Something must be done. As thousands in the Darfur region of Sudan face famine, rape and ethnic cleansing, the chorus goes up from politicians, NGOs, leader-writers and assorted do-gooders. The liberal interventionist bandwagon rolls. Ministers take to aeroplanes and airwaves, pronouncing the deaths of 50,000 as "unacceptable". The white man prepares to bear his burden, hearing echoes of General Gordon.
During the war against Saddam Hussein, many observed that humanitarian needs in Africa were more urgent than those in Iraq. But the cameras were on the Tigris, not on the Nile. Now, bored with Iraq, the world trains its attention on Sudan, a country that has suffered murderous civil wars over more than 45 years, with only ten years of relative peace. Having cared for Iraq (roughly 70 killed in the latest suicide bombing) and Afghanistan (described by a Labour MP, after a recent visit, as "a basket case"), British and American leaders are now asked to turn their compassion on Sudan. This is a country 35 times larger than Sierra Leone, which needed 17,000 UN troops to pacify it. Do the interventionists propose to send 600,000 troops to Sudan?
Something indeed needs to be done. However, it is not the despatching of an army, which allows us the comfort of showing we care without the smallest cost, inconvenience or risk to ourselves. This, as the international charity World Vision has observed, is the equivalent of fighting multiple brushfires with a garden hose. The wiser fire services now put most effort into fire prevention. Western politicians and international agencies should apply the same principle.
We see civil wars in terms of ethnic or religious rivalries: Arab versus African, Muslim versus Christian. In fact, they are usually rooted in conflicts over resources. Climate changes and population growth created pressure on water and fertile land in Sudan. But many of its problems over the past two decades stem from its oil. The war that raged until recently in the south - killing two million and exiling another million - was partly caused by government attempts to displace communities that got in the way of oil exploration. Darfur itself has no significant oil development, but much of the present conflict was sparked by southern militias, and now the region fears that a peace deal between Khartoum and the southern rebels will cut it off from power and resources. The Darfur conflict, in turn, threatens the fragile southern peace.
How can western governments help Sudan break out of this accursed cycle? First, they can restrain multinationals from ruthless exploitation of natural resources. Second, they can promise immediate debt forgiveness once the militias on all sides are disarmed and a peace settlement assured. Sudan's debt is $20bn, or 250 per cent of its annual GDP. Third, they can assure the Sudanese, and all other poor people, of being able to sell their goods in western markets: a successful resolution to the current round of world trade talks in Geneva (which looked unlikely as the NS went to press) would do more for the future of Africa than any armed brigade. Fourth, they can give Sudan access to cheap generic drugs to fight disease in a country where one child in ten dies before the age of five. Fifth, they can wind down their arms export industries: Sudan is reckoned to have more small arms per head of population than any country in the world, and it is estimated that landmines have already killed 700,000. Sixth, they can lower the obstacles to migrant workers seeking jobs in the developed world: like many other poor nations, Sudan has long depended on remittances from nationals abroad.
All these things are hard. They will upset the oil, arms, pharmaceutical, banking and other powerful industries. They involve removing subsidies and tariff protections from western farmers. They put western jobs at risk. They raise the fearful prospect of opposition politicians exploiting popular fears of being "swamped" by immigrants. Sending a few thousand soldiers, by contrast, is easy. They can hand bread to smiling children, escort doctors and aid workers, march black thugs into custody. Then the politicians can jet in to shake their hands. In our media-dominated age, they offer the ultimate feel-good image.
There may be a case for intervention in Sudan. There is always a case for some sort of intervention. It is hard to remain indifferent when people are being slaughtered (though easier when our own forces do the slaughtering from the air) and impossible not to be moved by cries for help. Yet without changes in trade, finance, aid, migration and other policies, military intervention is worse than useless. In Sudan and elsewhere, the conflicts will recycle themselves.
Mandelson speaks out
There are many reasons to dislike Peter Mandelson: his sensitivity to criticism, his propensity for plotting, his servility to the rich, and the Millennium Dome, to name but a few. But he has become the first British politician to refer in an interview to "wee-wee". He was, admittedly, talking about his dog, confiding to the Guardian that "he [the dog] was so upset [about moving to Brussels, where Mr Mandelson will be an EU commissioner] that he didn't do his normal wee-wee". This is nevertheless a significant moment for the Labour movement. When party leaders dined at the home of Sidney Webb and his formidable wife, Beatrice, in the 1920s, none dared ask for the lavatory, even with one of the many available euphemisms. All, including future prime minister and chancellor, had to (as Mr Mandelson would now say) do "wee-wee" in a ditch on the way home. Mr Mandelson may have driven the final coffin nail into old Labour.