If Iraq was wrong, is Darfur right?

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LAWRENCE F. KAPLAN is a senior editor at the New Republic.

SPRINGTIME HAS ARRIVED on the nation’s college campuses, but this year the students out marching in the streets are demanding a foreign intervention rather than protesting one. For months now they’ve been in full cry, and rightly so, over the international community’s disinclination to halt the genocide in the Darfur region of western Sudan. Next Sunday, they and like-minded people around the U.S. will convene for a massive rally in the nation’s capital.

But the marchers will have to contend with an unwelcome guest: the specter of Iraq.

Just as the shadow of Somalia loomed over policymakers a decade ago, generating excuses for inaction in Bosnia and Rwanda, the trauma of Iraq may now doom the rescue of Darfur. Even the most committed progressive activists seem confused about what exactly should be done next. “A Call to Your Conscience: Save Darfur!,” “Take Action Now” -- these are a few of the slogans that the Save Darfur Coalition suggests marchers affix to their placards at the April 30 rally. But it’s purposefully unclear what the march organizers mean by “action” and on whose “conscience” they intend to call.

As their criticism of the particulars of the Iraq war has hardened into a broader indictment of U.S. foreign policy, the mostly progressive voices calling for action in Darfur have become caught in a bind of their own devising. Even as they demand intervention in Sudan, they excoriate Washington for employing U.S. military power without due respect to the opinion of the international community and against nations that pose no imminent threat to our own -- which is to say, precisely the terms under which U.S. power would have to be employed in the name of saving Darfur.


Then again, the use of unilateral U.S. military power isn’t the solution most Darfur activists have in mind. Even as western Sudan burns, Darfur advocates such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) argue that the U.S. must employ its military power only on behalf of -- and, more important, in concert with -- international organizations such as the United Nations. The Save Darfur Coalition, a leading umbrella group for organizations bent on action, intends to save Darfur not by urging the Bush administration to launch air strikes against Sudan’s murderous militias but by petitioning the White House to bolster funding for African Union peacekeepers and to lobby the United Nations.

But will the African Union put a halt to the killings in Darfur? Absolutely not. Its Arab members have stymied the force at every turn. Will the U.N. solve the crisis? That seems extremely unlikely as well. The organization amounts first and foremost to a collection of sovereign states, many of them adamantly opposed to violating Sudan’s own sovereignty. Can NATO save the day? Not really, given the fears of entanglement expressed by its European members. As in Bosnia before it, the victims of Darfur can be saved by one thing and one thing alone: American power.

Unfortunately for the victims of Darfur, too many of their advocates have come to view that power as tainted, marred by self-interest and by its misapplication in Iraq. Hence, the contradiction at the heart of the Darfur debate, which pits the imperative to halt the persecution of innocents (Darfur activists have enshrined as their motto the biblical admonition not to “stand idly by the blood of thy neighbor”) against a reflexive opposition to the only power that can actually do so.

With the latter sentiment in vogue as a result of the Iraq war, it is as if nothing has been learned and nothing remembered from the decade that went before. Never mind Bosnia. Never mind Kosovo. And, as long as Darfur activists like No. 2 Senate Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois cling to the mantra that the U.S. must be what he calls a “defensive nation,” well, never mind Darfur either.

There are a few “progressive” Darfur activists who are willing to contemplate a military solution, but they face a thorny moral dilemma. The most vocal among them argue at once for Darfur’s rescue and Iraq’s abandonment, as if this counts as evidence of heightened moral awareness. But their willingness to exchange one moral catastrophe for another -- a rapid withdrawal from Iraq, after all, would spark a humanitarian crisis and bloodbath of exactly the same magnitude that activists mean to halt in Darfur -- is really proof of the reverse. Yet that doesn’t seem to have occurred to those like New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, one of the most persistent advocates for launching an intervention in Darfur and also for winding down an intervention in Iraq.

Nor does the contradiction seem to have made an impression on organizations from Americans for Democratic Action to the National Council of Churches, which insist that we act in Darfur even as they insist that we evacuate Iraq without condition and regardless of consequence. In moral and humanitarian terms -- that is, the very terms used to justify halting the slaughter in Darfur -- their position is simply incoherent.


So, yes, march on Washington. Comfort your sensibilities. Testify to your virtue and good intentions. Offer assurance that your call to action is not a call for the unilateral or unprovoked exercise of American power. But don’t pretend that Darfur will be saved by anything else.