Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Recasting The Darfur Debate

The US State Department has named the on-going genocide in Darfur the world's worst human rights abuse of 2006. The just-released 2006 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices noted that "the Sudanese government and government-backed janjaweed militia bear responsibility for the genocide in Darfur" and that "all parties to the conflagration committed serious abuses, including widespread killing of civilians, rape as a tool of war, systematic torture, robbery and recruitment of child soldiers." The reappearance of the word "genocide" is particularly notable; it was first used in reference to Darfur in 2004 by then-SecState Powell, but has largely disappeared from official reports and speeches on the situation.

The US Special Envoy for Darfur, Andrew Natsios, is scheduled to meet with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir two days from now in an effort to convince al-Bashir to allow UN/AU peace keepers to increase their presence in the region. However, there are no signs of a imminent reversal by Sudan, which has to date steadfastly refused to allow a larger and better-equipped force into Darfur to protect the people there.

So, what the US do? While China has been willing to press Sudan a bit, it is unlikely that China (or Russia for that matter) would ever permit the Security Council to authorize an intervention without the acquiescence of the Sudanese government. Therefore any international action to protect the people of Darfur is likely to be, a la Kosovo and Iraq, conducted outside the bounds of the UN and international law. Given the experience of the US in interventions over the last 15 or so years -- Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Haiti, Iraq, Afghanistan -- there is likely to be little stomach for an armed intervention. Even the success of Kosovo is more an exception that proves the rule, as Kosovo was a more traditional "war" involving state-against-state violence, while an intervention in Sudan is more likely to resemble Somalia or Rwanda.

Some people point to the recent breakthrough with North Korea as evidence that sanctions can work, particularly in the globalized world. But North Korea is more of unique case that I'm not sure can be applied to Sudan. North Korea has little to export the world, while Sudan has resources and oil. North Korea is politically and economically isolated, making it easier to close the flows, while Sudan is not.

If a military intervention is the only likely way to end the genocide and protect the long-suffering people of Darfur, how can the US overcome its reluctance to engage in these kinds of humanitarian operations? In a presentation I gave this past weekend to the local Darfur Action Group, I talked about how the discussion needs to be recast. Talking about the horrors and atrocities may help raise public awareness and sentiment, but it's not going to convince policy makers that action should be taken. The debate needs to be less about why Darfur is worthy of intervention, and more about why intervening in Darfur should be understood as part of US national interest.

Why should the US risk its soldiers and treasure to protect the people of Darfur? In Somalia, there was no clear answer to this question, and so when 18 US Rangers were killed, the country and the president lost their nerve and withdrew. If the US is to take action in Darfur, it must be made clear to the American public and decision makers that the action is the American interest and that US soldiers should die to protect the people of Darfur. I believe that case can be made. There are lots of ways that protecting innocent people being slaughtered by their government is in the US interest. There are lots of ways that stabilizing a volatile region is as well. President Bush in particular has shown himself to be open to this kind of argument; unfortunately, much of its force has been discredited by the debacle in Iraq.

But Darfur should not be forgotten. This country has a strong and vital interest in ensuring "Never Again."