President Obama is too busy to save Darfur.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
April 9 2009 12:31 PM

Too Busy To Save Darfur

The Obama administration has very few options for solving the crisis in Sudan.

Omar al-Bashir. Click image to expand.
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir

Sudan's sovereignty has been violated twice in recent weeks. It was violated physically by an Israeli attempt to find a simple remedy to a relatively simple problem. It was violated symbolically by the International Criminal Court, which sought and failed to find a simple remedy to a complicated problem, thus making it even more complicated. One sobering lesson can be drawn from these two incidents: In Sudan, as in the Wild West, if you want to shoot, shoot. Talk will get you nowhere.

The stories have already been told by the media: Israel sent airplanes to destroy convoys traveling through Sudan that were carrying weapons headed to Palestinian radicals in Gaza. The ICC issued an arrest warrant against Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir—the first such warrant against a sitting head of state—charging him with war crimes and crimes against humanity related to the ongoing crisis in the Darfur region. Israel's grievances were solved, at least temporarily, by the use of force. The ICC warrant was backed by some words of praise from human rights groups, but it did not solve the problem—instead, it made things "harder," as Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair put it at a Senate hearing.

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Al-Bashir has already established the ineffectiveness of the ICC warrant by traveling to a host of countries and, more importantly, by demonstrating his ability to retaliate against the core goals of those wanting to bring him to justice: He expelled several aid groups from Darfur and threatened to eliminate all international aid to the war-stricken population within a year.

Nothing less than this reaction should have been expected. While many tend to forget this, preventing genocide involves the most blatant of all international actions: ignoring the sovereignty of a country and imposing a code of conduct on its government. In most cases, the offending party is a government that believes its actions will be crucial to the survival of the regime or the state. Convincing, cajoling, or pressuring is hardly enough when survival—even a false belief that survival is involved—is at stake.

So Washington's newly appointed envoy to Sudan, Scott Gration, said Saturday that he believes "we are on the brink of a deepening crisis in Darfur." That's the good news. The bad news is that the Obama administration has very few options for dealing with the crisis, very few brakes it can use to halt the wagon skidding toward this "brink." If the United States decides that it needs to back the ICC measure, on understandable moral grounds—as it was trying, subtly, not to do—the Obama team will upset all hope for productive cooperation with the Sudanese government. If it publicly shuns attempts to bring al-Bashir to justice, it will upset the activists hoping to finally take a stand against evil and will make a mockery of the idea of justice.

Not long ago, in a conference call for Darfur advocates, Jerry Fowler, who runs the Save Darfur Coalition, raised a question: "Why is there a disconnect between how passionately and articulately candidate Obama addressed the issue of Darfur and said that the genocide there is a stain on our souls—and what President Obama is doing and saying now with millions of lives at stake?" This question is easy to answer: There's always a difference between campaign rhetoric and the actions of the subsequent government. Only a fool, or someone who is extremely naive, believes everything a candidate says.

No doubt Obama was sincere when he spoke out about Darfur—but his predecessor, President George Bush, was just as sincere and just as committed to the cause. He was also just as ineffective. That's because at the core of the crisis is a question that very few are brave enough, sober enough, or cynical enough to answer properly. While the activist can ask, "What should the goal be?"—the answer to which is "stop the genocide"—the president must ask a different question: What is the price the United States would be willing to pay to save what's left of Darfur?

The answer both presidents have given is devastatingly similar: not much.

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