JUNE 3, 2009
Back in 2007, then-candidate Barack Obama minced no words when it came to Sudan. "When you see a genocide, whether it's in Rwanda or Bosnia or in Darfur, that's a stain on all of us," he said. "That's a stain on our souls." Obama is now president, and Darfur is still a mess. What is taking place there today is not simple to describe. People are no longer being killed at the alarming rate of 2003 and 2004. Yet the region continues to attract the world's attention because two million people remain housed in camps where they live on the brink of disease and starvation, with little hope of returning home in the near future. In Germany, Cambodia, and Rwanda, genocides came to a halt when genocidaires were chased from power. But, in Sudan, while the killing has slowed dramatically, those who perpetrated the massacres remain in control of the country, able to toy with the fate of survivors in the cruelest possible manner. Sudan's leaders continue to impede a fair peace settlement, most recently by obstructing Darfuri political representatives from attending peace talks in Addis Ababa. And, in the wake of the indictment of Sudanese President Omar Bashir by the International Criminal Court, the government expelled numerous international aid groups, making the already precarious existence of displaced Darfuris that much worse. Call this situation what you want--the awful aftermath of an unresolved genocide; the second, less violent phase of a bid by Khartoum to punish ethnic groups that supported the rebellion launched in 2003--but, whatever you label Darfur in 2009, it is still a terrible catastrophe.
Since Obama is a pragmatist--and pragmatism is, by definition, what works--we should judge his policies in this area by a single standard: Are they accomplishing the goal of ending Darfur's suffering? We are sad to say that the initial signs have not been encouraging. In fact, as Obama supporters, we are extraordinarily disappointed.
The challenges are twofold. How to get the aid groups back in? And how to push toward a settlement that allows Darfuris to begin returning home--and insulates them from the whims of Khartoum by granting them physical security and some measure of political autonomy? These are urgent matters. Yet Darfur has not seemed to be a priority for the new administration. Even though the situation has grown more dire with the expulsion of the aid groups, Obama has expended few public words on the subject. Maybe he is working furiously behind the scenes to get the aid groups back into the region, but, if that is the case, then he has failed badly, since Sudan is more or less standing its ground. (In a typically obnoxious move, Khartoum has agreed to let in other aid groups, just not the ones that were kicked out in the first place. But, since those kicked out were among the largest and most capable in the world, this is, quite obviously, an unacceptable solution.)
But it is not just the seeming absence of focus on Darfur that troubles us. What little indication we have of the administration's plans has been troubling as well. The Washington Post recently quoted a Darfur activist who had met with Obama's Sudan envoy, Scott Gration, three times. The activist described Gration's approach as follows: "He thinks that to keep banging on Khartoum is not the right way. He said he wants to build rapport with Khartoum." If this is truly going to be the administration's strategy, then it is deeply wrongheaded. Sudan's leaders are willing to do whatever it takes to stay in power. For decades, they have not hesitated to slaughter huge numbers of their own people (first in southern Sudan, later in Darfur) in order to preserve their rule. But, operating under the same logic of survival by any means necessary, they have also proved willing to play ball with the West when--as after September 11--they felt that they simply had no choice. Which suggests that, if there is to be relief for the people of Darfur--if the aid groups are to be readmitted and the peace process is to move forward--Khartoum will have to feel pressure from the United States. This means diplomatic pressure, tougher multilateral sanctions, and the credible threat of military force. As the anti-genocide activists at Save Darfur, the Enough Project, and the Genocide Intervention Network recently wrote, "[T]he Sudanese government responds much more directly to pressures than they do to incentives."
Not surprisingly, alarm is growing among many liberals about this administration's approach to Darfur. Everyone from a relative dove like Nicholas Kristof to a relative hawk like (TNR contributor) Eric Reeves has expressed concern over the trajectory of Obama's Sudan policy. Count us among them. We hope that Obama will reverse course on Darfur. Meanwhile, the stain on our souls only grows.
By The Editors