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Faith in UN Intervention in Darfur Misplaced
By Stephen Gowans
August 07, 2007
Many Western activists have rallied around calls for sanctions on Sudan and UN intervention in Darfur. But a review of recent Western interventions in the world's trouble spots suggests their faith is misplaced. While the US and its allies, and the UN Security Council, point to lofty goals as the basis for their interventions, the true goals are invariably shaped by the economic interests of the corporations and investment banks that dominate policy making in Western countries. Worse, intervention has typically led to the deterioration of humanitarian crises, not their amelioration.
Conflict as Pretext
The United States and other imperialist powers look for conflicts, or provoke conflicts, in countries they do not dominate politically. They use these conflicts as pretexts to intervene in other countries in multiple ways: militarily, through proxies (which may include the UN), by funding an internal opposition, or by some combination of these means. The goal is to exploit these countries economically. Political control, through a strongman or puppet government, allows great nations to protect and enlarge the investments of their corporations and banks and to open doors to their exports. That is, the United States and other imperialist powers are engaged in a relentless pursuit of political domination of countries they do not currently dominate, in order to exploit their resources, assets and markets, by creating or looking for conflicts that provide pretexts for intervention.
In Yugoslavia, the US, Germany and the UK encouraged secessionists to unilaterally declare independence from the Yugoslav federation and helped ethnic Albanian Kosovars wage a guerrilla war to establish Kosovo as an independent country. The ensuing conflicts with the federal government were used as a pretext by NATO to intervene militarily to bring the conflicts to an end. The secessionist governments and KLA guerrillas were portrayed by the Western media as the victims while the federal government, which was reacting to the provocations, was portrayed as the instigator. The result was that Yugoslavia was re-balkanized and brought under the control of the US and Germany, who have since imposed a neo-liberal tyranny and whose corporations, banks and wealthy investors have bought up the former federation's state- and socially-owned assets. (1)
In Iraq, the US uses the conflict between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, as a pretext to remain in the country as an occupying force. Were troops withdrawn too early, we're told that an all-out civil war would ensue (as if a state of all-out war, sustained by the presence of US and British troops, does not already exist.) Likewise, we're assured that if troops are withdrawn from Afghanistan, al Qaeda will resume its use of the country as a base for its operations, leading to a string of 9/11s. More than a decade ago, the US provoked a conflict in the Gulf - or at least allowed one to go ahead - when Iraq wasn't turned down by the US ambassador, April Gillespie, after it sought permission to invade Kuwait. Iraq was thereby entrapped into undertaking an invasion Washington used as a pretext to launch the Gulf War. The effect was to begin the process of bringing Iraq, and its considerable petroleum resources, under the control of the US. (2)
Sudan is not today under US political control, and like Iraq, is a source of immense oil reserves and the potential for gargantuan petroleum profits to be reaped by foreign oil companies. The Bush administration complains that the Sudanese government interferes in Sudan's petroleum and petrochemical industries. Khartoum is not, then, a partisan of the three freedoms that matter most in Washington: free trade, free enterprise and free markets. This, from Washington's point of view, is a threat to US foreign policy (i.e., corporate) interests. If Sudanese policy prevents US oil companies from exploiting the country's oil resources, Sudan is a threat to the foreign policy interests of the United States. Accordingly, it must be treated as an enemy. And indeed it is an enemy - but only an enemy of the class of corporate board members, hereditary capitalist families and investment bankers in whose interest free trade, free enterprise and free markets are promoted and enforced. Sudan, its people, and the economically nationalist policies of its government are not, however, enemies of the bulk of Americans. (3)
There are existing conflicts in Darfur which the US and its allies have used to argue for Western intervention. There is a conflict over water and land between sedentary and nomadic peoples, made worse by desertification. There is a conflict between rebel groups, which have attacked government installations, and the government itself. And there is a conflict among rebel groups. These conflicts are used by the US and its allies as pretexts to impose sanctions and to argue for intervention. But the US is no more interested in resolving these conflicts than it was in resolving conflicts in Yugoslavia. It's interested in dominating Sudan politically, so that US and British oil companies can amass huge profits from Sudan's vast petroleum reserves.
A record of deception
There was no genocide in Kosovo. When forensic pathologists went looking for the scores of thousands of bodies NATO said were hidden throughout Kosovo, they found two thousand - a number that was consistent with a small scale guerrilla war, not a campaign of genocide. But after NATO intervened militarily with a 78-day bombing campaign, thousands fled, bridges, factories, schools and hospitals were destroyed and hundreds, if not thousands, of civilians were killed. What was a low intensity guerrilla war was turned into a humanitarian crisis by NATO. (4)
There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But after the US and Britain invaded, some 600,000 Iraqis died as a result of violence provoked by the invasion, four million fled their homes, poverty became rampant and infrastructure destroyed by US and British bombs remained in a state of disrepair. A once modern country that had used its oil revenues to develop itself economically and to build a robust system of social welfare was turned by the US and Britain into an almost peerless humanitarian disaster. (5)
According to the UN commission appointed to investigate Washington's charges that the Sudanese government is pursing a policy of genocide, the accusations have no foundation. It's true, the commission found, that Khartoum has responded disproportionately to attacks on government forces by rebel groups, and it's true that Khartoum is implicated in war crimes, but the commission found no evidence the Sudanese government is engaged in the project of seeking to eliminate an identifiable group, the defining characteristic of a policy of genocide. As far as humanitarian disasters go, the disaster in Iraq is far worse. So who would trust the perpetrators of that disaster - who, after all lied about there being a genocide in Kosovo and banned weapons in Iraq – to intervene in Darfur to resolve the humanitarian crisis there? That would be like giving your car keys to a known thief and pathological liar. (6)
The other side of the coin is that there are countries the United States already dominates in which terrible humanitarian disasters and human rights violations occur about which very little is said. When conflicts occur in these countries, the conflicts are ignored by the Western media, because they're not needed as a pretext for intervention by Western governments. In fact, it's in the interests of Washington that these conflicts not be brought to the attention of the public.
