Is Bush Prince Hamlet on Darfur?

That doesn’t sound like the Dubya we know.

The President Bush portrayed in Michael Abramowitz’s Oct. 29 Washington Post story “U.S. Promises on Darfur Don’t Match Actions” is almost unrecognizable. According to Abramowitz, Bush is so absorbed by the details of the humanitarian crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan, which he’s repeatedly labeled “genocide,” that some in the White House refer to the president as the “Sudan desk officer.” A former executive director of the Save Darfur Coalition is quoted saying that at a White House meeting Bush demonstrated “an understanding of the issue that went beyond simply responding to a briefing that had been given” and knew “more facts than I expected him to know.” Yet nothing seems to happen.

This is quite different from the President Bush we’ve come to know in the context of Iraq—blustery, messianic, quick on the trigger, and unafraid to express boredom with the fine print. This is the President Bush who scared Spain’s then-Prime Minister José María Aznar half to death when he told him, amid U.N. negotiations over the future of Iraq, “My patience is over. I don’t even think about going beyond mid-March.” (The invasion was launched March 20.) The Bush who, the Rev. Pat Robertson claims, told him around the same time that “we’re not going to have any casualties” in Iraq. The Bush who, according to Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath, said at a peace conference in Jordan three months after the invasion began that God had told him to end the tyranny in Iraq. The Bush who (lest you conclude he’s been chastened by experience) is now contemplating a bombing campaign against Iraq’s neighbor Iran, putting the United States (in the words of Newsweek’s not exactly dovish Fareed Zakaria) “on a path to irreversible confrontation with a country we know almost nothing about.” The Bush who, depending on his mood, says World War III has either already begun or will begin as soon as Iran acquires nuclear weapons.

God, or at least His representatives in the evangelical movement (including Bush’s former speechwriter Mike Gerson), is telling Bush to end the slaughter in Darfur. This time, though, Bush isn’t doing much of anything. Why not? One obstacle, the Post suggests, is that this time Bush has actually done his homework and acquired an appreciation for the nuances. According to the Post, Bush hesitates to commit troops because he believes he shouldn’t be seen as “invading another Muslim country.” That’s no small consideration, and of a type I previously thought Bush incapable of registering. Or maybe, the Post suggests, Bush is afraid to rock the boat with China. Such highly diplomatic reasons are hard to square, though, not only with Bush’s saber-rattling over Iran, but also with an explanation advanced in the Post piece by National Security Adviser Steven J. Hadley. According to Hadley, Bush pushed hard for a Darfur policy but then rejected what his aides came up with last spring because it wasn’t tough enough. That sounds more like the Bush we know! But if Bush wants to get tough, why has spring turned to summer and summer to fall without any action? Maybe, the Post suggests, it’s simply a question of personnel; there’s been “a constant turnover of key administration advisers on Darfur.” Surely, though, that’s looking at the problem backward. If Darfur were a major White House priority, no such turnover would occur.

Maybe, with an ongoing quagmire in Iraq and a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan, we can’t spare the necessary troops, even for an international peacekeeping effort. That may or may not be true, but according to the Post, it’s what the Pentagon and the State Department are saying. Since when, though, is Bush interested in what the Pentagon and the State Department have to say in the matter of waging war?

There’s one more party who says privately that we can’t, or shouldn’t, mess around in Darfur. This person the Post mentions only in passing, which is strange, because he probably unlocks the mystery. Or maybe not so strange, given this person’s remarkable ability to operate in secret. His name is Dick Cheney.

I’ll wager that President Bush hasn’t done anything about Darfur not because he has acquired humility about the projection of American power, and not because his sissy White House aides won’t give him a plan with cojones, and not because the Darfur portfolio keeps passing from one desk to another, and not because the Pentagon and the State Department are dragging their feet. Rather, I would guess that Bush hasn’t done anything about Darfur because the vice president won’t let him. Perhaps Cheney thinks we can’t spare the troops. Perhaps Cheney thinks Sudan lacks strategic significance. Perhaps Cheney doesn’t care for Mia Farrow. Perhaps Cheney simply has other things on his mind. Whatever the reason, I have a feeling that major action on international crises like Darfur don’t happen unless Cheney, our shadow commander in chief, wants them to happen. Cheney doesn’t want this to happen. Maybe he didn’t even give Bush a reason. Maybe he doesn’t have to!