Flip-flop on Darfur

When it comes to taking action on the atrocities in Darfur, American foreign policy appears to be in meltdown mode. In an Alice-in-Wonderland reversal, Democrats and Republicans have neatly switched sides. The Bush administration is firmly committed to peaceful, multilateral diplomacy, while some Democrats are ready to go it alone in unilateral military action to punish the genocidal thugs in Khartoum. Both sides were in high moral and geopolitical dudgeon during a showdown Wednesday at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Let us stipulate up front that there are no easy answers. Put crudely, after four years of crisis, the choice might come down to this: We can watch as the atrocities keep on rolling, while betting that U.N. negotiators will be able to pull off an agonizingly slow and iffy peace process between oil-rich, brutal Khartoum and some 15 different Darfurian rebel groups.

Or, if we decide that Khartoum must not be allowed to thumb its nose at U.N. peacekeepers and must be made to pay for its genocidal sins, we can ignore the United Nations peace process, kiss our European allies goodbye and take unilateral military action against yet another Muslim nation. Depending on whether you count the U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion to oust the radical Islamists in Somalia (an intervention that is, you guessed it, already souring) military action against Sudan would be either the third or fourth U.S. action against an Islamic country in six years. And that's not counting the U.S. cold war with Iran.

Though the Bush administration insists it has not taken the military option off the table, it has clearly decided that armed intervention in Darfur is a nonstarter. Beyond the obvious political calculations—lack of enthusiasm for yet another foreign intervention, an overstretched U.S. military, fear of creating yet more Islamist animosity—there are practical concerns about whether military action would accomplish its goals.

One major concern is that Khartoum could retaliate by turning the infamous janjaweed militias on the 300 camps for displaced persons scattered across Darfur. It could also close these camps, where some 2.5 million people have taken uncertain refuge, or starve the refugees by cutting them off or kicking out the 13,000 international aid workers. How could a small international force possibly protect all these refugees? How long would a larger force have to occupy Darfur to secure the peace? And wouldn't it be greeted as a hated occupier by a large segment of the population?

On such practical grounds, there are also divisions among ideological soulmates. For example, while Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joe Biden (D-Dela.) and many others advocate imposing a no-fly zone on Darfur, some relief groups are against it. Darfur is a region two-thirds the size of France with few paved roads. The only way to run an aid operation is by air, and the aid workers have been reading the news stories about friendly fire.

Fed up with four years of fruitless diplomacy to end the genocide, some humanitarian hawks are advocating punitive strikes against Khartoum—and conservatives are warning about the possible unintended consequences. It is a fascinating inversion of the Iraq war debate, in which conservatives argued that the U.S. had a moral imperative to topple the murderous Saddam Hussein because of his human rights abuses, including the gassing of the Kurds, while liberals argued that hideous behavior by a tyrant alone did not justify U.S. military intervention.

On Wednesday, it was Susan Rice, former assistant secretary of State for African affairs under the Clinton administration, who was advocating air strikes against Sudanese military assets. Sen. Richard Lugar, (R-Ill.), the former Foreign Relations Committee Chairman who supported the Iraq war, expressed qualms about whether the strikes would really be the limited air engagement Rice suggested.

In the run-up to the Iraq war, it was the liberals who argued that the United Nations inspections process must be given time to work, that the U.S. would not succeed in Iraq without allies. Conservatives argued that the Europeans were feckless surrender monkeys who would never have the stomach for a fight—or even to stand up to their own corporations who wanted to do business with Iraq.

But on Wednesday, it was President Bush's special envoy on Sudan, Andrew Natsios, who argued for patience, saying that diplomacy was making progress, and warning that the U.S. should not rush to impose unilateral sanctions on Sudan since by careful diplomacy it might well persuade the Europeans to join in a concerted campaign that would be far more effective. Democrats countered that thousands more would be raped or die in Darfur while we wait.

Last fall, Bush told the U.N. General Assembly that U.S. credibility was on the line in Darfur. But, along with the assertive neoconservative stance of six years ago, the chastened Bush has also stopped using the word "genocide," as some U.S. allies disagree with the term. Democrats appear eager to pick up the mantle.

Sonni Efron is a member of The Times' editorial board.

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