Darfur crisis: the damage done

Over the past two years, when I have interviewed people about the latest effort to end the Darfur genocide, answers would be delivered in a variety of ways while the same conclusion persisted: An enormous number of lives have already been lost and the damage has been done.

As the cause of ending the humanitarian crisis has produced voices of indignation and hope, anyone who follows the issue deeply enough can also hear the tones of resignation and doubt.

At some point, all that will remain is the desire to look back, to determine how the world permitted what we swore, implicitly and explicitly, would never happen again. And part of this analysis will lead to a bill that was introduced nearly three years ago, which history could document as our best shot at an effective end to the crisis.

In March of 2005, Rep. Donald Payne (D-N.J.) introduced legislation that, in addition to calling for sanctions against the Sudanese government, authorized the president to use force in order to end the violence. The legislation also included the use of unmanned aircraft in order to secure a no-fly zone, an integral provision given that the Sudanese government employed the use of its air force as cover for the Janjaweed rebels who terrorized Darfuris. The bill would acquire nearly 140 cosponsors as well as bipartisan support (including current presidential candidate Tom Tancredo, R-Colo.).

According to sources representing both parties, several members of Congress had seen that, in spite of the Bush Administration working with Khartoum to negotiate an end to a separate conflict between the Northern and Southern Sudanese, this did not translate into quelling the violence in Darfur. Lawmakers had specifically feared that the Sudanese had duped the U.S. in order to gain cover for their violent campaign in this part of the country.

At the time there was little to no hope of a United Nations Security Council resolution that would have brought a multi-lateral force to Sudan, much less a series of tough sanctions on Khartoum, principally given China’s reticence to allow such action against its economic partner. A force authorization would not have automatically meant boots on the ground, but would have offered the best shot of placing pressure on the Sudanese government to negotiate, as the diplomatic tools of sanctions and engagement had unequivocally failed.

In spite of all this, however, the bill would never reach the full floor, and Congress wouldn’t produce significant Darfur legislation until nearly two years later. It would be the force authorization that would serve as the bill’s albatross, primarily for two reasons according to those interviewed.

The State Department wanted unfettered leeway to pursue its diplomatic course with Khartoum, which they felt would be threatened by the authorization language, and was specifically weary given the administration’s recent negotiations with the Sudanese government on the North-South peace.

Additionally, our involvement in Iraq also undermined the prospect of force, raising concerns inside the State Department and with other lawmakers that our military involvement would have been perceived as just another invasion of a Muslim country; not to mention that a military effort would be strategically and politically unfeasible.

That’s not to say that such an authorization wasn’t attached to very challenging complications, particularly as it would have strained relations with countries that we have recently developed uncomfortable dependencies with: China (who subsidizes our currency), the Arab League (who we need to help produce a Shiite-Sunni reconciliation in Iraq) and Sudan (who we perversely relied on to maintain the North-South peace).

But the simple fact is that the instant the Bush administration and Congress uttered the term genocide, the cause of ending it immediately took precedent over any surrounding obstacles.

This makes the undermining of the force authorization, as well as Congress’s difficulties in passing divestment and sanctions measures all the more disheartening.

While other countries have displayed blatant disinterest, our hurdles are anchored in disability, lending a transcendent meaning to Darfur: that America’s rare ability to initiate efforts to end a grave humanitarian crisis has never been in greater doubt, and that it is not just a matter of political will anymore. Our newfound dependencies — as well as our current, future and potentially perpetual involvement in Iraq — can stultify our desire to summon humanitarian action, while our decreased moral standing would impede our capacity to inspire other nations to join us.

There are, seemingly, many contexts where we will have to rebuild our credibility, and this will be an essential one for the next president and congress.

Otherwise, this effect will ripple beyond the scorched and deadening grounds of Darfur. To paraphrase Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, while it may never be clear who the victor of the conflict in Sudan is, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear: the noble cause of humanitarian intervention and those who will be desperate for it in the near and distant future.

Mikhail is a former staff writer for The Hill. His article on Darfur, “The Year of Fanatical Thinking,” will appear in Transition magazine (Harvard University) next year.