Is that Darfur Letter a Slam Dunk?

(Brace yourself. This is easily the most academic, international, and dense post in TrueHoop history.)

Charles P. Pierce writes on Slate that LeBron James has clearly erred by not signing on to his teammate's Darfur activism.

In April, Ira Newble, a teammate of James' on the Cavaliers, drafted an angry open letter to the Chinese government, excoriating it for its heavy investment in Sudan and, therefore, its involvement in the genocidal atrocities in Darfur. Every member of the Cavaliers save two signed the letter. One was Damon Jones. The other was LeBron James. Since then, James has taken a bit of heat for his reluctance, most notably in the Christian Science Monitor, which not unreasonably speculates on the economic reasons why he failed to put his weight behind Newble's letter. Of course, Jordan wrote the book on how to become a wildly popular and successful athlete without demonstrating even the sliver of a public conscience. More to the point, he created a new template for risk-free stardom, whereby involvement in the unruly hurly-burly of the real world is something that a star is not expected to do. Do the public-service ads for the safe issues, but go no deeper into the forces that create those issues in the first place.

And that's the real pity. The Darfur letter was, you should pardon the expression, a slam dunk. Had James signed it, nothing would have happened to him. Were Coke and Microsoft going to cancel his contracts while he was putting up a transcendent playoff performance? Not bloody likely, and that goes double for Nike, which is as heavily invested in China as it is in James himself. The NBA wouldn't have dared say anything, not with the league slow-dancing with the Chinese government itself. And does any person with the moral compass that God gave the common gopher really care what the International Olympic Committee says about anything any more? James could have signed the letter, explained why he did it, once, and been on his way. I don't believe he declined to do so because he is uncaring, or because he is uninformed. I think he declined because he was asked to do something that athletes of his stature do not do anymore.

It's no longer part of the job. You might as well have asked him to play in canvas shoes or travel by train. It's not the way to Be Like Mike, which sounds more and more like a curse as the years go by.

Pierce makes it sound so great, right? Sign the damn letter, LeBron, right?

(Let's set aside, for the moment, that Pierce ignores any potential reaction from the Chinese, who have all kinds of leverage with Nike, the NBA, and LeBron James, who stars in an 08.08.08 campaign set to explode on a Chinese stage. Not that these are good reasons for James not to sign if he thinks it's the right thing to do, but it is an oversimplification to say James has no downside.)

Let's pause a moment, though. How did we get here? It really started with Cavalier Ira Newble getting motivated to help the people of Darfur, in part by seeing the movie Hotel Rwanda. That movie is not about Darfur but is about the West standing idly by as Africans are massacred. (Interesting speech by the man the film was based on.)

So, as someone who is in favor of athletes using their spotlight to do more than just sell razors, beverages, and sneakers, I like the idea that Ira Newble feels compelled to do ... something. For much of the world these are hard times we live in and awareness and compassion go a long way to making things better.

That said, I am one of those millions of people who is woefully ignorant about what is actually happening in Darfur. This letter that LeBron James won't sign -- is it on the money? Is this activism that actually has a decent shot at meaningful peace?

You can read the whole letter from Dream for Darfur here. The key points are:

  • "... protection for millions of vulnerable civilians ..."

  • A call for international "outrage."

  • "... we call on the People's Republic of China to use all available diplomatic resources and economic pressure to end the agony of Darfur, and to secure access for UN peace support personnel."

To figure out if this is a smart approach, I called my friend Danny Hoffman, who happens to be an Africaist at the University of Washington. He gave the general impression that everyone always wants peacekeepers -- it's the appealing alternative -- yet in practice their efficacy on the ground has been limited. In many cases, he says, they are untrained, underfunded, understaffed, underequipped, and lacking a clear sense of mandate.

He then said that I should call Alex de Waal, who knows a ton about Darfur (and in addition to several articles including these, has written a book, and even a fledgling blog on the topic).

