The genocide we know, and the genocide we fear

Given the inordinate number of presidential debates over the past several months, it would have been easy to miss one important question during a June debate in New Hampshire.

With Bill Richardson’s earlier involvement in negotiations with the Sudanese government to help bring an end to the Darfur genocide, Wolf Blitzer forwarded the assertion that a genocide in Iraq would result from a quick withdrawal of U.S. forces before asking, “What moral responsibility does the United States have to deal with that scenario?” Richardson’s response would reach every corner of his platform while evading the entirety of the question.

The juxtaposing of the current genocide in Darfur and the potential one in Iraq has actually been quite prevalent on the congressional floors. As supporters of our continued troop presence in Iraq have asserted that they are the only bulwark against a Shiite onslaught on the minority Sunni population, pullout proponents have invoked the Darfur crisis to claim that a continued presence undercuts our ability to confront future humanitarian calamities.

Yet the Sunni genocide potentiality hasn’t had as much traction as one would think. While it certainly doesn’t help that this argument has been largely forwarded by the war’s most ardent supporters, the Bush administration in particular, it seems that the claim has lacked a clear historical model to hang its rhetorical hat on. After all, a Sunni genocide will likely not be as kinetic and machete-laden as that in Rwanda, and may not possess a signature moment of woeful barbarism like the Srebrenica massacre was for the Bosnian genocide.

But the prospect is a very real one, and much too serious to be shuffled off into the category of the “hypothetical.” It is therefore fitting that the discussion of an Iraqi genocide has been linked with Sudan, as the history of this nation offers us a probative glimpse.

Like Iraq, a nationwide identity in Sudan has never truly surfaced over 50 years of independence. Sudanese society is profoundly segmented between the Arab Muslim majority in the north and the rest of the country, which showcases Christians, animists and many ethnic subgroups.

The signature of Sudanese sectarianism has been a Khartoum regime — historically disinterested in power-sharing and, more importantly, keen on monopolizing the nation’s lucrative oil and rare water reserves — that has used the entirety of its military might to maintain political ascendancy over the non-Muslim population, fending off many insurgency efforts that have filled the void of a substantive political process.

The result has not been a fairly short, atavistic civil war or a quickened mass murder of the Sudanese minority population. Rather, it has been a steady stream of undulating violence with occasional interstices of peace, spanning over five decades, and creating the path for the mass displacement, not to mention death, of millions of minority Sudanese.

The Iraqi variation of this nightmare would display elements of the military, police forces, the Badr Brigade and the Mahdi Army consistently using force to consolidate Shiite power in the absence of U.S. troops, even if they are fighting against each other; at best suppressing yet never wholly defeating the Sunni guerilla insurgency (secular and religious manifestations alike) while Sunni civilians bear much of the cost.

Iraq’s brand of sectarianism and the spoils of oil revenues would only ensure that the state of nature will span decades and generations, as the country would descend into “Sudanization.”

In this scenario, Iraq’s violence will not be entirely motivated by the sheer genocidal intent to kill off all Sunnis, as political dominion, cross-sect enmity and the desire of both sects to protect their populations will figure prominently. Even if it is not traditional, technical genocide, it would be actual, effective genocide and the result will be the same.

Lawmakers calling for a pullout or strategic redeployment in order to save American lives and preserve our military strength are hardly sinners, while those using the Sunni genocide argument for political points are by no means saints. But while some have championed a moral monopoly with the pullout argument, the complex reality is that, given the potential genocide, a continued troop presence also possesses real moral value.

This does not necessarily make it the best option, nor is endorsing this policy synonymous with supporting a permanent U.S. military presence. However, it is an option that must be analyzed repeatedly, intensely and doggedly before deciding to go the other way.

Beyond the human cost, the war’s greatest tragedy is perhaps that all of our moral interests are becoming mutually exclusive. In spite of this challenge, lawmakers owe it to the country to engage in the type of deep and extraordinarily difficult analysis that the Bush White House flagrantly avoided before our boots touched Iraqi ground.

Mikhail is a former staff writer for The Hill.