President Obama is too busy to save Darfur.

President Obama is too busy to save Darfur.

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.

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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.

Washington will occasionally be willing to act against genocide when it has no other urgent matters to deal with (Clinton in Bosnia in the 1990s) but will not act when the president is too busy with other foreign-policy crises (George W. Bush in Iraq) or when he has to weigh the battle against genocide against other important U.S. interests (Obama). This is still much better than what most other countries do—but it's far from enough.

At the end of a long article in a recent issue of Commentary, Tod Lindberg notes, "In the extreme case, halting or failing to halt genocide has come down to whether the political will exists within the United States to act." That's a burden not all Americans and very few administrations are willing to shoulder.

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Look at the price tag the Obama administration would be asked to pay: Arab nations oppose all the measures meted out against al-Bashir and his government, as was shown in statements that came out of the Arab League summit in Doha, Qatar, last week. "We stress our solidarity with Sudan and our rejection of the ICC decision against President Omar al-Bashir," Arab leaders declared. Some say they hold this position because they fear they could be next in line; some believe it's because they are concerned about the future stability of the already fragile country. The appalling result is Arab support for a despotic government. But the Obama administration has vowed to improve relations with the Arab world—and hunting down al-Bashir is hardly a good start.

Then there's the issue of China. As Will Inboden observed last month in Foreign Policy: "The two most notable headlines from the Obama administration's China policy thus far consist of pleas to Beijing to finance more U.S. debt and obsequious promises not to press China too much on human rights. This is not an encouraging trajectory." Certainly not if you consider Darfur a priority. We can't hope to pressure Khartoum effectively without Beijing's cooperation. But the risk involved in making China more cooperative doesn't seem to be one that Washington is willing to take. Not for a while, anyway.

The last option—the so-called "last resort" option—is the use of force. Once upon a time, Vice President Joe Biden supported this path. "I would use American force now," Biden said at a hearing before the Senate foreign relations committee. "I think it's not only time not to take force off the table. I think it's time to put force on the table and use it." Obama himself wasn't as blunt, but he also talked about force. Just not U.S. force. He hoped for a "large, capable U.N.-led and U.N.-funded force with a robust enforcement mandate to stop the killings." What he got instead is a court order that is robust enough to make al-Bashir laugh.

Back in August 2008, the New Republic's Richard Just wrote a long, masterful piece explaining the failure of the campaign to save Darfur. "[W]hen it came to the question of troops," he wrote, "the Darfur activists were split. Many were uncomfortable with the use of force." Eventually, "the movement coalesced around the idea that U.N. troops were the answer. In the wake of the Iraq debacle, the idea of sending U.N. peacekeepers to Darfur represented for many activists a sort of safe compromise—troops would be put on the ground, but American power would not be wielded. It was military action that they could endorse without opening a dissonance in their worldview."

It was a pipe dream—as every student of world affairs could have told them. It's a way for activists to keep their consciences clean, perhaps, more than a serious attempt to stop genocide. And the ICC warrant is no different. Same with the special envoys and global condemnation. It is time to admit that genocide will be stopped in some cases, but only when the United States has no other urgent tasks to deal with.