A new book by two Pitt grads argues that Western activists have the Darfur crisis all wrong. | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

A new book by two Pitt grads argues that Western activists have the Darfur crisis all wrong.

click to enlarge Correcting misperceptions: Scramble for Africa authors Kevin Funk (left) and Steve Fake.
Correcting misperceptions: Scramble for Africa authors Kevin Funk (left) and Steve Fake.

Steven Fake and Kevin Funk agree: When it comes to Darfur, even people who share their leftist politics mostly don't get it.

Their new book, The Scramble for Africa: Darfur-Intervention and the USA (Black Rose Books), frames the Sudanese crisis historically and in terms of contemporary geopolitics. The civil strife, which began in 2002 with government opposition to armed rebels, has claimed more than 200,000 lives and created more than two million refugees. The authors say that Americans must both confront the U.S. role in perpetuating the crisis and abandon notions of "humanitarian" military invention, which they consider a euphemism for "invasion."

Meanwhile, Fake and Funk are similarly disappointed in the typical leftist response, which merely decries the imperial ambitions of the U.S. and China toward oil-rich Sudan, without offering any solutions. Scramble seeks a roadmap forward.

The authors met as political-science and journalism students at the University of Pittsburgh, where as activists they worked with groups like Amnesty International and Students for Justice in Palestine. They graduated in 2005 -- a year before the Darfur Peace Accord, which they say has only intensified the crisis.

Neither man has been to Darfur; Fake (a Reading native) lives in Boston, and Funk (originally from York, Pa.) is currently in Chile. Their other writing credits include such publications as Foreign Policy in Focus, Common Dreams, CounterPunch, ZNet and Black Commentator. The heavily footnoted Scramble for Africa draws on reportage and scholarship by such Darfur experts as Alex De Waal and Julie Flint. But it's less about the conflict per se than about how that conflict is perceived, and reacted to, in the West.

The key problem here, Fake and Funk say in a recent phone interview, is the belief -- shared by many activists and journalists -- that U.S. intentions in Darfur are benevolent. Only the Bush administration, after all, has labeled the crisis "genocide," and a key supporter of the Sudanese government in Khartoum is anti-democratic, economically ascendant China.

But appearances can be misleading. Fake and Funk, for instance, conclude that the Darfur crisis, while horrific, doesn't fulfill a strict definition of "genocide": Darfuri refugees live safely alongside facilities of the government that's supposedly wiping them out. Meanwhile, says Funk, Washington's "blustery rhetoric" belies the fact that the Bush administration, which considers Sudan a front line in the war on terror, cooperates on intelligence-gathering with "some of the very same [Sudanese] officials that are responsible for the violence in Darfur."

Moreover, there's the simplistic belief that the Darfur conflict pits a repressive "Arab" government against "African" victims. In fact, ethnicity is viewed much more fluidly in Sudan itself. The formulation plays neatly into anti-Muslim sentiments. "Washington seeks to demonize Arabs when it's useful to them," says Fake.

Washington also "sort of rammed ... through" the ill-fated 2006 peace accord, to which only one of Darfur's many rebel groups signed on, says Fake. Rebel groups demand economic development in, and political representation for, their impoverished region. But the resulting post-accord fragmentation of these groups has hindered efforts to deliver humanitarian aid and keep the peace.

The biggest misperception of all might involve the relative seriousness of the conflict. An estimated 1.2 million Iraqis have perished because of the 2003 U.S. invasion; in Sudan's southern neighbor, Democratic Republic of Congo, some five million people have died in the past decade. Somalia suffers terribly, too. Yet Darfur, Funk says, is "almost universally" regarded as the world's worst humanitarian crisis. "The difference ... is that those [other crises] just aren't useful for propaganda reasons for the U.S. because we're largely responsible for them." (Rwanda and Uganda, U.S. allies, arm forces in the Congo; the U.S. also backed a repressive Somali government and Ethiopia's 2006 invasion.)

Such misunderstandings have pointed activists, like those in the widely publicized Save Darfur Coalition, in the wrong direction, say the authors. "For Darfur activists to be effective, they have to make specific and very concrete demands to put Washington's feet to the fire," says Fake. "So far they've been very kind of friendly with Washington, which we think is a recipe for disaster and failure."

But what's wrong with humanitarian intervention? Funk says that "the history of humanitarian intervention ... is almost universally a history of government propaganda," used to justify warfare. Since fall of Soviet Union, interventions like the 1999 NATO bombings of Kosovo have become more popular. But critics consider the results (including revenge massacres in Kosovo) disastrous. "There's a measure of this idea that 'We're this benevolent power and we'll send our troops in and it'll solve everything,'" says Funk. "Aid organizations and peacekeepers [don't] have that same sort of resonance."

"I don't think there is a humanitarian motive sincerely held in Washington or in Great Britain," he adds. But even if there were, intervention would still be problematic, because it would halt aid operations.

Last week, in Boston, Funk and Fake began an East Coast book tour that hits Pittsburgh on Thu., Nov. 6. Pre-publication, the book has drawn laudatory blurbs from prominent scholars and journalists including Richard Falk and John Ghazvinian. The latter called Scramble "[e]xplosive, masterful and impeccably fair."

Fake and Funk recommend that U.S. activists focus on pressuring their own government. Though the U.S. isn't the prime mover in Sudan, it can have considerable impact. They suggest demanding a halt to intelligence ties to the perpetrators of violence; committing more resources to the underfunded joint United Nations-African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur; and pressuring allies like Egypt and Israel to accept more Sudanese refugees.

But the authors acknowledge that fundamental change is unlikely when U.S. allies in the region include such oil-rich human-rights violators as Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea.

"When we in the West see China moving into Sudan, we immediately recognize they're doing it because they have economic interests and they really don't care whether the people in the region benefit from them," says Funk. "But at the same time, we look at our actions and say, 'We actually want to help people, unlike China' -- that we're better people somehow. Our point is that we're doing basically the same thing.

"Sudan," he adds, "will never really see peace until world powers like the U.S. and China stop just treating it as a source of resources."


Steven Fake and Kevin Funk discuss The Scramble for Africa: Darfur Intervention and the USA 7 p.m. Thu., Nov. 6. Borders Eastside, 5986 Penn Circle South, East Liberty. Free. 412-441-1080

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