The humanitarian crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan has usefully drawn the world's attention to the plight of a million or more refugees and to the lifesaving assistance many of them receive from relief organizations. It also spotlights the brutality of a weak national government fighting multiple local rebellions.
But the Darfur moment in global consciousness also raises troubling questions about Africa's tenuous relationship with the outside world. That relationship is now dominated by the politics of misery, a poor base on which to build a partnership or a future.
Europeans and Americans pay attention to the continent's massacres, famines, epidemics and other forms of vast suffering, but heed little else. Policy responses are dominated by emotion and temporary fixes that are left to wither until the next crisis demands fresh bursts of concern and action.
The pattern is unlikely to change until Africans themselves take the lead in preventing or resolving the continent's potential or festering Darfurs. Africa has for too long relied on the uncertain kindness and intentions of outside powers. The continent's organization of political leaders, the African Union, must take charge of any campaign of intervention or economic sanctions that are needed to protect the dispossessed of Darfur.
Since it inspired an initial wave of euphoria and self-congratulation on ending colonial rule, Africa has been typecast as too hard, too remote or too primitive for world power centers to allot it sustained time and energy.
It is tempting, then, to see Darfur as tragedy-as-usual. Journalists and relief organizations have thrown around the term genocide to overcome that ingrained Western apathy, even though the conflict is both more complex and more basic than that trigger word suggests. Conflicts in the remote wastelands of the Sudan-Chad frontier region center more often on land and water than on religion or race.
But the focus on suffering also inevitably gives a boost to the political fortunes of the rebel organizations fighting the Sudanese government, which has grudgingly accepted African Union cease-fire observers and a small protective force and says it will talk to the rebels.
I first directly encountered the politics of misery in the Biafran civil war in Nigeria about three decades ago. Relief organizations that helped the starving Biafrans were denounced and then openly threatened by Nigeria's central government. They were not accepted as independent, legitimate actors. The same was true of journalists who covered the Biafran cause.
Darfur is a measure of the constancy of Africa's problems. But it also measures the change in the international context of disaster relief. The reach and power of the media and humanitarian organizations have grown enormously. The invisible influence they exert is rarely challenged now, even though aid workers and journalists frequently work in an unacknowledged symbiosis that complicates the habits of diplomacy and statecraft.
When he was Britain's foreign secretary in the 1990s, Douglas Hurd bridled at what he called "the CNN effect." Why was I so supportive of humanitarian intervention in Bosnia and Iraq, he asked whenever our paths crossed, when there was just as much unpublicized suffering and injustice in remote corners of, say, Sudan?
Now that CNN can reach Darfur, I got an updated version of Hurd's question the other day from an alert reader in Minneapolis named Dan Israel: Didn't Darfur refugees deserve protection as much as the Kurds and others I championed in the past?
"Yes" is the simple answer, Dan.
But historical and strategic circumstances argue against the United States leading a humanitarian military intervention in Sudan. Successive administrations took on grave moral responsibility in Iraq by supporting and then betraying the Kurds in their struggle against Saddam Hussein, then supporting that dictator against Iran before going to war against him in 1991 over Kuwait, and then imposing more than a decade of sanctions and airstrikes on Iraq. That responsibility, which grew over two decades, could not be deferred forever.
Sudan possesses neither that history nor the strategic position of Iraq in regional politics and conflict. The United States should be ready to play a supporting role in Darfur by helping African Union troops and leaders protect the dispossessed and endangered there. Washington should actively support a diplomatic process that is only beginning, not exhausted as was the case with Iraq.
The attention and palliatives that Africa gains through the politics of misery can never atone for the huge costs in life and dignity that the continent's episodic crises extract. Darfur offers Africa's leaders the chance to begin to change a continent's destiny.