Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Obama & Brownback - "Policy Adrift on Darfur" (Washington Post)

It is hard to avoid mixed feelings in response to this Washington Post op-ed by two US Senators, the left-liberal Democrat Barack Obama and the right-wing Republican Sam Brownback. If one wants to look on the bright side, it is a sign that the ongoing atrocity in Darfur has not completely faded from public attention, and it reminds us that an unusually broad range of tendencies in American public opinion have come together over the past few years to protest against this atrocity.

Unfortunately, it serves mostly to highlight a larger failure of moral conscience, political will, and practical action. As the process of ethnic cleansing, mass murder, mass rape, and gradual extermination--what Eric Reeves has aptly termed "Rwanda in slow motion" or "genocide by attrition"--has increasingly neared the point of no return, the willingness of the outside world to do anything about it seems increasingly exhausted. The rather feeble efforts of the "international community" to prevent further slaughter in Darfur have been effectively blocked by the international supporters of the Sudanese regime, ranging from China to the Arab League. Even the US government, which--to its credit--was in the forefront of international condemnation of the Darfur atrocity for a period during 2004-2005, has increasingly moved from confrontation to 'pragmatic' accommodation with Khartoum.

Part of the reason for the US government's more aggressive stance a year and a half ago was that it was coming under pressure from an aroused public opinion to do something serious about Darfur. Unfortunately, this domestic political pressure seems to be slackening as well. Expressions of concern about Darfur by prominent US political figures have become increasingly rare. And this effort by Obama and Brownback is not without flaws of its own. Given the realities of the situation, its tone is insufficiently urgent and excessively diplomatic, its message is too unfocused, and some of its key points are oddly muffled. In a rather ill-tempered commentary on this op-ed, "How Not to Halt the Darfur Genocide," New Republic editor Marisa Katz accuses Obama and Brownback of "presenting their suggestions with less than urgent language, [...] refusing to deal honestly with our past failures in Darfur, and [...] burying the one idea that could really make a difference." I'm afraid that these criticisms are not entirely unfair, and she could have added that they also fail to make clear the complicity of Khartoum's foreign supporters and the shameful inaction of the major European governments, both of which are crucial obstacles to any serious solution.

However, Obama and Brownback do make a number of important points in this piece (read the whole thing HERE). And they come out in support of one measure that is both controversial and absolutely essential:
First, the administration must help transform the African Union protection force into a sizable, effective multinational force. [....] The African Union has begun discussions with the United Nations about folding itself into a follow-on U.N. mission, but because of the West's reluctance to offend African sensibilities, all parties seem resigned to muddling along. It has become clear that a U.N.- or NATO-led force is required, and the administration must use diplomacy to override Chinese and Sudanese opposition to such a force and persuade outside troops to join it.
As Katz correctly notes, "That's a pretty big deal coming from members of Congress." And in substantive terms, it cuts to the heart of the problem. To quote Katz again: "NATO troops with a strong mandate could clamp down on Khartoum's abuses, separate the combatants, and help the more than one million displaced people start returning to their homes. This is the most controversial proposal Obama and Brownback have to offer. But ultimately, it may be the only realistic chance we have of stopping the genocide."

For a detailed and convincing explanation of why this is so, see the powerful recent report by Eric Reeves, "Darfur Betrayed" (12/11/2005). As I said in my own comments on Reeves's piece:

"For anyone who genuinely wants to see serious action against the ongoing process of genocidal mass murder in Darfur [...] the conclusions seem clear. Neither the African Union nor the UN has either the capacity or the political will to stop the slaughter. It is completely unrealistic to expect the African Union to take on this responsibility without large-scale assistance and massive political pressure from elsewhere. As for the UN, it has to be part of the solution, but the UN framework cannot provide a genuine solution by itself. The UN's humanitarian operations are essential, and they need to be protected militarily and backed up politically. But the UN, as an institution, cannot provide the necessary protection on its own. Even if the UN were capable of moving quickly enough to deploy the required military forces before humanitarian operations collapse--which it is not--it is almost certain that any attempts to do so, or to take any other serious action in Darfur, would be blocked by the Sudanese regime's supporters on the UN Security Council, particularly China.
It remains the case, as the International Crisis Group (ICG) argued in July 2005, that a NATO “bridging force” is the only timely response to the insecurity and violence that may soon precipitate wholesale humanitarian evacuation. The force of 12,000-15,000 troops that ICG proposed may be low in comparison with other recent force estimates of what is required in Darfur: that of Refugees International (20,000-25,000), of the Brookings Institution/Bern University (20,000), or Protect Darfur (UK) (25,000). But if the force were deployed effectively and rapidly (ICG called for an early September 2005 deployment), hundreds of thousands of lives might be saved that will otherwise be imperiled if insecurity forces humanitarian evacuation.
The crucial role of NATO in any possible solution means that once again the major responsibility falls on the US and--alas-on the Europeans. (I say 'alas' because, so far, both governments and publics in western Europe have entirely failed to match even the quite inadequate and currently diminishing efforts of the US government or--with the partial exception of Britain--the amount of concern shown by sectors of US public opinion. On these matters, see here and here.) Those of us who are citizens of the US or of western European countries need to press our governments to do something serious to stop this atrocity."

Obama and Brownback deserve credit for recognizing this reality. Whatever complaints one might have about the flaws and limitations of their initiative, the bottom line is that they have issued a public call for serious action on Darfur--a call that should be followed up and supported by the rest of us.

--Jeff Weintraub