the moral limits of confronting the bully, and calling his bluff

Gerard Prunier, who, in another life, penned a decent history of Sudan’s Darfur conflict, has published a Luttwakian op-ed in today’s New York Times, calling on the international community to “give war a chance” in Sudan. His argument is a thinly veiled case for supporting South Sudan’s mobilization against Khartoum, and is predicated on the overarching, exclusive preferability of the National Congress Party’s imminent combustion:

The status quo is not working, regardless of what American and United Nations officials might believe. Mr. Bashir recently referred to the black leaders of South Sudan as “insects” and insisted that Sudan must “eliminate this insect completely.” For those who remember Rwanda and the racist insults hurled by Mr. Bashir’s janjaweed militias during their brutal attacks in Darfur, his vile words should be a wake-up call. Indeed, without some moral common ground, “negotiations” are merely a polite way of acquiescing to evil, especially when one’s interlocutors are pathologically incapable of respecting their own word. And in the case of a murderer like Mr. Bashir, there is no moral common ground.

Now, Prunier’s right, on a couple of points: the status quo isn’t working, and Khartoum’s rhetoric against civilian populations in South Kordofan, Blue Nile, and South Sudan has added an additional layer of worrisome intent to the mix of interstate conflict. And, Sudan’s border conflict with South Sudan is posing untenable internal challenges for Khartoum’s stability, but not for the reasons Prunier outlines; the popular consequences of Khartoum’s jingoism are less destabilizing than the persistent threat of security-sector defection, which has eroded the regime’s civilian-sector capacity. Between oil production and export restrictions, the diversion of domestic resources towards military mobilization, and the political costs of fighting a four-front, varied-intensity conflict (Darfur, South Kordofan, Blue Nile, and South Sudan), Sudan’s economy–and with it, Khartoum’s last shreds of domestic legitimacy–is hemorrhaging. So yes, unfettered violence is the way to go, if your panacea-of-the-day happens to be regime change.

Unfortunately for advocates of continuous conflict, both Khartoum and Juba recognize the domestic costs of all-out escalation, and are doing their darndest to ensure that the post-Heglig violence remains below the threshold of maximal instability. Racial bias and political discrimination aside, Khartoum’s domestic incentives for conflict with South Sudan remain constant: an external threat allows the regime to consolidate internal unrest, mitigating popular and elite dissatisfaction. However, as Lesley Warner recently observed, the domestic politics that animate the Khartoum-Juba conflict are the same politics that will prevent its escalation to Prunier’s “point of no return.” Of course, the immediacy of Sudan’s humanitarian crisis–particularly in the border states–makes the human distinction between gradual, sustained escalation and all-out conflict difficult to identify.

Where regime change is concerned, the limited utility of spontaneous, unmanaged political transitions is a conflict resolution cliché, particularly under a “sustainable peace” metric. As Luttwak does, advocates will point to Rwanda, willfully ignoring the grave humanitarian consequences of Kagame’s immediate post-genocide incursions into Zaire’s eastern provinces. In Sudan, there are, of course, indications that the spontaneous, violent fall of the Bashir regime would mean fewer atrocities, but the prospects for an inclusive, post-NCP governance framework are far from certain. Hassan al-Turabi’s periodic jail-time has placed the Popular Congress Party leader out of the limelight, but the Islamist leader remains poised to serve as a kingmaker between the Khartoum hardliners and the Sudanese Revolutionary Front. Without a deliberative, representative process of constitutional development, managed political transition, and negotiated settlement, Sudan has little hope of marginalizing the corrosive influence of hardliners within a post-NCP framework. There are plenty of ways in which Prunier’s vaguely-defined “Sudanese Spring” could manifest itself, and the most likely ones don’t involve a sweeping process of liberal democratization.

A better, more sustainable solution has emerged from Sudan and South Sudan’s technically-savvy middle-class, many of whom experienced the disastrous human consequences of the North-South civil war, which was given many chances. Under the umbrella of the #newSUDANS hashtag, Sudanese and South Sudanese civil society are engaging the unified vision of former SPLM leader John Garang, promoting a normative narrative of social dynamism, political savvy, and economic vibrancy. Rather than focusing on the moral bankruptcy of Bashir, it may be worth empowering new actors, new generations, and new voices, in order to encourage a responsible process of conflict resolution in the two Sudans.


7 thoughts on “the moral limits of confronting the bully, and calling his bluff

  1. Daniel,

    I love the Luttwak reference. That was one of my favorite articles from grad school because, among other things, it provided a useful devil’s advocate analysis of why war is a process of nation-building that is often disrupted by foreign intervention.

    Anyway, I just wanted to qualify the reference to my blog post above. Although domestic factors in both Sudans might prevent war, there’s also a chance the recent brinkmanship might get out of control. I anticipate a low-intensity proxy war as remaining in both countries’ best interests, but have not yet ruled out a full conventional war. I don’t have a sense for who can successfully moderate between the Sudans in the event that brinkmanship does get out of control; perhaps you might be on to something with a reference to civil society in both countries.

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  3. A very balanced piece that tackles a topic that defies every attempt of balanced commentary. Well done.

    Mr. Prunier’s op-ed misses two pivotal points. Firstly, The NCP is a creature that feeds on war and instability. Its propaganda machine was very successful in making the Hegleg crisis a national issue and rallying the support of the majority of the population. The NCP today is much stronger than it was before April 10th- a well established belief by many in the North. In that sense, war in Sudan will only raise the NCP’s flag higher and higher on top of a hill made with the corpses of the people of Sudan.

    Secondly, it is important to realize that in Sudan war IS the status quo. War has been tried time and again for the past 25 years and has brought nothing but devastation, misery and lost opportunities. It has been tried in the East in the mid-nineties, and then again in the West (Darfur) in the first decade of this century. As an average young Sudanese, I will NOT take to the streets Egypt-style as long as there is armed rebellion in progress. Simply because I would rather be ruled by the NCP than by rebels who wage war for a living and who are being funded by foreign money. The way I see it, change will begin to unfold only when the guns in the borders are silenced. Only then, we will hear the loud chants that call for change in the lawn of the presidential palace in the heart of Khartoum.

    I call on Mr.Prunier to look at the bigger picture. It seems that his justified bitterness towards the NCP and his well-intentioned sympathy towards the infant state in the South are clouding his view.


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  5. Thanks for the great piece, Daniel. The war mongers will always find a platform in the US press. It would be great for your view to be heard more broadly. Any chance of submitting a shorter version to the NYT?

    I think that, geopolitically, South Sudan’s independence provides an opportunity for lasting peace that wasn’t there when it was part of the north. In this particular case, the UN’s ability to stop an all-out war from happening, or to keep it short if it does happen, is greater than most commentators accept. The threat of sanctions, the use of intense negotiations and the use of peacekeepers are quite powerful weapons when used to mediate between two independent nations, whereas they are much weaker tools when dealing with an internal conflict.

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