The Lessons of Darfur

The campaign has achieved all its goals—but one.

Ten African Union peacekeepers died in Darfur in September

More than 20 U.S. states and nearly 50 universities pledged to divest from companies doing business with Sudan. Sudan’s response was foot-dragging and no real progress on solving the crisis in Darfur.

The Sudan Accountability and Divestment Act was signed into law. Sudan’s response was to name Musa Hilal, the leader of the Arab militias known as the Janjaweed, to a high government position.

The United States named a new, bold envoy, former Assistant Secretary of State Rich Williamson, to encourage the Sudanese government to accept more peacekeeping forces in its territory. Sudan’s response was to warn the top U.S. diplomat in Khartoum against interfering in internal Sudanese affairs.

The campaign to save Darfur is alive, but it is no longer kicking. You could say that it has achieved all its stated goals: public awareness, international pressure, congressional action, the administration’s involvement. Well, all but one: The crisis in Darfur is not yet solved, and the campaign to save Darfur is running out of options. In the State of the Union address, the president gave it half a sentence—”America is opposing genocide in Sudan”—providing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi with a rare opportunity to stand up and clap.

A couple of days ago, I had lunch with someone who was once heavily involved in the campaign but is less active now. “Look,” he said, “Sudan is not cooperating, China refuses to use its power to make it cooperate, the African Union is not the most able body in the world. What else can we do?”

That’s a tough question. Understanding all the mechanisms blocking the resolution of the crisis is a complicated task. The interests of the countries involved, the tribes, the regional dynamics, the politics of the U.N. Security Council, events on the ground, even the question of whether the crisis deserves to be called genocide are all complex and interrelated.

What about the Security Council, I asked. What about the United Nations? “Yes,” he agreed, “They too are very problematic.” Not long ago, he reminded me, Sudanese troops attacked a convoy of peacekeepers, firing on their vehicles for a couple of minutes undisturbed. Then he returned to the topic of China, the country supposedly blocking any action in the Security Council. He admitted that blaming China is like blaming the wind: American activists complain about it, but they can’t stop it from blowing the way it does.

“The rest of the world should have no patience for Sudan’s obstruction of the peacekeepers,” fumed a Boston Globe editorial last week. The Globe also took aim at China, suggesting a remedy that will force the reluctant Asian powerhouse into a more cooperative mood: a boycott of the Beijing Olympics if the Chinese government does not show more support for ending the atrocities in Darfur.

This is an interesting suggestion, but once again it is reflective of the trouble with the campaign to save Darfur: It is capable only of pressuring the U.S. government. First the effort was to gain recognition for the problem, which President Bush did with more zeal than some people expected. Then it was to solve it by means of domestic legislation and international cooperation. Congress reacted, and so did the administration. If the Olympics are the new tool, it will again be the U.S. government that’s expected to act. Who else is going to boycott the Games? The athletes? Television networks? Television viewers?

No, it is Bush, yet again. And this time, the Bush administration has no appetite for endangering its improved relations with China by boycotting the Games to which the president himself is invited as a guest of honor. And there doesn’t seem to be much enthusiasm on the other side of the aisle, either. The Democrats still remember, painfully, the last time a U.S. president boycotted the Olympic Games.

Things didn’t work out very well for the only presidential candidate to spend valuable debate time and credibility on Darfur. Sen. Joe Biden called for tougher measures against the government of Sudan. Despite his condemnation of the Bush administration for acting unilaterally in Iraq, Biden suggested we do exactly that in Sudan: “I think it’s not only time not to take force off the table. I think it’s time to put force on the table and use it,” he said in April.

But there were no takers. Neither the administration, with its understandable reluctance to get into yet another conflict in a Muslim country (or any country for that matter), nor the other candidates rushed into action. When Biden left the field, the tough talk on Darfur stopped. Some still mention it once in a while, in front of the right crowd, to score political points. (“Hillary was the first U.S. senator to call Darfur genocide,” said Bill Clinton, mistakenly, or misleadingly, depending on your level of suspicion.) But military force? The Republicans have the chip of military intervention in Iraq to carry on their shoulders, and that’s more than enough; the Democrats won’t dare suggest such a thing to their war-weary constituency.

So, here’s the problem of the campaign to save Darfur: Public interest has waned, the simple options have all been exhausted, the political machinery is mired in the election process, and other problems—Pakistan, Iran—have taken over the front pages. When Hilal was appointed to his new position in the Sudanese government, the story was relegated to the inside pages. No wonder some of the Darfur activists feel despondent. No wonder Sudan feels emboldened or that China vehemently rejects any linkage between the Darfur crisis and the Olympics.

This story provides many valuable lessons, but we shouldn’t forget the most elusive: The good people of America who wanted and still want to save the miserable people of Darfur expect too much of their government. And many of their desires are contradictory—almost impossible to achieve. Darfur illustrates these contradictions nicely.

Americans who want to help the persecuted people of Darfur want U.S. policy to be righteous, but they also prefer a government that doesn’t pursue its goals too aggressively. They want the U.S. government to cooperate with the international community but also to be effective. They want America to be the policeman of the world, but in most cases, they are willing to support it only when it acts like a social worker.