing difficult and complex crises at home. The post-Iraq controversies show that such interventions, whose starting point is a lack of moral consensus at home, can backfire, deepening domestic crises. With Sudan, Blair is opting for a less risky, more low-level international op – again attempting to use international intervention as a kind of therapy, seeking a moral mission for our demoralised society through other people’s problems.

That so many politicos and commentators support Blair in this venture suggests that their opposition to the war in Iraq was an expedient one-off, rather than a serious challenge to today’s moral interventionism.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) The UN must not fail Sudan again, Observer, 25 July 2004

(2) London Evening Standard, 26 July 2004

(3) Sudan to face ‘genocide’ inquiry, Guardian, 28 July 2004

(4) Testimony of Roger Winter, USAID DCHA assistant administrator, on ethnic cleansing in Darfur, US Agency for International Development, 6 May 2004

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today