Wednesday, August 17, 2005

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The Things We Think And Do Not Say

Somewhere in the field of American foreign policy there is room for a paper with the title of that document with which Tom Cruise's character Jerry MacGuire began a major career transition. The subject of the paper would be human rights catastrophes in what used to be known as the Third World, particularly the genocide in Darfur.

What do we think but do not say? Well, for starters, we think that Arabs do not care very much about human rights. To be more precise, and more accurate, Arabs feel deep and genuine outrage when an Arab male is treated with something less than respect by a non-Arab and especially by a Jew; Arabs mistreated by other Arabs are of less concern. Non-Arabs being shot, blown-up, gang-raped or starved by Arabs are no problem at all, whether they are Muslim or not and perhaps especially if they are black Africans.

Many cultural attitudes, including this one, have deep historic roots; these are not my primary concern here. What matters instead is that keeping silent about large things carries a heavy price.

The New Republic ran a useful primer on the Darfur situation on its web site a short while ago, by Smith College Professor Eric Reeves; his assessment of where things stand now in Sudan -- this also contains material on the north-south civil war that has gone on there since the early 1980s -- is well worth reading as well.

Reeves is an expert on this subject; I am not. Yet even Reeves fails to note what to the casual observer appears fairly central to this grim story -- namely, that the protracted war against a civilian population of Darfur is considered an outrage, a horror, and an affront to humanity by the United States, by European peoples and governments, and by several African states, but by no Arab government and hardly any Arab media. Arabs are not represented among relief workers or peacekeepers in Darfur, all of whom come from countries much farther away than Egypt or Saudi Arabia; Arab contributions to humanitarian relief funds, according to a UN report, have been negligible. Terrorism has, rather late in the day, become a major issue of Arab Muslim theologians and intellectuals; not so genocide carried out by Arab Muslims against a mostly Muslim population over more than two years.

Let us note the most obvious consequence of this before saying anything else -- it makes action to stop genocide exponentially more difficult for the United States and other countries who would like to when the Arab government in Khartoum feels no pressure from other Arab governments or Arab media. This is true intellectually and morally; it is also true physically, since humanitarian relief and peacekeeping in Darfur cannot stage through nearby Egypt or Libya and must instead be maintained across the whole breadth of the Sahara Desert, like a dumbbell held at arm's length.

Now, it is very likely that the great majority of people in the Arab countries do not support genocide in Darfur. Many of them may not even know where it is. It is not something that the media available in Arab countries has covered extensively. And silence by Arab governments and media has not been challenged by Western governments and media.

I don't mean to pick on The New York Times here; there are worse offenders. But it does seem oddly symbolic that of the two Times columnists who write most frequently about the Arab world one -- Nick Kristof -- has published many pieces about genocide in Darfur without ever writing one about Arab indifference to it or what that might mean, while the other --Tom Friedman -- writes "whither the Arabs" commentary regularly without mentioning Darfur at all.

With respect to governments, it is tempting to suggest that this would be a good subject on which to unleash one of John Bolton's famous tirades on the United Nations. There is no reason, though, that other governments must be silent unless the United States speaks. Distasteful and occasionally repellent though the task can be, the United States often has to do business with the more barbarous governments of the world -- it was central to brokering the fragile settlement of Sudan's north-south civil war, for example. It should not be too much to expect Canada, say, or Germany to do something useful for a change and challenge Arab indifference to genocide in the UN or some other international forum.

Are we talking fundamentally about an Arab issue here? Looked at globally, we are not. Other human rights disasters are taking place as I write this -- the destruction of Zimbabwe, the decades-long nightmare of North Korea -- and the conduct of South Africa and China, respectively, toward these situations is inexplicable without mention of the indifference of these governments to human rights and human suffering. A humane, stable world order is unlikely to establish itself if only North American, European and a few other governments are willing to build it. And that is the case right now.

