This weekend I finally finished reading two important recent books on Africa: Martin Meredith’s massive The Fate of Africa: From The Hopes of Freedom To The Heart of Despair, and Gerard Prunier’s relatively short but intense Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide. Both books are already helping fuel a growing debate in the U.S. and in Europe about what if anything “the international community” can do to solve Africa’s general problems, and the immediate and deadly crisis in Darfur.Meredith’s book, which attempts a panoramic history of post-colonial Africa, is fascinating, instructive, and impressively well-written, but as the subtitle suggests, his tale is one of unremitting woe and disillusionment. As you read through his roughly chronological account which shifts from region to region, the bright spots of independent Africa steadily blink out, and country after country devolves into corruption, tyranny, bankruptcy, and savage armed conflict (Botswana is the only country earning unqualified praise from Meredith, with South Africa being judged a qualified success).Indeed, I fear that Meredith’s book may have an impact on general readers similiar to that of Robert Kaplan’s 1993 book Balkan Ghosts, a cautionary tale about the depth of ethnic confilicts in the post-communist Balkans that reportedly influenced Bill Clinton to avoid U.S. intervention in the Bosnian civil war. Why bother trying to do anything about impossible people in impossible places?But Meredith has a very distinct point of view about what’s gone wrong in Africa, and what that means for non-Africans who want to do something constructive about it. As he relentlessly tells us, Africa’s failure is above all a failure in political leadership, and until its elites figure that out and do something fundamental about it, nothing else matters. As Andrew Rice usefully explained in The Nation a few weeks ago, this position places Meredith near one extreme, with Jeffrey Sachs on the other, in the ongoing chicken-and-egg debate on whether Africa’s poverty causes misgovernment, or its misgovernment causes poverty. (You should also read Sam Rosenfeld’s October interview with Meredith on the American Prospect site, wherein Meredith makes it clear he is indeed skeptical of the current Blair-and-Sachs-led effort to dramatically boost no-strings aid to Africa). Like Meredith, the French ethnographer Gerard Prunier focuses on political factors in his complex and ultimately angry book about Darfur. And even more than Meredith, he is disdainful of those who think humanitaritan assistance will solve the conflict that has probably killed over 300,000 people and displaced–while destroying the livelihoods of–more than two million people. But Prunier certainly doesn’t counsel international inaction until such time as the Sudanese get their act together. Au contraire: the major thrust of his book is to explain how Darfur was dragged into the current nightmare by the conflicts and intrigues of its neighbors, and then to indict the many excuses “the international community” has given itself from taking the diplomatic and military steps that could have stopped the killing, and still could.I’m writing a full review of Prunier’s book for Blueprint Magazine, but I encourage anyone interesed in Africa to read it, and to read Meredith as well.
TDS Strategy Memos
Latest Research from:
By Ed Kilgore
Watching an intra-Democratic argument on voting rights strategy intensify in Washington, I offered some advice to both sides at New York:
There has been an underlying disagreement within the mostly Democratic coalition favoring voting rights that was nicely captured in this New York Times report on Friday:
“A quiet divide between President Biden and the leaders of the voting rights movement burst into the open on Thursday, as 150 organizations urged him to use his political mettle to push for two expansive federal voting rights bills that would combat a Republican wave of balloting restrictions … In private calls with voting rights groups and civil rights leaders, White House officials and close allies of the president have expressed confidence that it is possible to ‘out-organize voter suppression,’ according to multiple people familiar with the conversations.”
Both sides in this argument are partly wrong. Those who expect Joe Biden to force the For the People Act or the John Lewis Voting Rights Act through the Senate via some major revision in the ability to filibuster are probably expecting the impossible. Yes, perhaps if Biden personally and insistently and abrasively lobbied Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema to abandon her very consistent defense of the filibuster, up to and including encouragement of a primary challenge to her when she is up for reelection in 2024, she might decide her current and very insistent independent-maverick “branding” isn’t going to keep working for her. But Joe Manchin? He would be thrilled to get attacked by a Democratic president or Democratic advocacy groups for insisting that he won’t support voting-rights measures unless at least some Republicans support them. His state is so very red that the threat of a primary challenge to the sole remaining successful West Virginia Democrat is a laugher.
Short of a nuclear attack on West Virginia, it’s hard to identify anything Biden might do to Manchin that wouldn’t run a high risk of backfiring. And he does need Manchin on the reconciliation bills Democrats are using to get around the filibuster to enact Biden’s social and economic agenda. It’s just too bad voting-rights bills don’t qualify for reconciliation.
Yes, it is intensely frustrating that Biden cannot bring himself to come out forthrightly for filibuster reform, but it probably doesn’t matter since it is not happening unless the Democratic Senate Conference gets bigger, making senators like Manchin and Sinema irrelevant on the subject. So at some point voting-rights advocates need to focus on that goal.
At the same time, White House claims that Democrats can “out-organize voter suppression” are partially wrong as well. Yes, restrictive provisions like voter-ID requirements, limits on voting by mail, and even voter-roll purges can be countered and perhaps overcome by intensive efforts to educate and energize the voters Republicans are trying to keep from the polls. But you cannot out-organize a partisan gerrymander, or a law that lets election officials or state legislators overturn the outcome of an election after votes are cast.
Voting-rights advocates will eventually have to play the cards dealt to them by the system as it currently exists. That means refraining from too much anger aimed at Democratic pols who have little choice but to concede defeat on some legislation and concentrate on legislation (i.e., those reconciliation bills with many items vital to the people whose voting rights are also under attack) they can enact with no margin for error in the Senate and little in the House. At the same time, Biden and his staff and Democratic “pragmatists” in Congress should never for a moment be cavalier about the legislative obstacles they face in defending democracy itself. They may have to accept a tactical defeat on voting rights in this Congress. But they should never, ever, give up on making it happen later if not sooner.