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Bush on Darfur: counting the days

Last month I urged American readers of this blog to support a bill in Congress– the Darfur Accountability Act– which called for a new UN Security Council resolution with sanctions, accelerated assistance to the African Union mission and a military no-fly zone in Darfur to help stop the ongoing genocide.

The bill, sponsored jointly by liberal Democratic Sen. John Corzine of New Jersey and conservative Republican (and evangelical Christian) Sen. Sam Brownbeck of Kansas, passed the Senate unanimously. But when it reached the House of Representatives, the Bush administration decided things had gone too far.

As Nicholas Kristof wrote May 4 in The New York Times:

The White House was roused from its stupor of indifference on Darfur to send a letter, a copy of which I have in my hand, to congressional leaders, instructing them to delete provisions about Darfur from the legislation.

And in fact:

After pressure from the White House (including a letter from administration officials to House Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis), the Darfur Accountability provisions were stripped from the [wartime supplemental] bill. Thankfully, it’s not all bad news. The conference report does include $50 million to strengthen and expand the African Union mission in Darfur, along with increases in disaster aid for Sudan and other crises.

But to the Bush administration’s shame, that’s not all it has done recently to indicate a decreasing sense of urgency about Darfur.

During a visit to Sudan in April, Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick seemed to go out of his way to appease the Sudanese regime:

When asked by a BBC reporter how many people the United States thinks have died due to fighting in Darfur, Zoellick gave an astonishingly low estimate of 60,000 to 160,000 people. That number defies even the most conservative claims of the number killed; the lower reaches fall far short of any previous estimate and the upper range is less than half the number reached by an April 22 mortality study compiled by the Coalition for International Justice, which calculated that nearly 400,000 people had died since the conflict began two years ago.

Of course, estimating the number dead in a war zone is tricky, but given the audacity of Zoellick’s lowball, it’s difficult to believe that the deputy secretary of state himself considers that estimate to be accurate. Accuracy, however, may not have been his purpose here. When pressed by the same reporter on whether or not he thinks genocide is occurring in Darfur, Zoellick refused to endorse [former Secretary of State Colin] Powell’s affirmative finding. “It’s been a terrible series of events,” he said, “and as you know, there’s a debate. The [United Nations] did a legal analysis of whether this was genocide, and their conclusion was that it was crimes against humanity as opposed to genocide.”

And The Los Angeles Times reported recently that the US has forged a close intelligence partnership with Sudan as part of the war on terror.

Kristof credits Bush’s earlier attention to the Darfur massacres with saving hundreds of thousands of lives. But then he asks:

So why is Bush so reluctant to do a bit more and save perhaps several hundred thousand more lives? I sense that there are three reasons.

First, Bush doesn’t see any neat solution, and he’s mindful that his father went into Somalia for humanitarian reasons and ended up with a mess.

Second, Bush is very proud– justly– that he helped secure peace in a separate war between northern and southern Sudan. That peace is very fragile, and he is concerned that pressuring Sudan on Darfur might disrupt that peace while doing little more than emboldening the Darfur rebels (some of them cutthroats who aren’t negotiating seriously).

Third, Sudan’s leaders have increased their cooperation with the CIA…

All three concerns are legitimate. But when historians look back on his presidency, they are going to focus on Bush’s fiddling as hundreds of thousands of people were killed, raped or mutilated in Darfur– and if the situation worsens, the final toll could reach a million dead.

Bill Clinton and other Western leaders of the time will live and die with the shame of failing to recognize and respond to the Rwandan genocide of more than a decade ago. Does Bush– for whatever “practical” reasons– really want to end his administration with a similar moral failure on his record and his conscience?

Kristof is entirely justified when he writes:

[I]’m going to start tracking Bush’s lassitude. The last time Bush let the word Darfur slip past his lips publicly (to offer a passing compliment to U.S. aid workers, rather than to denounce the killings) was Jan. 10. So Tuesday [May 3] marks Day 114 of Bush’s silence about the genocide unfolding on his watch.

As far as I know we’re now up to Day 122.

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