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Time for the Save Darfur Movement to Declare Victory

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Are the next 18 months a make-or-break time for the Save Darfur movement? So argues Randy Newcomb, a movement leader, in Foreign Policy magazine. Newcomb argues that the forthcoming dissolution of Sudan into two separate countries (following a 2011 referendum) may presage the return to civil war. If the Obama administration doesn't provide a clear roadmap for how to handle the dissolution of Sudan, disaster may ensue. So, Newcomb writes, it is up to the movement to convince the Obama administration to make good with that roadmap. Another movement leader, John Norris of the Enough Project agrees. "The time for activism is now," says Norris.

I respectfully disagree. The time for activism is long gone. In terms of being able to affect change, the movement has played itself out. This is not meant to diminish the accomplishments of the Save Darfur movement. In fact, I would argue that the Save Darfur movement is a singular example of successful activism (thanks, in part, to the likes of Newcomb and Norris). Like the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s, the Save Darfur movement was able to bring to light a disaster halfway around the world and nurture a general political consensus around it. In fact, the movement was so successful it infiltrated the institution whose behavior it was seeking to change. A number of the leading lights of the Save Darfur movement now hold top positions in the Obama administration. Darfur is a household name.

These are amazing successes -- for any movement.

But we are now at a point where outside pressure has reached its limit. Unlike the previous administration, the Obama administration does not need convincing that Darfur should fit somewhere on its roster of global issues to which it ought to pay attention. Thanks to the movement it's already there.

Rather, the question now is what to do about Sudan policy, which is something relegated to the vagaries of the inter-agency policy making process. And here, there is a dispute within the Obama administration on the best way to approach Sudan. On the one hand, movement alumni in the administration are pressing for a hard line while others, like Sudan Envoy Scott Gration, reportedly prefer a more conciliatory approach that the movement abhors.

It is hard for me to see how activism (among, frankly, people who will vote Obama anyway) can influence this inter-agency debate. It seems hard to distill support for Susan Rice's policy prescriptions over those of Scott Gration and the State Department's Sudan desk into a placard. It's unrealistic to ask a movement to get that in the weeds of a policy debate. Furthermore, pinning the success or failure of the movement on the outcome of that interagency debate does disservice to the great successes that the movement has achieved.

The fate of Sudan may very well hang in the balance over the next 18 months. But the trajectory of U.S. policy toward Sudan depends more on whether key administration officials are willing to go down in flames in support of policies they think will make a difference than activists making phone calls or attending rallies.

Cross posted at UN Dispatch