Special Report

Strategic Compassion in Darfur

The Bush Administration gets its geopolitical and humanitarian priorities in order.

By 3.23.06

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The Bush Administration's recent willingness to address ethnic cleansing in Sudan more actively suggests that, in the face of genocide, strategic and humanitarian interests never clash.

It was only a few weeks ago that those of us who have been closely following the genocide in Darfur were lamenting the tense and evasive nature of the Bush Administration's policy there. Despite having done more than any other government to respond to this human rights disaster -- including providing the bulk of humanitarian aid, continuously pressing for tough UN action against the government and unabashedly using the word "genocide" to describe conditions there -- the administration's reaction had at times been fragmented and equivocal.

Since Sudan is considered a key ally in the war on terror (Khartoum's agents have reportedly penetrated terrorist networks not otherwise accessible to the U.S.), the administration often handled the Sudanese government with kid gloves. Last April the White House worked behind the scenes to ensure the demise of the Darfur Accountability Act in Congress, which would have stepped up pressure on the regime to cease the killing. The administration even allowed the CIA to fly Sudan's intelligence chief, Salah Abdallah Gosh, an architect of the Darfur atrocity, to Washington for consultation.

The mixed signals sent by the United States -- sometimes condemning and at others times seemingly commending the regime -- gave the impression that the Bush Administration was not serious about securing peace in a region suffering the effects of the government-sponsored slaughter of 400,000 people, in addition to the rape, disfigurement and dislocation of another 2.5 million people.

Recent weeks, however, have brought a remarkable shift in America's course of action toward the place United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan recently labeled "little short of hell on earth." First came the president's nod to Darfur in his State of the Union address, when he said, "We show compassion abroad because Americans believe in the God-given dignity and worth of...a refugee fleeing genocide..." Next came Bush's pledge that the United States would play a pivotal role in helping swap an under-manned, under-funded, and out-gunned African Union force of 7,000 for up to 20,000 well-trained and properly mandated United Nations soldiers. (A move the UN Security Council approved at the prodding of U.S. Ambassador John Bolton.)

Most recently, Bush sent an emergency supplemental funding proposal to Congress, including a request for $514 million for peacekeeping and humanitarian programs in Darfur.

SO, TO WHAT CAN WE ATTRIBUTE the Bush Administration's newfound commitment to Darfur? Here are two possible explanations.

First, by all accounts the situation in Darfur is spiraling out of control. After over a year of savagery, conditions seemed to improve last summer when Khartoum promised to rein in its death squads. But the promises proved hollow and the onset of the dry season last fall revived the government militia's thirst for spreading terror throughout the region. Jan Pronk, the UN representative in Sudan, recently reported, "At least once a month groups of 500 to 1000 militia on camel and horseback attack villages, killing dozens of people."

In addition, more than one million Darfurians continue to languish in internally displaced persons camps, while several hundred thousand have sought safety across the border in Chad, where the militias have started launching cross-border raids on villages on an almost daily basis.

International aid agencies have reported that entire sections of the population are cut-off from relief, and aid workers have faced increased threats, harassment and beatings. Last month, twenty-one World Food Program convoys were attacked, four times as many as last summer. The increased violence has caused many humanitarian organizations to scale back operations due to security concerns. The UN predicts that if the situation continues to deteriorate at its current rate, the death toll could rise to 100,000 a month. What has become clear is that far from improving, the conditions in Darfur are actually deteriorating.

A second and more compelling explanation for the administration's interest in Darfur has less to do with what's changing on the ground and more to do with what hasn't changed about the philosophical groundwork of Mr. Bush's foreign policy.

Foundational to this administration's foreign policy vision is the protection and promotion of the dignity and natural rights of all men. Indeed, Bush identified human rights violations as a chief reason for intervention in Iraq, and he regularly refers to "ending tyranny in our world" as his ultimate foreign policy objective.

Accordingly, failure to act in Darfur manifestly undermines the moral credibility of every foreign mission the United States undertakes. Conversely, intervention in Darfur, certainly the most egregious humanitarian crisis in the world today, becomes proof positive that Mr. Bush is sincere when he talks about his dedication to the cause of human dignity and compassionate conduct abroad.

SO, WHILE SOME SUGGEST AMERICAN engagement in Iraq precludes intervention in Darfur, more astute observers recognize Iraq as reinforcing the imperative for U.S. involvement there.

Of course, America's work is just starting, and there is much more that can be done.

A welcome start would be for the administration to insist that the UN enforce an arms embargo against Sudan and punish scofflaws (such as China and Russia) that continue to supply Khartoum with the money and weapons that fuel terror. The U.S. should demand the release of an unpublished UN study listing those countries that ship weapons to the Sudanese government. Mr. Bush should publicly denounce the Arab League's decision to hold its annual summit in Khartoum, scheduled for the end of March. To allow the summit to take place would not only encourage the Sudanese government to continue the genocide against its people but would be an economic reward for a country guilty of the worst human rights abuses.

Most important, President Bush should continue to call on NATO members to provide equipment, training, transport and soldiers to the peacekeeping in Darfur until enough UN troops are available for deployment, which will take at least six months and as long as a year.

The conventional wisdom used to be that the White House's reluctance to engage Darfur more actively derived from a foreign policy calculus that placed strategic military interests over humanitarian ones. But, Mr. Bush's quiet metamorphosis on Sudan demonstrates that in the face of genocide the best strategy is also the most compassionate.

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About the Author

Daniel Allott is a writer in Washington, D.C.