Grounding Sudan's Killers

Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir was predictably defiant yesterday in response to the International Criminal Court's decision to issue an order for his arrest because of his war in Sudan's western Darfur region. More than four years ago, the United States correctly called Khartoum's action in Darfur "genocide." But the Bush administration did nothing to stop the killings. Now this ongoing nightmare competes with the ailing economy for U.S. attention. But prioritizing Darfur would make clear that the Obama administration can rally international cooperation to resolve thorny security problems.

President Obama, Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice have all advocated a more engaged and effective policy to end the suffering in Darfur. They have also agreed that creating a no-fly zone over the region would change the dynamic on the ground.

Yet this proposal made little progress after humanitarian organizations protested. The groups feared that they would lose access to refugees or that aid workers and the civilians they were trying to help would be subject to reprisals. Many hoped that diplomatic negotiations would draw in the Sudanese government and lead to a political solution. Sadly, instead of taking decisive action, the international community has given Darfur refugees the palliatives of a sputtering aid effort and a U.N.-African Union "hybrid force" -- itself a sop to Bashir, who refused to countenance a proper force as mandated by the U.N. Security Council.

Not surprisingly, the humanitarian situation has worsened. The issue of what to do is reminiscent of the misguided effort to hold off forceful intervention in Bosnia in the early 1990s. After 3 1/2 bloody years in which 100,000 people were killed and millions displaced, we ultimately saw that more vigorous action was needed to end that conflict. The same conclusion holds now for Darfur, where the death toll is at least double that of Bosnia (and may be much greater). The arrest warrant the ICC issued yesterday makes clear Bashir's responsibility as leader of the country and director of the mayhem in the Darfur region. His expulsion of 10 aid organizations in response to the warrant makes his lack of concern for his citizens' welfare abundantly clear.

Air power plays a central role in Bashir's military strategy, so establishing a no-fly zone remains the most promising initiative to halt the atrocities in Darfur. During her Senate confirmation hearing, Hillary Clinton acknowledged that such a proposal was under consideration. As a practical matter, imposing control over Sudanese airspace must involve NATO and European Union allies, in particular France, which has a suitable airfield at Abeche, in eastern Chad. Allied air forces could and should provide much of the force structure, principally fighter aircraft, but a U.S. contribution -- especially of aerial refuelers and command-and-control aircraft -- would be essential. About a squadron of each type of aircraft would be more than enough to end the impunity Sudanese military aviation now enjoys.

By taking away the Sudanese government's freedom to use air power to terrorize its population, the West would finally get enough leverage with Khartoum to negotiate the entry of a stronger U.N. ground force. Effective military action in the form of a no-fly zone would not preclude a political resolution, as some suggest, but in fact would make diplomacy more effective by reducing Bashir's options.

Bashir has strung the international community along in a way that the late Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic would have envied. A no-fly zone is the best way to turn the conflict to his disadvantage. President Obama has vowed to act multilaterally, where possible, to build real, consensus solutions to international security problems. Decisive international action in Darfur may present the best opportunity to demonstrate this resolve.

Gen. Merrill A."Tony" McPeak, Air Force chief of staff from 1990 to 1994 and co-chaired Barack Obama's presidential campaign and Kurt Bassuener, a senior associate of the Democratization Policy Council.