I did a little googling and found that there are many differing opinions about what solution will best serve Darfur. In fact, if you're in the mood for an insightful debate about how best to resolve the Darfur crisis, listen to this debate between John Prendergast and Alex de Waal.

Alex de Waal is among those least enthusiastic about a military solution. In November 2006, he wrote in the London Review of Books:

Military intervention won't stop the killing. Those who are clamouring for troops to fight their way into Darfur are suffering from a salvation delusion. It's a simple reality that UN troops can't stop an ongoing war, and their record at protecting civilians is far from perfect. Moreover, the idea of Bush and Blair acting as global moral arbiters doesn't travel well. The crisis in Darfur is political. It's a civil war, and like all wars it needs a political settlement.

Yesterday, I talked to Alex de Waal. Very nice of him to take the time out of his schedule of truly important things to deliver Darfur 101 to a sports reporter.

His main point is that the long-term end to the suffering that everyone wants will come not so much from peacekeepers, but from getting the players involved on a track to meaningful negotiations that could, long-term, lead to democracy.

Democracy and peace good. Violence and mayhem bad. Right?

China is Sudan's preeminent trading partner, and if there the potential for peace in Darfur and an international victory of Chinese diplomacy leading up the Olympics, then de Waal believes China will work to make it happen -- most likely by pressuring the Sudanese government into meaningful negotiations with the rebel groups they are fighting.

The beefed-up peacekeeping force called for in the letter, de Waal allows, will and should happen. But he hopes that t
he military intervention is not too grand -- as it will confirm the Sudanese government's inaccurate suspicions that what the West really wants is regime change. And when they believe that, Washington loses credibility and leverage in a longer-term political solution.

So, my question is ... should someone like LeBron James -- who figures to be the big star of the 2008 Beijing Olympics -- sign something like this letter?

It's complex, de Waal tells me:

"You can argue the pros and cons of various individual actions like that. There are very good reasons to engage positively with China. Economic, diplomatic, human rights ... There are huge, good reasons to use the Olympics as a source of leverage over this issue."

"But the key is the focus. Is it possible to specify the finish line? ... More peacekeepers is eminently fair (if too late) as long as it doesn't turn into a huge NATO type force."

"The other thing to call for is real progress with a political solution. The Sudanese government could sign a peace deal, but there's no point in the government signing a peace deal without the rebels, and the other side is in such disarray. It's unfair to hold the government hostage to the organization of their opponents."

"A more modest goal, like to get the parties seriously engaged in talks, and for China to influence that process in a positive way, would make some achievable goals that everyone could congratulate China on by the time of the Olympics. Then you could move to a new stage, where you could address that terrible mess with a new stage of democratization, with elections to follow on a quick timetable after the Olympics. The most important thing about that kind of approach is that it would move China into becoming a different kind of player. The Chinese already realize that the old way of doing business doesn't work. They are big investors in Nigeria, where Chinese are getting abducted with some regularity. They old way of just dealing with the government is not working any more in Africa. They understand, now, that you need to attend to human rights issues, even just for your own reasons."

Which leaves LeBron James in his first NBA Finals, about to have a baby, and wishing this would all just go away. What's a man like him to do?

Here's my suggestion: LeBron James can be more than an activist here. He can be an executive. (Sign the letter or not -- I don't know. The wording is sufficiently vague, even if the intent seems to be shaming the Chinese and solving the problem with peacekeepers.) If he hasn't already, he should pick up the phone. James has the best possible contacts at Nike. Nike has the best possible contacts in China. Couldn't hurt for James to send word down the pipeline that he'd really like to see meaningful progress towards long-term peace in Darfur over the next year. That way, when the attention of the world is on James in Beijing next summer, James can congratulate everyone on their progress, instead of prodding them to do better.

It's not a short-term PR victory for LeBron James, but I believe it could do some real good to bring about peace -- which should, after all, be everyone's goal.