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Andreas Kluth: We can't bear to think about Sudan and Haiti, so we don't

Andreas Kluth, Bloomberg Opinion on

Published in Op Eds

Desperate to find food for their children, the women go into the fields to forage, only to be raped, to come home and then to return to the same fields the next day. So one Sudanese woman told Tom Perriello, who was appointed US Special Envoy to Sudan recently. The people he met there told him the country was a “hell hole.”

For most Western observers, the scale and nature of the suffering in Sudan, like the origins and logic of the multi-layered conflicts causing it, exceed comprehension. One year into the most recent outbreak of warfare (of many rounds since Sudan’s independence in 1956), genocidal killing and famine have returned with a vengeance. The United Nations reports mass graves and gang rapes, 18 million people at risk of starvation, and almost 10 million displaced within the country in addition to the 1.8 million who’ve fled to neighboring states such as Chad and South Sudan, which are themselves in dire straits.

In the face of such an overwhelming catastrophe, what is a US diplomat like Perriello supposed to do? Sure, he’s trying to facilitate talks between the various factions: The main antagonists are two rival warlords, who jointly deposed Sudan’s longtime dictator in 2019 before unleashing their militias on one another last April, in the process devastating entire villages and ethnic groups that happen to find themselves in the way.

Perriello also wants to engage other outside powers wielding influence, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Along with the more nefarious actors Russia and Iran, these states increasingly view the Horn of Africa and the Sahel as this century’s equivalent of Afghanistan in the 19th century, when the world’s imperialists played their “Great Game” of geopolitical influence schemes.

Inevitably, though, Perriello also lets a welling frustration peek through his diplomatic mien. The scale of the crisis in Sudan, he said after a recent visit, “has not been met by global attention and, frankly, media attention.”

He’s right, of course, as I, on behalf of the media, confess. My colleagues and I have been writing tomes about the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, the sadistic terrorist attack against Israel as well as its massive retaliation in the Gaza Strip. We’ve devoted much less ink to the violence and misery in Sudan, Haiti or Myanmar.

Why? In Port-au-Prince as in the worst-hit Israeli kibbutzim on Oct. 7, women have recently been raped and sexually mutilated and corpses have been left to lie in the streets. But we read much less about the atrocities in one place than in the other.

It’s tempting to blame unconscious racism. (Many people in the so-called Global South certainly do, accusing the West of hypocrisy in demanding a united front against Russian aggression, say, but not against other outrages.) Western newsrooms are still staffed disproportionately by pale people like me, who may empathize more readily with victims whose phenotype looks familiar. Evolutionary biology, unfortunately, may have predisposed us to such “selective empathy.” All the more reason to be alert for bias and override it.

My former colleague Gideon Rachman takes this thought one step further and sees “identity geopolitics” at work. As our societies in the West become more polarized and tribal, we tend to project our identities onto the rest of the world. In the US, for instance, some Muslims and Jews, Democrats and Republicans, assert their national affiliations by selectively caring more about some groups abroad than others.

 

While these explanations seem plausible, I’d add a conceptual one. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, the terrorist attack against Israel and the Israeli response, as well as potential conflicts in the South China Sea or the Korean Peninsula, fall into analytic frames familiar to strategists, politicians and columnists. Those are conflicts between states, or between a state and an entity that is denied statehood (such as Palestine). That makes them easier for us to analyze.

Conflicts such as those in Sudan or Haiti, by contrast, are intra-, sub- or simply non-state. They represent the reversion to a primordial anarchy, when government and order dissolve and violence takes over. In Haiti, for example, prison gangs have displaced the police in running the place. The result is the “war of all against all” that the philosopher Thomas Hobbes described in the wretched 17th century.

So we in the still-kinda-sorta orderly West shudder and recoil from conflicts in Sudan and Haiti, because they remind us how thin the veneer of civilization is even at home, and how easily “Sudan” or “Haiti” could one day come to the US, Europe or any place — and I don’t just mean via mass migration.

We’re also tempted to look the other way because we’re vaguely aware that we in the West, through our colonial and superpower meddling, played unsavory roles in destabilizing these places. The US, for instance, brutally occupied Haiti a century ago, and has intervened repeatedly and haplessly since.

But ultimately, we avert our eyes because we’re speechless. Our record of intervening in conflicts of anarchy has been dismal, and domestic support for new efforts is nugatory, as is any coherent plan about what we would actually do. Neither columnists like me nor diplomats like Tom Perriello, prodded to offer solutions, have much useful to offer. If we seem not to pay attention, it’s not because we don’t care. It’s because we’re at a loss.

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering US diplomacy, national security and geopolitics. Previously, he was editor-in-chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist.


©2024 Bloomberg L.P. Visit bloomberg.com/opinion. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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