Darfur and U.S. Presidential Campaigns: Making Genocide Disappear (with a "Political Postscript")

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by Eric Reeves

In both the 2004 and 2008 presidential campaigns, the Darfur region of western Sudan was an unlikely but entirely appropriate topic. After all, the U.S. Congress had--in a remarkable bipartisan, bicameral vote in July 2004--declared that what was occurring in Darfur at the hands of the Khartoum regime was "genocide." So too did President George W. Bush, as did then-Secretary of State Colin Powell in a speech to the UN, citing a detailed and rigorous assessment by a nongovernmental human rights group. The 2004 campaign of then-Senator John Kerry asked me to vet closely their own statement on Darfur.

In 2008 candidate Obama's campaign made much of Darfur and the continuing rape, slaughter, and displacement of civilians belonging to Darfur's African (non-Arab) tribal groups, a brutal counter-insurgency campaign conducted by Khartoum's regular and militia forces. At one moment in his campaign, Obama declared that Darfur was a "stain on our souls," and vowed that as president, he did not "intend to abandon people or turn a blind eye to slaughter." Candidate Hillary Clinton in 2008 also made strong statements about genocide in Darfur, and the issue actually emerged in one question posed in the final presidential debates of that year between John McCain and Obama.

In the campaign of 2016 there has been no mention of Darfur, hardly surprising for Donald Trump, given his vast deficit in knowledge of foreign policy issues. But there is nothing on the Clinton website, no public statement, no indication that she understands the current realities in Darfur are every bit as bad as when she was making her own unctuous declarations in 2008.

There are two reasons for this. The Darfur civil society movement in this country--as remarkable as any since the time of apartheid-era South Africa--had largely disappeared by the 2008 - 2009. The reasons for this are many, but central was the decision by the Obama administration to "de-couple" Darfur from the key bilateral issues between Washington and Khartoum, namely (1) the U.S. intelligence community's desire for counter-terrorism from a regime that remains one of three countries on the State Department's annual list of "State Sponsors of Terrorism"; (2) Khartoum's desperate desire to be removed from that list and to see the lifting of comprehensive economic sanctions first imposed during the presidency of Bill Clinton.

"De-couple" is not my word choice: it is that of a "senior administration official" referred to as such in a background interview given in November 2010 (for which there is an official State Department transcript). And though articulated explicitly only two years after Obama's election, it reflected policy priorities articulated by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Obama's first, disastrous choice for the role of Special Envoy for Sudan, Air Force Major-General (ret.) Scott Gration.

Gration had no diplomatic experience, no significant knowledge of Sudan or its history, or any relevant language other than English. His policy views were animated by the absurdly naïve belief, as reported by the Washington Post, that a regime of hardened génocidaires could be appealed to with "cookies": "We've got to think about giving out cookies... Kids, countries--they react to gold stars, smiley faces, handshakes, agreements, talk, engagement."

Obama's Sudan policies have ensured that there is little interest in Darfur within his administration that is not guided by the lust for counter-terrorism intelligence. And yet the carnage continues, indeed has escalated significantly over the past four years, culminating this year in a savage assault on the civilians in the last rebel redoubt in the Jebel Marra mountains of central Darfur.

Reports from the past thirteen years of ethnically-targeted conflict strongly suggest that in excess of 500,000 people have been killed, directly or indirectly, by violence; more than 3 million Darfuris have been displaced from their homes--some 300,000 as refugees in the harsh environs of neighboring eastern Chad; tens of thousands of girls and women have been raped, often gang-raped, while those assaulting them hurl hateful racial epithets.

The violent expropriation of African farmland by Arab militia forces has also accelerated, ensuring that peace will be much more difficult to achieve than when Obama assumed office, despite his soaring campaign rhetoric of 2008. We hear nothing of this. Hillary Clinton is unlikely to speak about Sudan since she was Secretary of State when Darfur began to tip into greater violence. Donald Trump probably couldn't locate Darfur on a map, and all indications are that he would take no interest in Darfur [see "Political Postscript" below]. And debate moderators have either themselves forgotten Darfur or can't imagine it of interest to television viewers. Syria will serve as a surrogate for all "troubled regions."

The brutal men in Khartoum will watch all this with the keenest interest as they contemplate their next offensive in Darfur, which--coincidentally--will begin in November, when the seasonal rains have ended. They will conclude that genocide is simply no longer a political issue of interest for the American people.

Political Postscript: In almost eighteen years of committed research and advocacy for a just peace in greater Sudan, I have tried assiduously not to allow my work to be determined or influenced by American political issues unrelated to Sudan. The same is true for issues elsewhere in Africa and the Middle East, if unrelated to Sudan--this despite many requests for broadcast interviews. My view has been simple: I should speak about what I have come to know well over these years, and that partisanship cannot help advance the cause of Sudan in the United States, where Sudan has traditionally bi-partisan issue. I have at times been sharply critical of the Clinton administration, the George W. Bush administration, and most fiercely of the Obama administration.

But the candidacy of Donald Trump does not permit me to stay silent, given my primary concern at present for the people of Darfur--people who are universally Muslim; who are all "African" in the broadest sense, and "dark-skinned"; and who offer nothing of interest to a a Trump administration, should it be our great misfortune to see this "national disgrace" (to borrow the word's of Colin Powell, Secretary of State during a Republican administration) become president.

Trump's racism, his xenophobia--extending to a virulently anti-Muslim campaign rhetoric--and his stunning ignorance of world affairs (declaring, for example, in an ABC Television news interview that he would prevent Russian troop from entering Ukraine, despite the fact they are have been present since 2014)...all suggest that Darfur and Sudan as a whole would suffer greatly from policies guided by ignorance and hatred. Caring for the innocent civilians of Darfur and other marginalized regions of Sudan is a compelling reason not to vote for Donald Trump.


[Eric Reeves has written extensively on Sudan for almost two decades; he is a Senior Fellow at Harvard University's François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights]

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