The Choices in Darfur

By Michael Gerson (THE WASHINGTON POST, 19/12/07):

On a recent trip to Rwanda, I visited a humble memorial -- the bullet-marked corner of a room with 10 candles arranged in an arc on the floor. It is the site where 10 U.N. peacekeepers from Belgium were executed early in the 1994 genocide. The architects of that genocide calculated that an early atrocity against foreign troops would cause all of them to run. And run they did.

Almost 14 years later, the international community faces a different kind of test. On Jan. 1, the United Nations, in cooperation with the African Union, will take control of peacekeeping operations in the Darfur region of Sudan, where more than 200,000 are dead in a genocide and about 2 million have been forced into refugee camps.

This international intervention must succeed, or all the post-Rwanda promises of "never again" will be revealed as pious lies.

Within the Bush administration, the seriousness and steadiness of the United Nations in Darfur are hotly debated. One diplomat told me that Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has pushed for rapid deployment, while other U.N. officials, such as Jean-Marie Gu¿henno, the undersecretary general for peacekeeping operations, have dragged their feet, fearful of failure.

Jane Holl Lute, the head of U.N. peacekeeping operations, dismisses such speculation as "academic." The pace of deployment, she says, is being determined by the military contributions of U.N. member states and by the attitude of Sudan's government. She points to progress -- more Rwandan and Nigerian troops on the ground, the arrival of part of a Chinese engineering unit. She also outlines a number of obstacles.

"There is still the issue with the helicopters," says Lute. The U.N. force requires 24 -- six to eight of which are supposed to be gunships. The Europeans have plenty but no interest in lending them.

The United States is pushing for contributions from China, Ukraine, Poland and South Korea, with little result. "No one other than the U.S. is helping much here," says a frustrated Bush administration official.

And ultimately, according to Lute, "if we don't have the active support of the host country, we're not going to succeed." Which means that a small circle of leaders in Khartoum must actively cooperate in extinguishing a genocide they ignited.

For years, the Sudanese regime has made broad promises of strategic cooperation, then scattered tactical obstacles at every turn. Lute reports current problems "with visas, at the ports, getting land [for bases], moving equipment, night operations."

"Every day is a struggle," she told me, "requiring constant engagement and liaison" -- meaning constant appeals to overturn lower-level obstruction.

All of this leaves the United States with limited options:

The first is just to muddle through -- to "negotiate every single day," according to one Bush official, "to negotiate every 100 boots on the ground." These gradually accumulated forces could eventually create additional leverage on the regime. And this pressure would be paired with efforts to fashion a new peace agreement -- uniting fractious, unsophisticated rebel groups; sponsoring new talks with the government; and hoping for a meaningful settlement.

A second option is increased unilateral pressure on Sudan. The last round of American sanctions was surprisingly effective, and there are many more targets. In January or February, the administration could quietly make specific demands of the regime and, if these were refused, go after additional Sudanese bank accounts or encourage the collection of Sudan's international debt.

The most difficult and controversial option is regime change. This does not mean an American invasion of Sudan, which would probably be a sun-baked disaster. Instead, it might involve a no-fly zone and a blockade of Sudan's only port, through which its oil flows for export. The message to Sudan would be clear: Fundamentally alter your behavior or change your government.

Few nations would support America in this conflict. And the risks would be considerable. The balance between northern Arabs and southern Africans in Sudan is fragile; both sides seem to be preparing for the resumption of civil war. Any American action that upsets this balance could provoke mass violence.

All of these options have flaws. Intensified negotiations might give diplomats another series of press-release victories that result in little change on the ground -- the kind of barren "progress" we have seen for years. Unilateral pressure goes only so far. Regime change is the messiest foreign policy option, fraught with unintended consequences.

But the choices in Rwanda were also flawed. Once again, the credibility of the United Nations is questioned; its troops are too few in number. Yet their deployment is perhaps the last hope for the betrayed people of Darfur. And we cannot run again.