THE PLANK AUGUST 14, 2009
It seems clear that Barack Obama doesn't consider Darfur a priority. Then again, with so many domestic and foreign policy crises looming, one might ask: Why should he care? Two million people in Darfur still live in camps, but the situation is hardly what it was during the worst days of the genocide, from 2003 to 2005, when the Janjaweed were murdering Darfuris at a rapid pace. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on Iran's nuclear program, Pakistan is unraveling, the climate is reaching the point of no return, and the economic situation is dire. Given those crying priorities, why should Darfur rate anywhere near the top of Obama's to-do list?
Here's one reason: because Obama needs some clear-cut foreign-policy victories--and his odds of getting such a victory in Darfur (by negotiating a peace deal that guarantees the safety of Darfuris and allows the displaced among them to begin returning home) are better than his odds in so many other places. Yes, that sounds strange. Isn't Darfur an intractable headache that has defied the good intentions of negotiators and politicians for years? Sort of. But next to the other international items Obama is taking on--Afghanistan, Iraq, North Korea, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to name a few--Darfur might well be a comparatively easy problem to solve.
For starters, we know that Khartoum is a fairly rational actor that has proved accommodating when faced with coordinated pressure in the past. Sudan expelled Osama bin Laden after the Clinton administration got fed up with engagement and withdrew its ambassador in 1996, and it cooperated on terrorism when it felt threatened after September 11. And while the Bush administration did a terrible job of protecting Darfuris, it did succeed on another front in Sudan: by pressuring the government to reach a peace deal with southern rebels in 2005. (Unfortunately, as the U.S. government's attention to Sudan has waned, that deal has begun to look shaky.) If this could be accomplished without any use of force on the table and only a small amount of presidential attention, then it's not unreasonable to think that Obama could do as well for Darfuris by taking some common-sense steps, such as telling his envoy to promise we'll lift sanctions after--rather than before--Khartoum cooperates.
Of course, forcing Sudan to reach a reasonable peace agreement in Darfur means enlisting the help of other countries, especially China and Egypt, two of Khartoum's closest allies. But that might not be as hard as it sounds. Of late, Khartoum has been taking steps that could reignite war in southern Sudan-which China and Egypt are concerned about because it contains, respectively, oil and the Nile. China has actually been quite vocal in its support for a peace deal between Khartoum and Darfur's rebels. And Egypt has recently launched a panicked diplomatic offensive of its own, aimed at preserving stability in the south.
All of this suggests that if Obama would apply some moderate presidential attention--demand that his current envoy apply pressure to Khartoum, beef up his Sudan shop, make a few speeches, and weigh in when necessary to close the deal--he would have a shot at actually achieving something in Darfur. Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying that solving the Darfur crisis will be simple. My only point is that, as he looks toward the 2010 midterms and eventually his 2012 reelection bid, Obama is going to need some solid foreign policy achievements. It's hard to see where those will come from if he confines himself to his current list of foreign-policy priorities. But helping two million people return home after Darfur's genocide is something he could realistically accomplish--and justly brag about.