The Opportunity

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POLITICS MARCH 13, 2006

The Opportunity

The genocide in Darfur has been going on for three years now. And, for three years, the international community hasn't done much to stop it. It has threatened, but not enforced, sanctions. It has sent peacekeepers, but with insufficient numbers and a weak mandate. It has decried "crimes against humanity," but charged no perpetrators. And so the violence continues, with more than 200,000 people killed, two million left homeless, and the conflict now spilling over into neighboring Chad. The Sudanese government, meanwhile, has not even pretended to disarm its murderous Janjaweed militias. In fact, President Omar Al Bashir recently declared the Janjaweed a fabrication. And he has had the audacity to press the United States to lift its eight-year trade embargo on his country. As U.N. Sudan envoy Jan Pronk put it, "The people on the ground are just laughing."


It is commendable, then, that the Bush administration is starting to get serious about Darfur. At the United Nations, John Bolton is pushing for authorization of a more muscular U.N. force to take over for the African Union (AU), while the State Department is trying to get NATO to increase its logistical support. Both efforts are worthy. The current AU force is overwhelmed. Fewer than 7,000 troops patrol a region the size of Texas from the back of pickup trucks. All they can do is report back on violations of the sham cease-fire, escort a few humanitarian convoys, and, occasionally, accompany refugees who leave the relative safety of the camps to collect firewood.


But, with the greater numbers, better resources, and stronger mandate that the Bush proposals would provide, the Darfur peacekeepers might actually have a chance. They could hold Khartoum to its promise to disarm the militias. They could coordinate humanitarian agencies. And they could actively protect civilians, helping to establish the conditions for refugees to return home.


That is, if there is enough political will. The international community has been loath to do anything the Sudanese government doesn't sign off on. And Khartoum has already stated its opposition to a U.N. force. That means Bolton will have to work doubly hard to win Security Council approval for a meaningful mission.


The Bush administration will also have to step up political pressure at home. Last December, Congress refused the State Department's request for $50 million to sustain the AU's Darfur mission. As a result, State has had to take away money from Afghanistan to pay its Darfur bills. Congress is going to need a lot of convincing before it approves an even larger NATO commitment.


And, even if the Bush administration can get the political support and the money for its proposals, it's questionable whether it can get the troops. The AU couldn't even make the 7,700 number planned for its current deployment. And Bush is talking about twice that. NATO, despite being best-equipped to assemble trained battalions quickly, has emphasized that it does not want to send troops. Dominique Moisi, deputy director of the French Institute of International Relations, explained the reluctance to the Associated Press: "If we do it through NATO, we'll give further encouragement to all those who are condemning the white man and are fueling the clash of civilizations." But what of those who are condemning the white man for ignoring the problems of a predominantly black continent?


The excuse among American officials is not the usual one about military overstretch. They know that sending a battalion or two to Darfur is entirely feasible and could make a huge difference. Rather, they talk about a lack of appetite from the American public. "I don't get a lot of people calling me on the phone or writing me letters saying, ‘Send U.S. troops to Sudan,'" Chris Padilla, chief of staff to Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, said during a December discussion at the U.S. Holocaust Museum. That may be, but six senators have found enough support among their constituents to sponsor a bipartisan resolution calling for NATO troops, including U.S. troops if needed, to stop the genocide in Darfur. Opinion polls, too, have found that a comfortable majority of Americans support sending U.S. troops to Darfur as part of a U.N. or NATO mission.


We would very much like Bush to get the mandate, the money, and the troops for his Darfur proposals. We would like the international community to stop pussyfooting around the demands of Khartoum. We would like the United States to increase pressure on its allies and be prepared to galvanize NATO members by volunteering some of its own troops. Whatever it takes to convey that genocide is no laughing matter.


By The Editors

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