The Options for Darfur

In the face of a mounting progressive backlash against the liberals who joined with President Bush to help sell the Iraq War, the hawks are fighting for their ideological lives. And as Iraq falls to pieces, what better way to prop up a discredited mantra of aggressive interventionism than to set your sights on the world's worst man-made humanitarian crisis?

Enter The New Republic's Lawrence Kaplan, who penned an April 23 Los Angeles Times op-ed that takes a pre-emptive swipe at hypocrites like me who urge action on Darfur but are wary of the wisdom of continued U.S. military presence in Iraq. According to Kaplan, we do not understand that “like Bosnia before it, Darfur will be saved by one thing: American power.” Later, he writes of us naïve souls who will attend the Washington, D.C., “Save Darfur” rally on April 30: “So, yes. Comfort your sensibilities. Testify to your virtue and good intentions. Offer assurance that your call to action is not a call for the unilateral or unprovoked exercise of American power. But don't pretend that Darfur will be saved by anything else. “

I happen to agree with Kaplan on this latter point. But his understanding of American power is shaped by a career cheerleading for U.S. invasions of foreign countries. Sometimes this has worked out relatively well (Bosnia); other times it has been disastrous (Iraq). Throughout, he and like-minded hawks have sold their proposed intervention by setting up a dichotomy whereby one either favors a U.S. military response to a horrific situation, or supports doing nothing. As a rhetorical device, this lets Kaplan claim the moral high ground. But, back in the real world, it stifles the kind of creative thinking that is required to confront a humanitarian disaster when military options are limited. Thanks to Kaplan et al.'s eagerness to invade Iraq, which siphoned military resources and attention from Darfur when Sudan launched its genocide, this is precisely the current dilemma.

With no expectation that the 130,000 U.S. troops currently in Iraq will be rotated out anytime soon, the requisite number of troops that would be required to pacify Dafur are simply unavailable. But even if it were feasible, it would be neither wise nor prudent to do so. Given the experience in Iraq, there is reason to believe that the U.S. military simply cannot undertake such a task, no matter how noble our intentions. American boots on the ground will bolster popular support for the ruling National Islamic Front. They will also inspire jihadis who have rotated out of the Iraqi theatre to respond to Osama bin Laden's recent call to arms and mount an insurgency against America in Darfur.

So what is to be done? Even if the liberal-hawkospshere is loathe to look, a number of policy options are available to the United States, short of sending Marines, that would go a very long way to ameliorating the plight of Darfur. Those of us who call ourselves progressive and consider Darfur a defining moral challenge of the era should familiarize ourselves with some of these prescriptions.

I. Diplomatic Pressure

The United States has engaged with Darfur more than any other country in the Security Council, but that is not saying much. The Bush administration has not yet made punishing the men responsible for this genocide a priority. According to an April 5 Reuters report, U.N. Ambassador John Bolton sought to keep top Sudanese commanders off a Security Council list of individuals to be sanctioned for perpetrating the violence in Darfur. To be sure, China and Russia will likely block efforts to criminalize the Sudanese political and military leadership, but this should not deter the United States from trying. Doing so would send the clear message to Khartoum that the counter-terrorist intelligence we have received from them does not give them a carte blanche for genocide.

Further, the United States has not sought to use the International Criminal Court's investigation in Darfur as leverage against the Sudanese regime. Perhaps because the U.S. delegation to the United Nations is lead by the Bush administration's most ardent critic of the ICC, the political advantage of this criminal investigation has not been exploited by the United States. This is not to say that paper indictments will stop the genocide, but it should put the regime on the defensive. Men fearing a U.S.-supported articles of indictment are wont to go into hiding, not orchestrate more crimes against humanity.

Finally, the African Union (AU) forces in Sudan have conducted themselves admirably. But at 7,000, their size is paltry and their mandate does not allow for traditional peace-keeping operations. One of the AU's strongest voices, Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, has used his opposition to a U.N.-mandated AU force in Darfur to score points against his main rival, Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria. Last January, Mbeki used his clout to delay an AU proposal that would have paved the way for the blue-helmeting the AU force under a Chapter Seven peace-keeping mandate. (A formal AU request for a change of mandate is a precondition for the Chinese. And unlike other Security Council actions, there is every reason to believe that they would support an African-led peacekeeping force in Darfur. They supported a 10,000 strong peacekeeping force in southern Sudan last March.) Because of Mbeki's key role in the AU, the United States should make a properly mandated AU force a top priority of American-South African relations, and the United States should offer to help underwrite the costs of such a force.

II. Executive Order

Darfur is not the exclusive providence of the United Nations. If he wanted to, the President could appoint a special envoy for Sudan tomorrow. For the past 16 months, U.S.-Sudan policy has been led by the State Department's second-in-command, Robert Zoellick. At the time, such high-level attention on Sudan was a welcome change from a policy that amounted to neglect. But it is now clear that this was too tough an assignment for Zoellick. He possesses neither the necessary diplomatic skills nor the requisite access to the President. His Sudan portfolio must be shifted to a capable diplomat who has the ear of the President. By the end of the week, that envoy could be in Abudja, Nigeria, to speak with the authority of the President as she or he oversees the peace talks there.

It is conceivable that should the United States pursue these policies in tandem, the regime in Khartoum will quickly find itself under a strain of international pressure that it has not experienced since it was sanctioned for orchestrating a plot to assassinate Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in 1995. But should Khartoum continue to support the their proxy janjaweed militia, disrupt humanitarian access to Darfur, or launch aggressive military campaigns in Darfur, the United States should reserve the right to launch cruise missile or airstrikes against Sudanese military instillations. The regime in Khartoum values its fleet of converted Antonov transport jets above human lives. So why not threaten the government where it will hurt? The leaders in Khartoum are not bloodthirsty thugs for the hell of it. Rather, they devised a counterinsurgency strategy of genocide precisely because it was the most practical way to suppress a rebellion. It would not take much to make that strategy prohibitively expense for Khartoum by taking out a few dozen aircraft.

I do not propose airstrikes with great enthusiasm. They could be problematic for a number of reasons, not least of which is the potential that Khartoum follows Slobodan Milosevic's lead and responds to an aerial assault by accelerating their ground war. But airstrikes would be a last resort, and unlike Milosevic, the regime in Khartoum is more likely to fold under the simple threat of such attacks.

The question, of course, is whether the United States seeks Security Council support to legitimize such airstrikes. The Chinese will most certainly object. To this, the Kosovo clause should apply: All available diplomatic options would have been exhausted and the urgency of the situation justifies the circumvention of a Security Council vote. This may put me in common cause with the hawks, but any airstrikes should come with the tacit understanding that no American troops will set foot in Darfur.

The government of Sudan successfully pulled off the first genocide of the 21st century. But if Kaplan's essay presages a new effort by liberal hawks to wield Darfur as a tool toward building support for the Iraq War, then the Khartoum regime can take comfort in the fact that linking the two will do more to decrease support for intervention in Darfur than it will to increase support for the Iraq War. And if liberal hawks look to Darfur to prop their worldview while their experiment in Iraq falls to pieces, they will discount the intermediate remedial steps that would do much to relieve the suffering of the people of Darfur. This isn't just wrong, but is being positively counterproductive.

Mark Leon Goldberg is a Prospect writing fellow.

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