Intellectual imperialism

A fashion-shoot cum missionary visit: Bernard-Henri Lévy's report from Darfur shows that liberal lust for Western intervention survived Iraq.

Philip Cunliffe

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The beating of war drums around Sudan is getting louder, with more and more people demanding further coercive intervention by the international community in order to end the conflict in Sudan’s western province of Darfur.

Since 2003, simmering rivalries between local tribes over land and water rights developed into a full-scale rebellion against Sudan’s central government. The conflict was escalated and the international stakes dramatically raised when America’s Congress passed a resolution in July 2004 declaring that the Sudanese government was committing genocide in its campaign against rebel forces in the western region – a claim that neither the United Nations nor the European Union have endorsed.

America is now threatening to extend its sanctions against Sudan, and on 29 April 2007 a ‘Global Day for Darfur’ was organised, during which campaigners flaunted gory hour-glasses filled with fake blood and delivered a letter to 10 Downing Street demanding that British prime minister Tony Blair ‘use his influence’ to ‘push for action’.

Now, French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy has joined the fray, with a report on his visit to rebel forces in Darfur first published in last weekend’s Financial Times magazine, and reprinted in the 7 May edition of American weekly The New Republic.

Since at least the early Nineties, Lévy has forged a reputation for demanding Western intervention in the world’s trouble spots. And his latest report from Darfur exemplifies many of the worst aspects of this creed of liberal interventionism, which holds that the international community (meaning the Western powers) should militarily intervene throughout the world in order to defend the human rights of vulnerable individuals and victimised minorities.

The instantly striking thing about Lévy’s report is that every accompanying photo contains a shot of the foppish Lévy in it, wearing a trendy black suit and striking contemplative poses in ruined villages and holding forth to rebel soldiers. It is almost as if Darfur doesn’t really matter unless Lévy is there, posing for the cameras and drawing Western readers’ attention to Darfuris’ suffering (and his own caring outlook, too, of course). Judging by the photos, one would be hard-pressed to tell whether the article was an exotic, risqué fashion-shoot for Lévy, or reportage on a complex and long-standing conflict in Africa. For all the ostentatious pity lavished on people in Darfur, Lévy’s article clearly shows that Western liberals have their own interest in the conflict that actually has little to do with any reality on the ground. Lévy’s writing specifies in detail the attraction of Darfur for the Western intelligentsia as it struggles to recuperate after the disaster of Iraq, and the blow that conflict has delivered to ideas of liberal interventionism.

In Darfur, there are no weapons of mass destruction to confuse the issue. Instead, there is the simple satisfaction of being able to strike a stance for moral righteousness, by presenting the conflict in simple black-and-white terms: in this case taking the side of Darfur against ‘fundamentalist, Islamist, racist Sudan’, in Lévy’s words. It is especially convenient for Western liberals that they can label a black African state such as Sudan as ‘racist’, so that their demand for intervention can be presented as an ‘anti-racist’ stance rather than anything like old-fashioned Western colonialism in Africa.

But for Lévy, taking the side of the Darfuri victims is not only just and humanitarian. It also has the added boon of allowing Lévy to indulge a more politically-correct version of the clash-of-civilisations scenario, a ‘lite’ version of conservatives’ most cherished fantasy. Instead of a clash between Islam and the West, Lévy declaims on the clash ‘of the two Islams’, with the Darfuris predictably cast in the role of good Muslims as against the bad Muslims in Khartoum.

To top it all off, adopting the cause of Darfur allows Western liberals not only to side with good against evil, but also to push China around as well. Given the Sudanese government’s economic ties with China, Darfur offers the opportunity for the West to demonstrate its moral superiority over the greedy, oil-addicted, anti-environmentalist Chinese, while also showing that it’s still the West that calls the shots in Africa. Lévy says ‘we’ should ‘pressure China, [Sudan’s] ally in the UN Security Council, into accepting the introduction of UN peacekeepers’.

Predictably, Lévy cannot resist making the comparison between the first human rights crusade that he adopted – that of the Bosnian Muslims during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s – and the conflict in Darfur today. ‘I am reminded of the Bosnians and the military embargo during the siege of Sarajevo…’, he writes. Of course, as he admits, there is no real comparison between the post-Cold War unravelling of Yugoslavia and the war over resources and territory in Darfur – rather, it is Lévy’s and others’ own need for a new purposeful mission that leads them to see Darfur as ‘the new Bosnia’.

The comparison should serve as a stark warning to people in Darfur, and indeed any other group in danger of falling under the gaze of the liberal interventionists. Since being adopted as the emblematic victims of human rights crusaders in the 1990s, Bosnia has been forgotten, allowing its liberal patrons conveniently to avoid confronting what Bosnia has since become: not a glittering haven of human rights and democratic freedoms, but a colonial-style protectorate autocratically ruled by an internationally-appointed viceroy (see Bosnia: whose state is it anyway?, by David Chandler).

The outcome in Bosnia reveals the underbelly of liberal interventionism. Victims in distant conflicts offer moral appeal to Western liberals, as well as the bonus that weak and marginalised peoples cannot hold their righteous patrons to account. Victims are, in short, a perfect license for the exercise of arbitrary and unaccountable power. Ultimately, liberal interventionism offers no guarantees to the wretched of the earth, in Darfur or anywhere else. The only thing it unequivocally promises to do is to strengthen the moral authority of Western political elites to dominate world politics and dictate to other countries how to run their affairs.

Philip Cunliffe is co-editor of Politics Without Sovereignty: A Critique of Contemporary International Relations. Read more about the book here. Read Lévy’s report from Darfur here.

Previously on spiked

Philip Cunliffe wrote about the attempt to give a respectable face to Western intervention. Brendan O’Neill warned that Darfur would pay a heavy price for liberal pity and refused to invade Africa with George Clooney. Or you can read more at: spiked issue Africa.

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

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