Darfur: Condoleezza Rice's Balancing Act

By David Morse 

Why is the US failing to address the genocide in the Darfur region of western Sudan?

In her unflinching examination of past genocides, A Problem from Hell, Samantha Power finds a consistent pattern in the way the US responded to the genocides in Armenia, Nazi Germany, Cambodia, Bosnia, and Rwanda:

Initially, the accounts of slaughter were met with incredulity. Government officials, journalists, and the public at large, all failed to comprehend the horror.

But even after the genocide was acknowledged, the executive branch (with the passive support of Congress) found reasons not to intervene where American interests were not directly threatened, while seeking to minimize the political fallout and moral stigma of allowing genocide. President and Congress alike paid lip-service to humanitarian concerns, voiced vague hopes, and procrastinated, but took the silence of the American people as license to do nothing.

Today is no different. An estimated 370,000 Darfurian farmers have been killed and the lives of another 3.5 million put in jeopardy, while America remain silent.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's July 20 visit to Sudan exposed the fecklessness of the Bush administration's efforts to achieve closer relations with the genocidal regime in Khartoum, but it also raises the possibility that Rice herself might finally play a decisive role.

Just prior to Dr. Rice's visit, Christian Science Monitor staff writer Abraham McLaughlin declared that when the Secretary "alights from her plane Wednesday, she'll look out across the dusty metropolis of the capital, Khartoum, onto a distinctly different national landscape from what her predecessor, Colin Powell, saw when he visited 13 months ago."

Sudan, after all, had ended its long civil war between the Islamist government in the north and black rebels in the south. Sudan had -- in McLaughlin's words -- "elected a national unity government, penned a peace agreement with rebels in Sudan's troubled Darfur region, increased its flow of oil, and reinforced its status as a valuable partner in the US fight against global terrorism."

Unfortunately, the facts do not support this rosy view. Despite repeated promises to rein in the militias that attack black African villages, killing and raping the inhabitants, Khartoum continues to arm and support them. Rape continues to be used systematically as a weapon to demoralize refugees and prevent them from returning to their villages and farms.

Half the population of Darfur is now poorly sheltered in makeshift camps, wholly dependent on outside aid. Attacks on aid workers make delivery of food, water, and medical supplies precarious. Now, during the rainy season, the genocide is claiming an estimated 400 lives every day.

As it turned out, when Dr. Rice alighted from her plane she was treated thuggishly by Sudanese officials. Security guards manhandled her entourage, shoving her communications director up against a wall, and detaining her interpreter, so Rice spent ten minutes in awkward silence with the country's dictator, Lt. Gen. and President Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir.

When journalists were finally allowed into the room, Andrea Mitchell of NBC News called out a question at Bashir: "Why should Americans believe your promises, when your government is still supporting the militias?"

Two Sudanese security officers grabbed Mitchell and dragged her from the room.

Mr. Bashir offered no comment.

Rice told reporters she was "outraged" by this behavior. She demanded, and later received, an apology from Sudan's Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismael.

What are we to make of this ugly incident, coming from a "valuable partner" in the war on terrorism?

First, the "war on terrorism" rubric is an obscene red herring. By last June it was apparent to this writer that Khartoum and Washington shared a common desire to see the sanctions lifted. That shared agenda had little to do with terrorism and everything to do with oil.

Why? Because new seismographic studies in April and May effectively doubled Sudan's estimated oil reserves. June saw a flurry of contracts being signed with oil companies from China, France, Britain, India and Japan. US companies can get a piece of the action only if the trade sanctions imposed in 1997 are removed.

One possible explanation for Bashir's ham-handed treatment of Rice?

He was sending a message: We are the thugs you suppose us to be, and will act accordingly. Your carrot-and-stick diplomacy must not aim too high. We will continue our genocide. You will pretend to believe our promises and crude lies in exchange for our oil.

This is conjecture, of course. Bashir may have been uncomfortable facing a black woman who represented the most powerful country in the world. Or he may have been enraged upon learning perhaps only hours earlier that Dr. Rice had arranged for the first NATO airlift of African Union peacekeeping troops from Rwanda into Darfur, timed to coincide with her visit to a large refugee camp.

Rice was showing him the stick. And it's one Bashir has reason to fear, especially if the airlift signals stronger U.S. support for beefing up the African Union's tiny peacekeeping force. Legislation before the U.S. Congress, in the form of the Darfur Peace and Accountability Act, calls for providing logistical support for an increased AU presence and broadening the AU mandate to include protection of civilians. As it is, AU observers can only watch the militias' attacks.

Following her review of the troops, Rice interviewed Darfurian women who had suffered rape and seen their husbands killed. One hopes that the Secretary will use the power of her office, will carve from her indignity what Colin Powell failed to carve from his - that she will take a stand beside the oppressed and say "We are all Darfurians."

It's going to take something like that, in the absence of a President with the moral courage to stand up and say No to the slaughter.

David Morse is an independent journalist. Email dmorse@david-morse.com. See also "Darfur as a Resource War."

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