Obama's Darfur Test

In the coming weeks, Darfur will reach yet another crisis point when the International Criminal Court (ICC) issues an arrest warrant for President Omar al Bashir of Sudan. When this happens, President Bashir has all but promised retaliation -- against United Nations personnel in Sudan, against Darfuris, and against southern Sudanese separatists. This much we know. What is still unclear is how the Obama administration intends to respond.

Susan Rice, the new United States ambassador to the United Nations, once aptly described the previous administration's Darfur policy as "bluster and retreat," "bluster" for the lip service paid to the issue, and "retreat" for never following up its tough rhetoric with meaningful political, diplomatic, or even military action. Now, with Rice at the U.N. and Hillary Clinton at the helm in Foggy Bottom, one would suspect bumbling Bush-era policies would come to an end. Both women have been strong advocates for a more robust approach to the Darfur crisis. Clinton was an early sponsor of Darfur legislation in the Senate. Rice has written on numerous occasions about the issue, at one point even endorsing U.S. airstrikes.

Still, the forthcoming ICC arrest warrant will pose an early test for the Obama administration. And if approached with the kind of deft diplomatic touch that the previous administration clearly lacked, the prospects for peace in Darfur may suddenly become brighter.

The United Nations estimates that 300,000 people have died from the conflict in Darfur, located in western Sudan, since fighting broke out in 2003. Nearly 2.2 million people have been displaced. The conflict today, though, bears little resemblance to the genocide that took place in 2004, when government-backed militias, often supported by government airpower, targeted the civilian population of Darfur in an effort to combat a tribal-based insurgency. It was a strategy that Sudan analyst Eric Reeves called "counterinsurgency by genocide," and it was effective. Today, Darfur's rebels have splintered into dozens of factions; all-out war in Darfur has been replaced with sporadic fighting and warlordism. Meanwhile, an under-equipped and under-manned U.N. peacekeeping mission is struggling to keep a lid on the violence.

In 2005, the question of authorizing the Hague-based International Criminal Court to investigate war crimes in Darfur came to the Security Council. This put the Bush administration in an awkward diplomatic position. The U.S. was the only country on the Security Council to describe Darfur as a genocide, yet it strenuously opposed the ICC on principle. (In 2002, President Bush instructed then Undersecretary of State John Bolton to "unsign" America from the treaty that created the court -- an unprecedented diplomatic move.) In the end, the administration did not want to be seen as obstructing justice in Darfur so it abstained from the vote, letting it pass.

This set into motion a series of events leading to an arrest warrant for President Bashir, which ICC analysts widely expect will be handed down next month. When that day comes, Bashir is expected to step up his harassment of internationals in Sudan, including launching reprisal attacks on lightly armed peacekeepers in Darfur and South Sudan and cutting off humanitarian access to Darfur -- the only lifeline for millions of displaced Darfuris.

This, however, is no reason to shy away from the court's intervention in Darfur. Rather, the arrest warrant provides critical leverage over the government of Sudan, which the Obama administration can use to coerce it into cooperating more fulsomely in a credible peace process. Under the ICC's statute, the Security Council has the authority to suspend proceedings should it decide that doing so is in the interest of peace. This is the carrot to the proverbial stick of an arrest warrant.

The Bush administration, because of its ideological hang-ups with the court, never fully appreciated this policy option. In fact, it worked hard (and unsuccessfully) behind the scenes to prevent the ICC from launching its Darfur investigation in the first place. Now, with the arrest warrant a fait accompli, the Obama administration has a brief window to avert the potential fallout. Indeed, there are already troubling signs that the Sudanese government is renewing military operations in Darfur in anticipation of the arrest warrants.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration has not yet signaled that it intends to treat Darfur as a top-tier foreign-policy priority. Within 48 hours of his inauguration, President Obama appointed Richard Holbrooke as special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan and George Mitchell as his special envoy for Mideast peace. Clearly, these are two of the highest-stakes international crises facing American foreign policy. Still, one sign that President Obama would close the previous administration's gap between rhetoric and policy is to appoint a similarly high-profile diplomat to oversee the Darfur portfolio. "President Obama should not wait until the arrest warrants are issued," write John Prendergast and John Norris from Enough Project and Jerry Fowler of the Save Darfur Coalition. "But rather task a senior official to immediately inform the Sudanese regime of the dire consequences that would result from any disruption of humanitarian and peacekeeping efforts."

When the president of Sudan becomes an international fugitive in the coming weeks, President Obama will be afforded a new opportunity to break from the past and forge a new, pragmatic approach to the Darfur crisis. He must act quickly, though. For the long-suffering people of Darfur, the clock is ticking. Fast.

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