On April 14, Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick became the highest ranking U.S. envoy to set foot on Sudanese soil since Secretary of State Colin Powell's September 2004 declaration that the government of Sudan was complicit in an ongoing genocide in the Darfur region. The presence of such a senior U.S. envoy in the country held great promise for progress on Darfur. With enough pressure, the regime in Khartoum may yet decide to reign in its local Janjaweed (the Arab militia in Sudan) allies and stop its fleet of Antonov fighter jets and helicopter gunships from further targeting civilian enclaves in Darfur.
The significance of Zoellick's trip was not lost on Sudan's main power broker, first Vice President Ali Uthman Muhammad Taha. As Al Kamen reported in The Washington Post on April 22, Taha led Zoellick on a mini tour of the presidential palace upon the latter's arrival and paused at the stairwell where British Major-General Charles George Gordon, a k a Gordon of Khartoum, was killed in 1885.
(Movie buffs may know Gordon as Charlton Heston's heroic character in the 1966 film Khartoum. Historians, however, recall his ill-fated (if well-intentioned) attempt to defend the city from the messianic Sudanese military and religious leader Mohammed Ahmed. After a 10-month siege, the city fell, Gordon was shot, and his head was impaled on a spike and paraded through the streets.)
At a joint press conference later in the day, it seemed as if Zoellick had taken to heart Taha's perspicuous lesson on Western entanglement in Sudan. When asked by a BBC reporter how many people the United States thinks have died due to fighting in Darfur, Zoellick gave an astonishingly low estimate of 60,000 to 160,000 people. That number defies even the most conservative claims of the number killed; the lower reaches fall far short of any previous estimate and the upper range is less than half the number reached by an April 22 mortality study compiled by the Coalition for International Justice, which calculated that nearly 400,000 people had died since the conflict began two years ago.
Of course, estimating the number dead in a war zone is tricky, but given the audacity of Zoellick's lowball, it's difficult to believe that the deputy secretary of state himself considers that estimate to be accurate. Accuracy, however, may not have been his purpose here. When pressed by the same reporter on whether or not he thinks genocide is occurring in Darfur, Zoellick refused to endorse Powell's affirmative finding. “It's been a terrible series of events,” he said, “and as you know, there's a debate. The [United Nations] did a legal analysis of whether this was genocide, and their conclusion was that it was crimes against humanity as opposed to genocide.”
Zoellick's equivocating on the genocide question was depressing to those who are closely monitoring the crisis in Darfur. "It was sucking up to the Sudanese regime in the worst way," the International Crisis Group's John Prendergast said. Worse, Zoellick's backpedaling on Powell's finding, which was reached after researchers interviewed more than 1,000 refugees from Darfur, may hint that there's a new administration plan afoot for the situation.
"Zoellick is not some State Department official acting on his own,” Prendergast told me, “but was deliberately signaling a shift in administration policy." Eric Reeves, the Smith College professor whose analysis of the conflict continues to prove prescient, agrees. Shortly after the press conference, Reeves surmised on his Web site that Zoellick's comments heralded a new administration strategy meant to forestall the need for a U.S. commitment to humanitarian intervention by downplaying the urgency of the situation.
If so, this post-Powell policy is placing the administration on a collision course with Congress. Last week, the Senate unanimously passed the Darfur Accountability Act as part of the Iraq-Afghanistan emergency supplemental appropriations bill. Led by Republican Sam Brownback of Kansas and Democrat John Corzine of New Jersey, the act appropriates $90 million in U.S. aid for Darfur and establishes targeted U.S. sanctions against the Sudanese regime, accelerates assistance to expand the size and mandate of the African Union mission in Darfur, expands the United Nations Mission in Sudan to include the protection of civilians in Darfur, establishes a no-fly zone over Darfur, and calls for a presidential envoy to Sudan.
The Darfur Accountability Act is now with the House, and Republican leaders there -- no doubt under pressure from an evangelical movement that has been aiding civilians in Southern Sudan since the outbreak of a civil war nearly 20 years ago -- are similarly joining with Democrats to push for a more robust humanitarian response to the unfolding genocide in Western Sudan. In a recent meeting with Sudanese dissidents on Capitol Hill, Congressman Tom Tancredo, a conservative Colorado Republican who first visited Sudan in 2001, discussed the urgency of passing the bill. “Pressure is the only thing that Khartoum will respond to,” Tancredo said. “The only time they will act is when they think they are on the precipice.”
Yet in an April 25 letter from the White House's Office of Management and Budget to House Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis obtained by the Prospect, the administration signaled its desire to strike the Darfur Accountability Act from the supplemental. Couching its reservations in a suggestion that the act may impede a separate peace accord reached between Khartoum and the rebels in south Sudan, the administration is now leaning on its congressional allies to scuttle the bill. "We are hearing that House Republicans will try to pull it out of conference," a well-placed congressional source told the Prospect.
The administration's assault on the Darfur Accountability Act reveals its belief that further coercion aimed at forcing the Sudanese regime to stop the killing is simply not productive. Prendergast says that the Bush administration seems to feel the need to constantly remind Khartoum that congressional pressure is not reflective of the White House position on Sudan. Now, with the attempt to scrap the act, the Bush administration is sending that message very clearly on a daily basis.
All the while, Darfur is burning by the hand of the Khartoum regime.
Mark Leon Goldberg is a Prospect writing fellow.