The full-page ads in the New York Times are wrenching: children in the last stages of starvation, terrified refugees, and burned out villages. They are the images that come to mind when most Americans think about the Sudan.
But while the human rights crisis in Darfur is real-somewhere between 100,00 and 200,000 people have died since 2003-a seasoned cadre of neo-conservatives and right-wingers have latched on to the issue, pushing an agenda that favors military over political solutions.
They include Elliot Abrams and Nina Shea, both of whom played key roles in the Reagan Administration’s wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua, leading conservative evangelical Christians, and two of the country’s most rightwing legislators, U.S. Senator Sam Brownback (R-Ka) and U.S. Representative Tom Tancredo (R-Co).
Behind the rhetoric of the “war on terrorism,” the Bush Administration has a long-term strategy for Africa that turns butter into guns.
The White House recently established a separate U.S. military command for Africa-AFRICOM-and this past December directly intervened in Somalia’s civil war. The U.S. is also spreading a network of military clients throughout North Africa and the Sahara, and is even considering military action against anti-government insurgents in Nigeria.
A key person in this new aggressiveness is long-time neoconservative “prince,” Elliot Abrams.
When he was appointed chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (CIRF) in 1999, Abrams began levering U.S. foreign policy away from a concern for poverty toward a focus on “religious persecution” in the Sudan, Russia and China.
In 2002 he was appointed senior director of Near East and North African Affairs, just as the Bush Administration began basing troops in Djibouti on the strategic Horn of Africa. Some of those forces took part in the recent invasion of Somalia. Abrams also helped launch the Trans-Sahel Counterterrorism Initiative that has drawn a number of countries in North Africa and areas bordering the Sahara into a web of military alliances.
Abrams is currently the National Security Advisor for Global Democracy and Strategy and the point person on Israel. His philosophy of diplomacy is probably best summed up by a line from a chapter he wrote in the New American Century’s Present Dangers: Crisis and Opportunity in American Foreign and Defense Policy: “Our military strength and willingness to use it will remain a key factor in our ability to promote peace.”
Negotiations are not his forte. William LeoGrande, Dean of the American University School of Public Affairs, and an expert on Central America, says that that Abrams’ track record demonstrates that he won’t “negotiate with adversaries,” but, instead, insists “on total victory, as if foreign policy were a moral crusade in which compromise was an anathema.”
Abrams’ one prior involvement with Africa was his opposition to a diplomatic solution to South Africa’s 1975 attack on Angola just after that country had freed itself from Portugal.
Force has always been central to the neoconservative view of the world. During the 1980s, Abrams helped organize the contra war against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua, and took part in the cover up of the horrendous El Mazote massacre in El Salvador by a U.S.-trained government battalion.
Abrams’ vice-chair on the CIRF was Nina Shea of Freedom House, an organization with a long rap sheet on destabilizing countries, including recently attempting to dislodge Hugo Chavez’s in Venezuela.
Shea founded the Puebla Institute in 1986 to fight the growth of liberation theology in Latin America and, according to former Contra leader, Edward Chamorro, worked with the groups trying to overthrow Nicaragua’s Sandinista government.
Like Abrams, Shea focuses on the issue of religion rather than human rights. According to Newsweek Magazine, Shea made “Christian persecution Washington’s hottest topic.”
A 2003 Human Rights Watch report entitled, “Sudan, Oil and Human Rights,” charges that when Abrams was chair and Shea vice-chair of CIRF, they advocated assisting the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) the principle military opponent of the Sudan government. The Bush Administration ended up backing the umbrella National Democratic Alliance of Sudan, which was dominated by the SPLM.
Abrams and Shea pushed hard to get Congress to declare the crisis in Darfur “genocide,” a designation that would permit military intervention. But while on the surface some kind of military intervention in Sudan would seem a no-brainer, Darfur is complex: a brutal conflict between nomads and agriculturalists, a proxy war between Sudanese elites in Khartoum, and an arena of regional competition between Sudan, Chad and Niger. A military “solution” may end up making things worse, not better.
Two of Congress’s most conservative legislators, Brownback and Tancredo, pushed hard for the Darfur Peace and Accountability Act, which urges military intervention in the Sudan.
Brownback is co-sponsor of legislation that would allow local, state, and federal officials to overrule the courts on religious issues; he calls abortion a “holocaust,” compares stem cell research to Nazi medical experiments, and says global warming is “a hoax.”
Tancredo is also in deep in right field on a host of issues. He told a Florida radio station that if “fundamentalist Muslims” attacked the U.S. with a nuclear device, the U.S. should bomb Mecca, and he refers to Miami as a “third world country.”
Two other key actors for the Bush Administration in Sudan are Robert Seiple, the former CEO of World Vision, a Christian aid and advocacy organization active in 22 African countries, and Andrew Natsios, head administrator for the U.S. Aid and Development Agency (USAID) from 2001 to 2006, when he was appointed Special Envoy to the Sudan.
According to John Eibner, chief executive officer of Christian Solidarity International, “domestic pressure” from Christian groups played a key role into pushing the U.S. to get involved in the Sudan.
Seiple, a former Marine pilot in Vietnam, was appointed to the CIRF when it was formed in 1998 and lobbied for supporting the armed resistance to the Khartoum government.
Natsios is a controversial figure because he opposed distributing drugs to combat HIV/AIDS in Africa when he was the USAID administrator. He told the House International Relations Committee that patients would be unable to take medications on time, because “African don’t know what Western time is. Many people in Africa have never seen a clock or a watch their entire lives.” The comment stirred widespread anger among Africans and AIDS activists.
The people running the Bush Administration’s strategy for Africa use the rhetoric of “freedom” and “stability,” but their policies have seen an increasing military presence on the continent, the overthrow of a government which had finally brought peace to Somalia, and the establishment of alliances with authoritarian governments in Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Chad.
A good many people are skeptical about the benefits of the Bush Administration’s designs for Africa.
“Many African affairs analysts remain unconvinced [that the U.S.’s primary concern is not about oil and resources], perceiving a race with China for the control of the continent with potentially unsavory consequences for Africans,” writes Nigerian-based journalist Dulue Mbachu.
Nicole Lee of TransAfrica, the leading African-American organization concerned with Africa, is blunter: “This is nothing short of a sovereignty and resource grab.”
The National Energy Policy Development Group estimates that by 2015, a quarter of U.S. oil imports will come from Africa. Most of these will come from the Gulf of Guinea, but Sudan has the second largest reserves on the continent.
Many of the Bush Administration’s central players in all this have close ties to Vice-President Dick Cheney. It was Cheney’s National Policy Energy Development Group that recommended back in 2001 that the U.S. “make energy security a priority of our trade and foreign policy,” a blueprint the administration has closely adhered to.
Given the actors and the script, it is hard not to conclude that the Bush Administration’s strategy for Africa is less about freedom and God than about oil and earthly power.
CONN HALLINAN is a lecturer in journalism at the University of California, Santa Cruz.