As I begin my fifth week of research here at the Wilson Center, I’ve come to realize how much I don’t know. My research focuses on pariah states, which are countries whose internal customs and practices exclude them from the international community. Although I wanted to spend only a week on each state (I’ve been asked to research Zimbabwe, Sudan, Libya and Burma, as well as any other states that might fit the description) I quickly became mired in Zimbabwe, which is particularly provocative given the runoff “election” that took place this Friday.

Zimbabwe’s crisis
Last week, I attended a meeting at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, which was billed as a discussion about the roles of South Africa and Nigeria as sub-Saharan regional strongmen. However, it quickly morphed into a harsh criticism of South African President Thabo Mbeki’s inaction in stanching the Zimbabwean political crisis.

The chief speaker, a scholar from Nigeria, tweaked the West for expecting too much from Mbeki, whose “quiet diplomacy” approach – he believed – would be vindicated in time. This, understandably, caused some controversy in the room, particularly given the flood of op-eds in the Times and Post placing a great deal of responsibility for Zimbabwe’s turmoil upon Mbeki’s shoulders.

I see merits in both sides of the argument – if Mbeki were to decry Zimbabwe he’d be painted by Mugabe as a pawn of the West, but at the same time the country is steeped in such visible and egregious corruption that not doing anything appears to be a crime in itself.

Read this book
I’ve also recently finished reading What Is the What, the novelized autobiography of a Sudanese refugee named Valentino Achak Deng, written by Dave Eggers. It’s been a long time since I’ve read an “important” book – the kind that can make you change the way you think, or the kind you want to buy hundreds of copies of and distribute on the streets just so people will read it – but this, truly, is it.

I’d bought it almost a year ago but hadn’t read past the first few pages; only after researching Sudan for my Wilson Center work did I realize how much I needed to finish it. People often conflate the Darfur genocide with the larger political crisis in Sudan, but they are not the same; this book in particular deals with the Second Sudanese Civil War, in which the Arab/Muslim North was pitted against the Christian/animist South, devastating the country. The 2003 Comprehensive Peace Agreement nominally ended the fighting, but there are uneasy indications of another civil war, particularly if the government in Khartoum does not implement all of the agreed-upon provisions of the treaty.

These facts – the names of the rival political parties, the death tolls, the underlying causes of the dispute – are faceless and abstract, which is why What is the What is such a devastating book. It follows Valentino Deng as he flees Sudan with thousands of other young children known as the Lost Boys of Sudan. Reading about their desperate searches for food, their struggles against disease, the idylls of their childhood days destroyed by war, made me wish I could drop everything on this continent and fly to that one.

This is the contradiction of being in DC – there’s a think tank on every corner, hosting conferences and conducting research in an attempt to analyze the world’s problems, but I can’t help but think that there’s a difference between sipping Pellegrino at a self-conscious policy discussion and doing trench work in a Sudanese refugee camp. Obviously being able to understand the situation – as opposed to just blindly going in – is vital, which is why I’m glad to have a very research-intensive internship this summer; I just hope to be able to go to the front lines one of these days.

A talk with Justice Breyer

Speaking of policy discussions, I went to Brookings last week to hear Justice Breyer give a talk on the importance of international law in American governance – he and Justice Kennedy have been particularly criticized for their citations of foreign constitutions and precedents in their decisions. We’d analyzed Breyer’s opinions and voting patterns in Professor Kobylka’s Civil Liberties class last semester, so it was fairly surreal to see him in person, and in a suit to boot (for some reason I pictured him giving his lecture in judge robes, which in retrospect I realize would have been ridiculous).

Justice Breyer is certainly one of my favorites jurisprudentially – although some of his drier opinions were torturous to wade through before exams – and his speech was witty and surprisingly not too esoteric. Needless to say, I learned a lot this week, although one thing is for certain – I have a lot more to go.