Thursday, March 19, 2009

Darfur Awaits Real Action by W.P.E.B.

Darfur, with its blatant genocide, was one of those evocative, highly symbolic issues tailor-made for Candidate Obama's "hope and change" routine. He called it a "stain on our hearts" and promised "immediate steps to end the genocide in Darfur," with "increasing pressure" on the Sudanese government to "halt the killing." But the soaring rhetoric as candidate and lack of action as president have, deservedly, brought Mr. Obama growing criticism from the human rights community.

Responding to his critics, on Wednesday Mr. Obama appointed retired Air Force Maj. Gen. J. Scott Gration as special envoy to Sudan, taking over from Bush-era envoy Richard Williamson. Jerry Fowler of the Save Darfur Coalition told The Washington Times that there had been a gap between Mr. Obama's promises and his policies, but that "hopefully this gap is closing." He sees a ripe opportunity for diplomatic action to isolate Khartoum.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, with her keen eye for the obvious, has stated that "the real question is what kind of pressure can be brought to bear on President Bashir and the government in Khartoum." Presumably she is supposed to supply the answer to that question, not just keep asking it. One of her ideas is to resurrect the "no-fly zone" craze of the 1990s, to stop the use of helicopters in the genocide campaign. The Darfur region is slightly larger than Iraq, and there is little support infrastructure in the area, so this would entail a major investment of money and personnel when the United States is short on both. We also doubt it would have much impact since the Sudanese could simply ramp up their ground operations much as Saddam did.

The normally pacific U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice has suggested that the U.S. go one step further and authorize the use of force, in particular American air strikes and the deployment of a U.N. response force. Given the paucity of critical targets in Sudan and the questionable economics of using million-dollar munitions to destroy thousand-dollar hooches, this may be more a case of bravado than sound military strategy.

But these options aside, we doubt the administration will be interested in intervening in Darfur at all, despite the despicable horrors to many hundreds of thousands of innocent people. Many other nations that could get involved are sitting on their hands or averting their eyes. The surge in Afghanistan, the drawdown in Iraq and the continued war against global terrorism are much higher priorities. There are limits to what we can do with force, and limits to the kind of commitments other nations want to make. And isn't this brand of idealism out of fashion these days? Isn't concern about human rights and the suffering of people living under the heel of dictators the very thing that the neocons and other bogeymen took hits for?

For his part, Sudanese President Omar al-Hassan Bashir was unfazed, even emboldened, after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for war crimes and crimes against humanity (but not, significantly, genocide). The U.S. does not recognize the ICC, which has made it difficult to ramp up the rhetoric; State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid had to quickly correct his statement that Bashir was a "fugitive from justice," noting lamely that it was "only in the eyes of the ICC." Bashir has ejected 10 human rights groups, and his henchmen recently attacked a U.N. peacekeeping patrol. His international supporters in China and the Arab world have not made a peep. We fear that the people who voted for Mr. Obama expecting meaningful change in Sudan, as well as a million or more poor souls continuing to suffer in Darfur, are unfortunately in for great disappointment.

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