While Thousands Die

This August, the United Nations Security Council authorized a major force -- more than 22,000 strong -- to deploy to Darfur. Under the Security Council's mandate, the U.N. troops would take over Darfur's defense from the undersized and ill-equipped African Union force, which has been unable to prevent attacks on civilian enclaves. Eventually, the United Nations Mission in Sudan was supposed to oversee a political settlement and establish order.

The Security Council resolution mandated that the transition to the U.N. force begin by October, and conclude no later than December 31. Darfuris, however, will have to place their hopes on hold. As of publication, not one blue helmet has set foot in Darfur. Indeed, the transition to a U.N. force has not even begun.

The dilemma is basically this: U.N. peacekeepers cannot deploy to Darfur without Khartoum's consent, which so far, they do not have. That has made the countries that supply the bulk of the peacekeepers around the world -- Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India -- uneasy; they have made it clear they will not pony up troops for a mission that would be tantamount to an invasion. Complicating a nonconsensual deployment is the logistical reality that sending troops into the arid, landlocked region would require the use of Sudanese ports for constant re-supply.

Part of Khartoum's defiance reflects its favored status with China, which imports almost half of Sudan's oil production. So far, Beijing has not pressured Khartoum to accept a U.N. force. But the United States has reinforced the status quo as well. It has not made headway on convincing Sudan to allow peacekeepers, resorting to tough talk backed by no meaningful action. Breaking Khartoum's opposition to the U.N. force is the only reasonable solution to the crisis in Darfur. But to do this, the Bush administration will have to undergo a significant shift in policy.


Since the fighting began between Darfur rebel groups and the central government in Khartoum in 2003, several hundred thousand people have been killed, with millions more displaced to squalid, overcrowded camps. The government of Sudan bears the greatest responsibility for these deaths: Soon after the Darfuri rebellion, the government launched a counterinsurgency strategy principally aimed at wiping out the ethnic groups from which the rebels came. To do that, the government bought off and armed individual ethnic groups in Darfur. With their proxy militia on the ground supported by government air power, the government systematically cleared out "rebel strongholds" (otherwise known as towns and villages), to brutal effect. By the following spring, refugees were flooding over Darfur's western border into Chad.

At first, Washington was reluctant to intervene for fear of upsetting separate peace negotiations between the central government and rebels in the South. For years, the State Department had tried to broker a resolution to the bloody, 20-year civil war that claimed some 2 million lives. Yet, while Khartoum neared an ultimately successful peace accord with the south, it simultaneously stepped up its Darfur offensive. The Bush administration then made the fateful decision to pursue the north-south accord at the cost of pressing Khartoum to halt its attacks in Darfur.

Since taking office, top Bush administration officials, including the president himself, have from time to time issued strong condemnations of Khartoum's human-rights record. The Bush administration has also kept intact unilateral American sanctions of Sudan ordered by President Clinton in 1997 to punish Sudan for sponsoring terrorists and human-rights abuses (Sudan harbored Osama bin Laden from 1991 to 1996). Nonetheless, U.S. policy has been, essentially, to speak loudly and carry a small stick.

In April 2005, for instance, the administration asked the chair of the House Appropriations Committee Jerry Lewis to strip a rider to the Iraq and Afghanistan emergency supplemental budget that called for targeted sanctions against members of the Sudanese regime and for a no-fly zone to be established over Darfur. When the so-called Darfur Peace and Accountability Act finally left the House in April 2006, it languished for months in the office of Senate Foreign Relations Chair Richard Lugar's office.

Finally, in September 2006, Lugar released his own version of the bill for a vote. But by then it had been watered down even further; absent was a provision in the house version of the bill that affirmed the rights of state governments to divest from pension funds that include companies that do business with Khartoum. The provision enjoyed wide bipartisan support, leaving advocates to once again suspect White House intervention.

"Besides tough talk, besides the occasional public statements, not one meaningful punitive measure has been implemented," explains John Prendergast, an Africa specialist in President Clinton's National Security Council and now special assistant to the president of the International Crisis Group. "The policy still resembles what I would call 'gentle persuasion.'" Remarkably, even following then–Secretary of State Colin Powell's description of the slaughter in Darfur as "genocide" in September 2004, this softer approach on Darfur persisted.

At times the administration has seemed almost to coddle the Khartoum regime. One year ago, the State Department issued a waiver to American sanctions to allow Sudan to hire a well-known Washington, D.C., lobbyist, Robert Cabelly, to improve its image in Congress. (The waiver was only revoked following an angry phone call to the State Department from Republican Congressman Frank Wolf of Virginia.) Similarly,
on his first trip to Sudan in April 2005, then Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick -- standing at a press conference with a top Sudanese official by his side -- gave a mortality estimate of 60,000 to 160,000 dead, downplaying even the most conservative claims.

Meanwhile, the administration has behaved inconsistently regarding potential U.N. action on Darfur. The United States has been the lead author of every major Security Council resolution on Sudan, including the August resolution authorizing a peacekeeping force. Yet strongly worded resolutions require follow up to ensure their implementation. And here, American commitment is lacking. When the newly appointed presidential envoy to Sudan, Andrew Natsios, returned from his first trip to Sudan in late October 2006, he seemed to backpedal from the robust August peacekeeping resolution his administration authored. In an interview posted on the U.S. Holocaust Museum's Web site, Natsios let slip that the administration was considering an "alternate way" to confront the violence in Darfur. The White House later denied any policy shift, but a mixed message had already been telegraphed to Khartoum, which consequently is refusing to budge from its opposition to peacekeepers.

The death toll, however, is climbing. Humanitarian organizations, concerned for the safety of their employees, have been quietly pulling out of Darfur. In September, the United Nation's chief humanitarian official envoy warned that Darfur was slipping into a "freefall." The same envoy also warned two years earlier that if humanitarian organizations pull out of Darfur completely, as many as 100,000 people could die in Darfur each month. "Without a dramatic improvement in security," says Sudan expert Eric Reeves, "I believe the current death toll of approximately half a million could double by [next year]."

An accelerating death march in Darfur has been accompanied by growing calls, in some quarters, for immediate military intervention by the United States. Clearly that's not going to happen, but there are steps the U.S. can take, a number of which were outlined in October by the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based nongovernmental organization, that might force Khartoum to accept a U.N. force.

At the United Nations, the United States can push for targeted individual sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes on key members of the regime in Khartoum. (Following the Bush's administration's go-easy approach, current U.N. sanctions apply to just two mid-level officials in the entire Sudanese government.) The United States can also lead a Security Council action to impose economic sanctions against the regime's state-run commercial enterprises, including the petroleum sector.

The report also encourages the United States to begin immediate planning for a no-fly zone over Darfur, which could be enforced from a French garrison in Chad and from an American base in Djubouti. (A ban on offensive military overflights already has the support of the Security Council, but so far no member of the council has offered to enforce it.) Taking the military option one step further, former Clinton National Security officials Anthony Lake and Susan Rice teamed with New Jersey Congressman Donald Payne in an October Washington Post op-ed to call on the administration to issue an ultimatum: Either Khartoum consents to a U.N. force or they will suffer airstrikes.

With a political stalemate over U.N. troops threatening the lives of millions in Darfur, the Bush administration still prefers lip service to meaningful steps that would alter Khartoum's cost-benefit calculations. Until the requisite pressure is applied, this genocide will continue. The question is whether the pressure will come sooner, later, or never.

Mark Leon Goldberg is a Prospect senior correspondent and a Writer-in-Residence with the United Nations Foundation.

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