Time to Focus on the Real Choices in Darfur

By J. Stephen Morrison, director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and Chester A. Crocker, professor of strategic studies, Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service, and former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs (THE WASHINGTON POST, 07/11/06):

The demand by American activists for U.S.-led military intervention to halt genocide in Darfur by the Sudan government and its militia proxies is a utopian diversion that has led nowhere. Their verbal attacks on Khartoum and calls on China and Russia to stop blocking possible UN coercive action may express their frustration but do not make good foreign policy. The Bush administration needs to concentrate on the real choices for exercising U.S. influence and make the achievement of a verifiable negotiated settlement to end Darfur’s carnage its top priority. To get there, it will need sustained high-level U.S. engagement using the full weight of America’s diplomatic resources, including a serious and creative test of Chinese intentions, during and after the November 3-5 China-Africa summit.

We need to face the fact that the United States has neither the stomach nor the means to force an international military intervention that would fail. Partners in Europe, Africa and the Middle East would view such action as a strategy for regime change. Is it seriously suggested that the United States occupy another Muslim majority nation? Can we control the consequences of a U.S.-led no-fly zone or air war? Are we prepared for the predicted collapse of international humanitarian operations that sustain the lives of over 2 million Sudanese? Such aggressive proposals may have emotional appeal but will lead nowhere given global political realities. It’s time to stop posturing and develop a political strategy that uses U.S. diplomacy and power to break the deadlock on Darfur.

The Bush administration has, since 2001, made an unprecedented high-level commitment to Sudan that achieved concrete results in the North-South Comprehensive Peace Accord of 2005. Far more painful and problematic have been efforts to win agreement from Khartoum to a UN peace operation in Darfur and efforts to win compliance from the government, its militias, and fragmented armed insurgents to the terms of the May 2006 Darfur Peace Agreement. At issue still is whether the Bush administration can deliver a second act that builds on its prior success and overcomes the weaknesses of recent efforts.

Resolution of the Darfur crisis can only be achieved if there is an intensified direct engagement with Khartoum and the Darfur insurgents, and mobilization of a concerted diplomatic effort to corral the Chinese, other UN Security Council members and neighboring African states. It requires a strategy that guts Sudanese President Bashir’s ability to argue that the U.S. intention is regime change. The goal should be to obtain from Khartoum positive verifiable movement on the following series of incremental critical tests in Darfur:

1. To secure a ceasefire,

2. Protect humanitarian relief channels

3. Establish a robust, hybrid African Union/UN peace operation

4. Begin to demilitarize armed groups

5. Advance a Darfur political dialogue.

Earlier tests of Khartoum by Senator John Danforth laid the groundwork for the successful 2005 accords between the North and South. An empowered approach by newly appointed Special Envoy Andrew Natsios could similarly succeed and potentially revive a durable plan for peace in the region.

The time has also come to learn from recent hard lessons.

First, there has been insufficient understanding in Washington of the confused and contradictory agenda we present to the Sudanese regime and its friends. Diplomacy is more complicated than simply providing people we dislike a list of things we insist they fulfill. Moreover, it is self-defeating if we demand Khartoum’s continued cooperation, while roundly and incessantly condemning her for genocide.

This contradiction is magnified by the harsh reality that the United States has failed to bring any allies in Europe, Africa or the Middle East fully behind its genocide declaration. On the contrary, skeptics, buoyed by controversy over Bush administration claims of WMD in Iraq, continue sotto voce to question the veracity of its estimations of Darfur’s human carnage. Instead, The United States should lower its rhetoric and reaffirm that in time the International Criminal Court should handle allegations of genocide. The administration should also state publicly that it does not seek regime change and it should commit to multilateral reconstruction efforts once an enduring Darfur settlement is in place. Not a pretty set of choices and compromises, but ones that make sense and have the promise of showing concrete results.

Second, the United States continues to be hobbled by uneven high-level engagement and inadequate institutional capacity. Action by President Bush, former Senator Danforth, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, and former Deputy Secretary Robert Zoellick, have moved Sudan towards a more promising future, but engagement has been episodic. Operationally, U.S. personnel remain under-sourced in Washington and Khartoum. Special Envoy Andrew Natsios should be empowered to bring about a cohesive interagency approach with a direct and regularly reinforced mandate from the Secretary of State and the President.

Third, Sudan must be placed higher on the U.S.-China agenda. This week, at the China-Africa summit in Beijing, China will seek to further consolidate its ambitions to shape Africa’s future. Part of legitimizing any long-term engagement in Africa will involve answering the many skeptics who rightfully argue that the Chinese have up to now callously disregarded humanitarian and human rights norms in its dealings with Sudan, along with Zimbabwe.

Washington should present to the Chinese a vision of a credible political process in Darfur that they can support — and perhaps even take credit for — and enlist China to use its influence to press Khartoum to accept restraint and negotiated change. Getting there will be easier if the United States identifies concrete openings for the Chinese to contribute directly to a peace operation and a reconciliation process in Darfur. A smart strategy would create leverage by broadening the coalition, sharing responsibility, and testing China’s own capacity to persuade Sudanese President Bashir to embrace phased compromises that in five years may create a more stable and well-governed Sudan.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) is a private, tax-exempt organization focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions; accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in these publications should be understood to be solely those of the authors.