Libya and Sudan: Beware of Comparisons

March 15, 2011

While perusing the Internet on my way home from work yesterday, I caught a National Journal article titled Between Sudan and Libya, Critics See U.S. Inconsistency. The article suggests that, “those who have been pressuring the administration to do more in Sudan wish that the administration was showing the same determination toward pressuring the regime in Khartoum that it is dsiplaying [sic] toward Qaddafi’s regime in Tripoli.” This type of comparison–particularly when coupled with an argument defending that what might be an appropriate response in one situation is naturally an appropriate response in another–makes me cringe.

I hope that it would go without saying that the situation in Libya is different than the situation in Sudan. These differences matter. For more than a year activists across the country have been working to ensure that the United States invests in the creation of an extensive toolkit. A complete kit is needed so that the U.S. has right tools are available to effectively respond when faced with situations of mass atrocity. If every situation was the same, a sledgehammer might suffice. However, recognizing the unique complexities that present themselves, a collection of increasingly precise instruments is needed.

I find several major faults to the argument. First, there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution. In the case of the Sudan-Libya comparison, the implementation of a no-fly zone is a clear example. Second, the article makes its argument by comparing apples to oranges. In doing so, it provides a misleading and unproductive starting point for debate.  Third, the characterization of the conflict in Sudan as being “worse” than what’s happening in Libya because of casualty numbers misses the point of what we’re trying to accomplish in both conflicts.

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi talks with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir at the annual Arab summit in Khartoum in March 2006.

No One-Size-Fits-All Solution

Every conflict is different and comes with its own share of challenges and opportunities. While it’s fair to go through the list of tools available and see which might apply to a given situation, it’s not useful to assert that just because something worked (or is being discussed) in one context it can be applied successfully in another.

Case in point, a no-fly zone. I should state from the beginning that while I support a no-fly zone in Libya, I feel very strongly that a no-fly would not successfully save lives in Darfur. For more on this argument, please see my previous post. Most basically, the challenge to a no-fly zone in Darfur is the fact that the airports being used to conduct aerial attacks are tiny, dual-use (combination civilian and military) airports. Because the airports are shared, a no-fly zone (destroying planes the have bombed civilians on the runway) would eliminate the ability of the international community to provide the humanitarian assistance that many Darfuris now depend on for survival.

Without getting deep into the merits of a Libya no-fly zone (I’ll save that for a later post), I’ll stick to some of the technical differences that make implementation of no-fly zone a different conversation when talking about Libya. First, it should be noted that Gaddafi has an extensive set of military (non-civilian) airports from which aerial attacks are originating. Second, the extensive network of humanitarian aid that has been set up in Darfur does not exist in Libya, so it wouldn’t be decimated even if a non-military airport became a target.Third, much of the population in Libya can be accessed via the coast making it possible to provide humanitarian services by boat (as the security situation allows) if the airports are for some reason inaccessible.

The implications for humanitarian aid based upon the usage of airports is just one example of the critical impacts that differences may have when considering this policy option. Regardless of where one might come out (pro/con) on a Libya or Sudan no-fly zone, a blanket application of such a tool is dangerous. This conversation is meant to underscore the importance of considering tactics on a case-by-case basis.

Apples to Oranges

There isn’t anything substantial that the United States has done in the case of Libya that it hasn’t done in Sudan. US and international sanctions. Check and check. Referral to the International Court. Check and check. Even consideration of a no-fly zone. Check and check.

In fact–apples to apples–the action on Libya matches up evenly to action on Sudan. Given that this is the case, I have to ask what is this “lack of determination toward pressuring Khartoum” at the center of the article’s thesis? I have to assume it’s referring to a current discussion of military action. But, if this is the “lack of determination”, I have to ask if the author has forgotten that we’re not comparing the same thing?

The Libya situation is new. The international community is seized of the matter and there is–generally speaking–groundbreaking support for a strong international response from critical non-Western voices. This is not the case in Sudan. Let’s also not forget that the United States Government hasn’t actually taken military action on Libya and there is an increasing amount of push back coming from within the Administration. A no-fly is being discussed–just as it was earlier on in the Darfur conflict.

If we really want to compare apples to apples on response, we should be reviewing the choices made by President George W. Bush on Sudan in 2003 and 2004 with those being made by President Obama on Libya in 2011. The nature of a protracted conflict and emerging violence are different. As a result, not only do responses need to be considered in the context of the unique situation, but there should be some acknowledgment that dynamics and options change as a conflict drags on.

Unfortunately, the argument of the article is flawed as it repeatedly seeks to compare apples to oranges. I came away thinking the point was to begrudge Libya a response because more action is desired on Sudan. This troubling impression segues well into the next concern.

Comparing Casualty Counts is Counterproductive

I found it disappointing to read the following characterization that appeared in the National Journal piece:

Despite a much larger humanitarian crisis in Sudan—some 2 million people have died during a decades-long civil war between North and South — it is Libya where the administration has gone from zero to 60 in three weeks with its threat to use force to protect the people. The death toll in Libya, while gruesome, is still just a few thousand people.

Is this what it has come to: a conversation about which conflict is more deserving of a response? For shame. In 2003/2004, would we have argued against a response to Darfur because more civilians had been killed in Congo? I truly hope not.

Here’s what I hope I’ve learned from my experience in dealing with mass atrocities: the earlier we respond the better. Even more preferable, the United States should be taking preventative action before conflict breaks out in the first place. On the other hand, what we need to stay away from is waiting for catastrophic massacres of tens of thousands before deciding to take action. In fact, I’m not disheartened by the “zero to 60” response in three weeks. I’m thrilled. This means maybe we’ve learned something from our failures in Darfur. Our ability to take substantial action in less than a month should be seen as a measure of success, albeit an incomplete achievement. (As far as I’m concerned, there’s still much room for improvement.)

Instead of begrudging Libya a response it deserves, why don’t we all work harder to ensure that every mass atrocity situation is a priority for this Administration and the next? Also, why don’t we treat Sudan as it deserves and develop an appropriate conflict-specific response instead of clinging to one-size-fits all solutions?


One Response to “Libya and Sudan: Beware of Comparisons”

  1. […] the ability of others to shoot around them). This is why every situation must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. What we’re really talking about is the escalation of conflict–whether done to […]

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