Home/Daniel Larison/Again, What is Darfur to Us?

Again, What is Darfur to Us?

The reason the United States must act to stop the genocide is because, as Martin Luther King said, “Man’s inhumanity to man is not only perpetuated by the vitriolic action of those who are bad, it is also perpetuated by the vitiating inaction of those who are good.”

The United States is thus far the only nation to use the word “genocide” to describe the acts of mass extermination taking place in Darfur. This declaration, made by President Bush over one year ago, brings with it the responsibility to respond, not only because inaction perpetuates “man’s inhumanity to man,” but also because it undermines the moral tenets, and thus the moral credibility, of current U.S. foreign policy whose central principle is the enhancement of the natural and inalienable rights of all men. Continued inaction in Darfur can thus be seen as imperiling every other foreign mission the United States undertakes. ~Daniel Allott, Brainwash

In addition to wondering how one enhances natural and inalienable rights (if they are natural and inalienable, how can they be diminished or enhanced?), I am left perplexed by Mr. Allott’s article. It perplexes me that Mr. Allott, a policy analyst for Gary Bauer’s American Values organisation, believes that political (and perhaps military?) intervention in Darfur is not only desirable in some theoretical way, but actually imperative for the credibility of our foreign policy. Granting that Mr. Bauer and his organisation undoubtedly have a funny way of understanding the design of the Founders (“a distinctly American faith in democracy”!) and what constitutes “American values,” I am still left wondering what sense American involvement in Darfur makes.

A few assumptions need to be tested. Does our foreign policy have “moral tenets,” or more accurately do the people who make that policy adhere to moral tenets when they make it? Undoubtedly, they believe that they are acting morally, and we are all familiar with the boilerplate justifications for aggression and meddling in the affairs of others that they routinely give: freeing the oppressed, lifting up the downtrodden, etc. I am convinced that the men who make policy must have justice foremost in their minds, as a standard against which to measure the means and ends of their policies, and not as a pretext to be used, as it is used now (and has usually been used in government), to justify whatever cynical and hegemonic ploy strikes their fancy.

But is it actually moral or just to use the superior power of a stronger government to dictate the internal affairs of another people? If we understand justice as each minding his own business, it impossible to see it as moral or just. If it is the justice of giving each according to his due, dealing out such justice is reserved to God alone, as only He can determine what is each man’s proper due. Unless the people who are being abused are our own people (those to whom we have some real physical, social or political connection or with whom we share a common faith), who are they to us and we to them that we should act on their behalf?

Who are the Muslims of Darfur in relation to us, and who are we to them? If we were in their position and they were in a position to come to our aid, simply for the sake of coming to our aid because it is theoretically “the right thing to do,” I would tell them to go back to their homes and tend to their families. I know I would not need to tell them this, as it would never occur to the Muslim in Darfur to lend a helping hand to an infidel on the other side of the world. It might occur to him to lend assistance to other Muslims on the other side of the world, but that makes perfect sense. What Mr. Allott proposes we do does not. As most peoples down through history have understood, our fight not be “their fight,” just as the struggle and plight of the Muslims of Darfur is not ours. A sane and well-ordered world is much more likely to result from following this simple notion.

To believe that we have a right, indeed obligation, to intervene, one has to be a universalist, and a peculiar kind of universalist at that (there may be universalists who would reject such interventionism, but non-universalists would never endorse such an action on the grounds of morality). Such a universalist must believe that human suffering, especially that inflicted by other men, anywhere at any time is his business, and that he has a profound obligation to help stop that suffering to the extent that he is able. He is confident that he can reasonably determine the guilty party in a conflict to which he is not a party, and that he has a Kantian duty to act on behalf of the victimised party.

He may even believe, whether or not he can find an ethical system to back him up on this, that he is justified in committing equally heinous atrocities against the civilians of the targeted state for the sake of delivering the ‘victims’ from their oppression. Even though there will have been no provocation or attack against his country or people, the universalist’s madness makes him see victims anywhere as his charges (and when he can selectively and arbitrarily decide who the victim is, do not be surprised when the supposed ‘victims’ and his cronies prove to be one and the same) and allows him to imagine that the state targeted for intervention has somehow ‘forced’ his government to take action by doing nothing that his own government would not do at home in similar circumstances.

This morning, I happened to hear some sorry fellow on a “conservative” radio program who had helped in the effort to bomb the Serbs to the negotiating table in 1995. He was still parroting the party line about the put-upon Bosnian Muslims and effusing about America fighting for “freedom” and “justice.” No justice for the Serbs of the Krajina and Bosnia, of course, but I’m sure he wasn’t too concerned. Even assuming that the propaganda about the Bosnian intervention wasn’t the malicious propaganda that we know it to be, and that everything this poor fellow believed was true, it is ludicrous to believe that we have the right, much less the obligation, to force ourselves upon any other nation in the cause of “freedom,” “justice,” “humanity” (or “human rights”) or any other abstraction. Being exceedingly vague and amorphous, but also highly evocative and potentially inspiring, these abstractions encourage governments to accept unlimited commitments and unending deployments in a dangerously irrational way. These sorts of ideals by their nature lack all proportion, degree and measure–they are themselves inherently unjust. What is scary is that the embrace of such ideals is widespread in this country.

The American universalist, who also suffers from the powerful confusion of universalist ideals with his own national identity, feels particularly keen to be involved in conflicts overseas. As a citizen of a hegemonic power, he believes that he has a special responsibility to urge “his” government to take action and use that hegemonic power to advance the “ideals” that he imagines the government/country (he regularly conflates the two) represents and exports. Sadly, he assumes that the hegemonic power that rules him is a) basically benevolent and that it b) represents him.

Returning to our friend from American Values, what any of this universalist claptrap has to do with either conservatism, the Founders’ vision for the United States or sound foreign policy remains a mystery. “Man’s inhumanity to man” is not something that can be solved by political settlements or interventions, and if we are to make that inhumanity sufficient grounds for intervening in the affairs of other nations we will exhaust ourselves in fruitless and dangerous missions inspired by a false idealism. And it is important to remember that it is a false idealism to place such value on generic ideas of freedom and justice, to say nothing of the coercive force and attendant injustices that must be used to compel the targeted governments to acquiesce to Washington’s will.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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