Fighting for Darfur: Public Action and the Struggle to Stop Genocide | by Rebecca Hamilton | Palgrave MacMillan | 272 pages, $26.00

If machetes (rise and) fall in Africa and no American voters are listening, do American politicians care? No, says history. “If every member of the House and Senate had received one hundred letters from people back home saying we have to do something about Rwanda,” a senator explained in 1994 after the United States stood by while 800,000 people were butchered in three months, “then I think the response would have been different.” No one wrote, and popular silence abetted official indifference.

The Darfur lobby changed everything. In the summer of 2003, the government of Sudan and its proxies targeted non-Arab civilians in a region called Darfur. Hundreds of thousands would die, millions would be displaced. But this time, Americans would write, call, march, divest, and lobby in a coordinated multi-year campaign to change their government’s foreign policy. This was a dream come true for human rights advocates accustomed to political irrelevance: a genocide in faraway Darfur became a major issue in domestic politics. The Darfur lobby was born, as Rebecca Hamilton recounts in Fighting for Darfur, a history of American policy on Darfur between 2003-2010 and the mass movement that sought to direct it. Hamilton, a Harvard-trained lawyer and current Sudan correspondent for The Washington Post, knows the movement well because she was once among its leaders.

At the peak of its influence in 2006, the Darfur lobby, led by a sprawling coalition called Save Darfur, shaped American policy and priorities. It had loosened congressional purse strings (to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars in peacekeeping costs and a billion dollars more in humanitarian aid), constricted Sudan with economic sanctions, and hounded President Bush to send peacekeepers. A White House staffer gushed: “We would meet with Save Darfur and tell them what amount of money was needed, then they would go [to Congress]… and come back with more!” Another administration official complained: getting 100,000 e-mails from activists on the first week of the job “pisses you off.”

The Darfur lobby even won the ear of a president. George W. Bush emerges as a surprisingly sympathetic, if constrained, character in Hamilton’s many vignettes. Early in his presidency, in the margins of a damning report on the Clinton administration’s response to the genocide in Rwanda, he writes “Not on my watch.” In a meeting with Darfur activists, he speaks of a universal “freedom from genocide.” Behind closed doors, he reads critical New York Times coverage and slams a table to demand more effective policies from his advisors. Publicly, he pushes for armed international protection for Darfuris: “There have to be consequences for murder and rape, which means you have to have a presence on the ground that can use force.” He even consents to an International Criminal Court investigation in Darfur, despite his deep-seated opposition to that institution, which leads to a landmark indictment of Sudan’s sitting president, Omar al-Bashir. Alas, Bush’s enthusiasm for saving Darfur withers in the shadow of his misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bush “very reluctantly” opts against another U.S. military intervention in a Muslim country, recounts a senior advisor. He then pins his hopes on NATO, and, later on, the UN—largely, it turns out, in vain.

Fighting for Darfur begins with a whirlwind tour of Sudanese history, and reminds us that Darfur is more than a vacuum where people go to die. Ethnic conflict dates back to the 1980s, when members of one African ethnic group warned, presciently, of a “Holocaust.” Sudan is the largest country in Africa and site of a brutal civil war between North and South that lasted between 1983-2005 and claimed two million lives. Darfur burned as a historic North/South peace deal was finalized and signed; the international community was forced to divide its attention between a burgeoning crisis and a separate peace within the same country.

How to explain the anomalous outpouring of American sympathy for Darfuris—black (!), African (!!), Muslim (!!!) Darfuris? Some claim that unprecedented social media makes faraway atrocities ever harder to ignore (dude, people are dying on my iPhone), and that the human rights community has cracked the code for political impact (ape the National Rifle Association, but for genocide). There is something to this, but certainly less than its proponents claim, as the muted response to the far-greater human toll in Congo demonstrates.

Andrew Stobo Sniderman is a Sauvé Scholar at McGill University and studied international relations at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. He was, once upon a time, a leader in the Darfur lobby. His writings are collected at www.Stobo.ca.