Obama vs. Sudan

Here’s Obama, being interviewed by Fareed Zakaria, on why he supports creating a no-fly zone in Sudan to protect Darfurians (whether the UN backs it or not):

In a situation like Darfur, I think that the world has a self-interest in ensuring that genocide is not taking place on our watch. Not only because of the moral and ethical implications, but also because chaos in Sudan ends up spilling over into Chad. It ends up spilling over into other parts of Africa, can end up being repositories of terrorist activity.

This formulation, which comes ironically just after Obama praises George Kennan and realism, demonstrates a dangerous confusion between charity and self-defense. Tragic as it is, the civil war underway in Darfur (whether or not it’s a genocide, the government backed violence against civilians is part of a counter-rebel campaign) has virtually no effect on US welfare. If instability in that part of Africa hurts trade, the impact is infinitesimal. The idea that war in Sudan or Chad would cause terrorism is based an analysis of failed states that does not stand empirical scrutiny. Sure, terrorists have participated in civil strife in several failed states in the Muslim world, but that hardly proves that Sudan or Chad would be a terrorist haven, especially terrorists that target Americans. In fact, it is American participation in conflicts in the Muslim world that makes us a terrorist target, not the absence of our stabilization efforts.

If Obama is so concerned about the violence against civilians in Sudan endangering Americans, why is he only advocating a no-fly zone? Sudan has an air force, but the combatants in Darfur mostly travel on the ground. If our safety is at stake in Darfur, why not buttress the obviously insufficient African Union force with US ground forces?

But an even better way to end chaos in Sudan would be to take the side of the Sudanese state against the rebels, instead of aiding the dissolution of Sudan via a no-fly zone.

Probably Obama does not really believe that our interests are at stake in Sudan but feels compelled to buttress a humanitarian argument with an interest-based one. Advocates of intervening in the Balkans and Iraq used the same all-good-things-go-together trick. Bombing Serbia to protect Kosovars was supposed to save NATO, protect Europe from instability and so on. Invading Iraq was supposed to spread freedom in the region, remove a threat to Saudi Arabia and get our troops home from there, solve the Arab-Israel conflict, quell terrorism, make the North Koreans and Iranians quit pursuing nukes, and produce several other miracles.

This sort of oversell confuses public debate and makes it harder to end interventions. If your sense of charity says that we should get mixed up in another civil war in Sudan, you’re probably not going to want to pay a very high price in blood and money. But once you told everyone that they can never sleep soundly unless Darfurians do, it’s a lot harder to hit the road if the war turns ugly.

Obama’s position on Darfur is indicative of a larger problem in his foreign policy view, which you might call a belief in (or rhetorical commitment to) the indivisibility of security, a tendency to define insecurity anywhere as a threat to security everywhere. He wants to expand the ground forces so we can better fight occupational wars to fix failed states, and agrees with John McCain that we need to surge troops and resources into Afghanistan to transform it into a stable state, which is the wrong objective there. He thinks fighting terrorism requires that he “make it focus of my foreign policy to roll back the tide of hopelessness that gives rise to hate,” a project that will dovetail nicely with our current President’s plan to end evil. This approach to foreign policy is so expansive that it is unrealistic and thus inoperative. That makes it loose talk, which is less harmful than neoconservatism, but nothing to write home about.