In Ethiopia, for example, thousands of members of the opposition were imprisoned after elections were disputed. Recently, the government threatened to execute dozens of opposition leaders on treason charges. Foreign reporters and human rights groups have been expelled from the country. Because Ethiopia is politically dominated by the US, there's no reason to bring its deplorable record to the public's attention. There is no need to build a case for intervention. Ethiopia is already under the US thumb. Accordingly, few people know anything about what's going in the country because Ethiopia is off the Western media's demonization radar screen. But they are likely to know about Robert Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe, who many believe has committed all the crimes Meles Zenawi, the prime minister of Ethiopia, has committed. Except Mugabe hasn't arrested thousands of members of the opposition or threatened to execute the opposition's leaders. The difference between Zenawi and Mugabe is that Zenawi is a US puppet and Mugabe isn't. For opposing imperialist meddling in southern Africa and seeking to indigenize Zimbabwe's economy, Mugabe is in the dead center of the West's demonization radar screen. (7)
There are about half a million people displaced in Somalia as a result of an invasion by Ethiopia, undertaken at the behest of the US government. This is a humanitarian disaster created by a US proxy. There is no Save Somalia Campaign. (8)
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, there is a conflict provoked by the former intervention of US proxies Rwanda and Uganda that has led to the deaths of four million people since 1997. The 200,000 deaths in Darfur (80 percent from starvation and disease; 20 percent from violence) are dwarfed by the millions of deaths in DR Congo. But while there's a Save Darfur campaign, there is no Save Congo campaign. (9)
The solution to Darfur
If UN intervention in Darfur isn't a solution - and it isn't – what is? While it sometimes seems that the UN is a neutral body that democratically decides how to resolve conflicts, that's not what the UN really is. The UN, in all important respects, is the UN Security Council, a small group of mainly imperialist powers who do what imperialist countries do: try to divide the world up among themselves. The United States, the dominant member of the Security Council, has no interest in resolving the conflict in Darfur. It's interested in establishing a permanent military presence to wrest control of Sudan's oil from the Sudanese government. If the US can induce other countries to commit troops to carry out its objectives, so much the better. Bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, a UN military mission to secure the US goal of bringing Sudan under US domination is a welcome development in Washington.
It should be clear that the record of UN and NATO interventions is one in which small conflicts are turned into humanitarian disasters. Gordon Brown, the prime minister of Britain, says Darfur is the world's greatest humanitarian disaster. There are 200,000 dead in Darfur but there are probably 600,000 dead in Iraq. There are four million refugees in Iraq and far fewer in Darfur. (10)
Liberal public intellectuals like Michael Ignatieff, the former Harvard professor and now aspirant to the job of Canadian prime minister, said a war needed to be waged on Iraq because of what Saddam did to the Kurds. US military intervention under the authorization of the UN was supposed to deliver peace, prosperity, human rights and democracy between the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates. What it delivered was something far worse than when Saddam was around. (11)
The solution to Darfur is to stop pressuring the US government to intervene in Sudan and start pressuring the one rebel group that won't sign a peace accord to do so. Khartoum has sat down with the rebel groups to work out a peace deal and one group has refused to even participate in the talks. Conflicts cannot be resolved if one side is uninterested in peace. Nor can they be resolved if powerful forces are using the conflicts as pretexts to invade and impose sanctions.
If pressure is imposed on the hold-out rebels to arrive at a peace with Khartoum, and peace ensues, what then? Will the activists who agitated for Western intervention in Darfur turn their attention to rescuing the Congo from its humanitarian crisis? Will grassroots pressure be brought to bear on Ethiopia to withdraw from Somalia? And what of Iraq? Will the same people who worked themselves up into high moral dudgeon over Darfur demand immediate withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq? Shouldn't they demand this first? After all, the dimensions of the Iraq disaster are worse than those of the Darfur disaster, and it is the activists' own governments that have authored the larger disaster. One would think Americans and Britons would give priority to working for the immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq, rather than channelling their energies into pressing the governments that lied about and created tragedies in Yugoslavia and Iraq to intervene in yet another oil-rich country. Activists have an obligation to understand the institutional patterns of behaviour of their own governments, to inquire into the forces that shape those patterns, and to prevent emotion from undermining reason and analysis. It does no good to allow our own governments and media to mobilize our energies to work on behalf of imperialist goals, while diverting us from projects that are legitimately in the interests of the bulk of humanity.
(1) Michael Parenti, To Kill a Nation, Verso, 2002; Elise Hugus, "Eight Years After NATO's 'Humanitarian War': Serbia's new 'third way'", Z Magazine, April 2007, Volume 20, Number 4.
(2) David Harvey, The New Imperialism, Oxford University Press, 2005.
(3) Nativdad Carrera, "U.S. imperialists increase efforts to recolonize Sudan," Party for Socialism and Liberation, November 3, 2006,
(4) Parenti; Stephen Gowans, "Genocide or Veracicide: Will NATO's Lying Ever Stop?" Swans, July 23, 2001,
(5) Stephen Gowans, "The Unacknowledged Humanitarian Disaster," What's Left, August 1, 2007,
(6) Stephen Gowans, "Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, and the Politics of Naming," What's Left, July 9, 2007,
(10) The Unacknowledged Humanitarian Disaster
(11) Stephen Gowans, "Ignatieff's Mea Culpa," What's Left, August 5, 2007,