The Talking Cure

On Darfur, Bush has won support from all sides. But will that make Sudan a safer place?

In 1995, the Clinton administration was dragging its feet over Bosnia: talking tough but doing close to nothing. Few votes in the 1996 election hinged on the candidates’ Bosnia policy, but, as David Halberstam put it in his book War in a Time of Peace, the administration’s indecision and inaction on this issue “appeared to suggest something larger and much more devastating, an impotence on the part of the Clinton administration not just in this but in all matters.” Clinton, Halberstam reminds us, was “guilty [in the eyes of the general public] of believing that words were the equivalent of deeds.” So, he had to act in Bosnia to prove the public wrong. Ten years later, as his successor contemplates his response to the crisis in Darfur, the situation is reversed.

George Bush—a president guilty of believing that deeds are almost always better than words—started talking seriously about Darfur quite recently. “The United States,” he bragged last Thursday in a speech celebrating the 100th anniversary of the American Jewish Committee, “is the only country to have called the crimes taking place in Sudan what they are: genocide.” He laid out the moral case in the clearest way possible: Whenever and wherever there is human suffering on such a scale (close to half a million dead; hundreds of thousands displaced, hungry, and sick), Bush will come forward to urge the world to make it stop.

The crowd cheered the president when he talked about Israel (easy with a Jewish crowd), but they cheered no less when he spoke about Darfur. That’s not a reaction Bush is used to when talking foreign policy to a mostly liberal audience.

Distinguished guests were sitting on each side of Bush: U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and German Chancellor Angela Merkel—representatives of an organization and a powerful country that have both been harsh critics of Bush’s foreign policy. And there they were, nodding their heads and clapping their hands as the president talked about, well, foreign policy. A new experience for Bush indeed.

It didn’t even cost him any money or require him to commit troops or to fight over resolutions. Bush has suddenly discovered that gaining the moral high ground can be done on the cheap and can be very beneficial. It’s the opposite of Clinton—all he has to do is prove that he is willing and able to sit on his hands and talk. He discovered that words—rather than deeds—can be valuable; that sending “a strong message” and dispatching Deputy Secretary of StateRobert Zoellick for talks can be enough.

Well, enough for getting some good public relations, anyway. The question, of course, is whether Bush’s talk will bring peace to the embattled region, and the answer is much more complicated—partly because of the way the Darfur coalition was built.

True, having Evangelical Christians and liberal Jews, left-wing actors and right-wing neocons all working for the same cause has its advantages. But how do you reconcile the call to “Save Darfur: Take Action,”—as one of the signs at the recent Darfur rally in Washington, D.C., put it—with the call to pull out of Iraq? Is it right to use force in foreign lands, and to what end? Is it only acceptable when the United States has no clear and direct interest? Is it morally valuable to save the people of Darfur but morally tainted to save people living under other oppressive regimes?

One of the reasons Clinton was hesitant to act in Bosnia was the tragic experience of the Somalia intervention. Only public opinion could change his mind. Now, with Sudan, the tragedy of Iraq is the looming specter, and American action is highly unlikely, even if—as it is more than a mere possibility—the recently signed peace agreement proves meaningless. The coalition for Darfur will be kept happy as long as Bush doesn’t behave like Bush.

Ask the protesters at the Darfur rally what they want, and you’ll get an almost unanimous answer: diplomacy. Ask President Bush, and you’ll get the same answer in a slightly different form. As he told the American Jewish Committee: “I believe strongly that we must augment [African Union] forces with a blue-helmeted U.N. force, with a NATO overlay, so that we can send a clear message to the leaders of Sudan: We will not tolerate the genocide taking place in that country.”

In other words, maybe this time we’ll do the talking and leave others to do the work.