Arab indifference to Arab genocide does not, of course, excuse inadequate efforts by Western countries to aid its victims. Nor does South Africa's weak and cowardly support of Zimbabwe's kleptocrats or Beijing's embrace of its comrade in Pyongyang mean the West has no responsibilities in these situations. But surely one of those responsibilities is to lay aside our reflexive political correctness and say something about the things we know to be true.

posted by Joseph Britt on 08.17.05 at 05:03 PM


It should not be too much to expect Canada, say, or Germany to do something useful for a change and challenge Arab indifference to genocide in the UN or some other international forum.

Hear hear! With Germany and others wanting a permanent seat on the security council, shouldn't we see more of this from them? You would think there would be some sort of qualification like this that would be required of potential council candidates. Or will it be more of a "vote against the US" club that they are looking to join? This total indifference to human crises by these countries should be shocking. Especially when they say "never again".

posted by: Ernie Oporto on 08.18.05 at 11:42 AM [permalink]

What are you talking about? I've been in the Middle East and seen Darfur coverage in the media - far more than I've seen on CNN and company in this country. When I was in Egypt I met Sudanese refugees - while it is true they face racism, many also see taking them in as a moral necessity, leading to a discussion little different from that of any other nation confronted with refugee issues (such as the U.S. and Haiti). Arab governments don't do much with Darfur because they suck.

posted by: Brian Ulrich on 08.18.05 at 12:01 PM [permalink]

There was an article in the Beirut Daily Star more than a year ago about a meeting about the Darfur situation more than a year ago. What was supposed to be a human rights conference on the Sudan situation in Beirut turned into a "denounce the crusaders" event once the Sudanese representative started speaking.

posted by: Mark on 08.18.05 at 12:30 PM [permalink]

I'd posit the reasons underlying Chinese silence on the matter are largely the avoidance of having the light of accusation thrown back on them for what some consider the illegal occupation of tibet, the subjugation of the uigher minorities, and a generally poor record on human rights with their own citizens.
As for South Africa with Zimbabwe...Mugabe must have pictures of someone doing something to a goat to justify that support.

posted by: johnnymeathead on 08.18.05 at 01:24 PM [permalink]

"It is not something that the media available in Arab countries has covered extensively."
How closely do you follow the Arab-language media? How do you know the extent to which Darfur has been reported there?
A couple of years ago the Sudanese government closed the local Al-Jazeera office ; somehow I doubt they would have done this if there was so little coverage of Darfur.

For that matter how much coverage of Darfur has there been on US television? What about the Congo civil war which has killed millions in the last ten years? Do you think the average American is even aware of this fact?

posted by: Strategist on 08.18.05 at 02:48 PM [permalink]

"Arab indifference to Arab genocide does not, of course, excuse inadequate efforts by Western countries to aid its victims."

A bit of an understatement, perhaps? How exactly are we in the West to convince Arab governments to speak out about Darfur when we haven't even convinced our own? Something tells me that Bolton won't be cleared to unleash any tirades on this matter until the President acknowledges the problem didn't magically disappear after Colin Powell called it a genocide. Currently, the President seems unable to mention Darfur for fear that he would then be obliged to do something about it. That puts us in a fairly weak position to argue that the Arab governments need to take action (which, granted, they do).

posted by: Dave B. on 08.18.05 at 03:08 PM [permalink]

I don't think it's true that China is coddling NK because of indifference over human rights. They are certainly more critical of NK than they had been in the past, and it appears NK is beginning to take a step towards economic rationalization. China is rightfully worried about millions of Koreans streaming over the border should KJI's government fall.

A PLA member I talked to last year had just come back from a visit to NK. He said that he'd heard NK compared to 1960s China, but didn't think this was fair, because NK has tons of whores but China didn't. Guy was totally serious, though. There is recognition in China of the HR problems, however; dare I say young Chinese recognize it more than young South Koreans?

posted by: cure on 08.18.05 at 03:55 PM [permalink]

Dave B:

If the United States does not act, the islamic world is not obliged to use moral persuasion against fellow members of the Islamic world? Well, next time I see my neighbor beating somebody up, I'll make sure I just keep walking on by, unless, of course, I see a cop arresting my neighbor, in which case I'll give that mean neighbor a piece of my mind.

posted by: Appalled Moderate on 08.18.05 at 03:57 PM [permalink]

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