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Standing down

As the crisis in Darfur deepens, President Obama's hard line from last year turns soft

Standing down

(Roger L. Wolenberg/Pool/Getty Images)

When President Barack Obama talked about Sudan's western region of Darfur during his presidential campaign, the candidate used searing language: He called the government-incited violence against civilians "genocide" and "a stain on our souls." In April 2008, Obama blasted President George W. Bush for considering normalizing relations with Sudan, calling the idea "a reckless and cynical initiative." He added: "We cannot stand down."

A year later, the tune has changed. When Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir ruthlessly expelled 13 foreign aid groups delivering at least half of the life-sustaining aid to millions of people in Darfur in March, Obama called the action "unacceptable." A few weeks later, Obama renewed his call for Bashir to allow aid workers to stay, saying he would otherwise have to "find another mechanism" for delivering aid. But by late May, no new mechanism existed.

Obama's new special envoy to Sudan, Major General Scott Gration, had even softer words when he visited the African nation for the first time in April. Gration, a retired Air Force officer, told officials in Sudan's northern capital city of Khartoum, "I come here with my hands open," and said he hoped Sudan would respond "with a hand of friendship." The envoy didn't mention genocide. Indeed, he didn't mention Darfur.

For Eric Reeves, that's exasperating. The Smith College professor and long-time Sudan activist decries the lack of action by Obama and his team so far: "I must confess I'm dismayed at the disparity between the rhetoric of campaign Obama and the Obama administration."

Reeves isn't alone. With the 20th anniversary of Bashir's regime coming on June 30, other Darfur activists wonder why Obama has done little about the escalating crisis in Sudan: As Bashir defies an International Criminal Court (ICC) indictment for his arrest for crimes against humanity, millions in Darfur hunker down for the rainy season, cut off from the critical aid that Bashir expelled from the country in retaliation for the indictment. Meanwhile, thousands in the South wonder if the growing unrest will damage their already-precarious peace agreement with the North. And many wonder if the United States will help at all.

It's difficult to add up the full number of Sudanese deaths from violence, disease, or starvation under Bashir's rule, but the known figures are huge: At least 2 million died in a 20-year civil war as Bashir's northern-based government tried to force Islamic law on the predominantly Christian South. That violence also drove some 4 million from their homes. A 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) brought some relief to the South, but many Southerners say the peace remains fragile.

In Darfur, at least 300,000 have died in a scorched-earth campaign orchestrated by Bashir's government against civilians since 2003. Some 3 million have fled their homes. And though war-related killings have decreased, millions languish in the brutal conditions of Darfur's devastated landscape, threatened by malnutrition and disease.

Against that backdrop, Obama and other high-profile members of his administration called for swift action in Darfur before the elections. Obama repeatedly called the violence in Darfur "genocide" and called for stiffer sanctions against the Khartoum-based government, international pressure against Bashir, and U.S. assistance to UNAMID, the joint African Union/United Nations peacekeeping force in Darfur. Obama promised: "I will make ending the genocide in Darfur a priority from Day One."

As a presidential candidate, then-Sen. Hillary Clinton proposed a NATO-enforced no-fly zone over Darfur to prevent government bombing of villages. In 2007, then-Sen. Joe Biden was even more blunt about Darfur: "I would use force now."

At least two other members of the Obama administration have been vociferous critics of the violence in Darfur: Samantha Power-now a member of the National Security Council-became a leading voice calling for an end to genocide in the region, filing harrowing reports of death and degradation from Darfur during some of the most violent moments of the bombardment. Susan Rice-now U.S. ambassador to the United Nations-once pushed for NATO airstrikes to defend Darfur and proposed a naval blockade of Sudan's major port. She vowed to "go down in flames" fighting for Darfur.

As the Obama administration took power, the chorus of stark voices led Ghazi Suleiman, a human-rights lawyer in southern Sudan, to predict to The Washington Post: "Compared to the Republicans-the Democrats, I think they are hawks."

But so far, the hawks in the Obama administration have stayed perched: The president hasn't renewed his calls for sanctions, and the United States hasn't provided helicopters requested by UNAMID forces. Secretary of State Clinton hasn't re-proposed the no-fly zone, and Vice President Biden hasn't pressed for using force. Both Power and Rice continue to condemn the Darfur violence as genocide but seem to be waiting for Obama to form a more definitive policy before speaking further.

With a disaster six years in the making, many wonder: Why doesn't Obama already have a Sudan policy? Theories differ, but Nina Shea of the Hudson Institute thinks the delay hinges on Bashir's indictment by the ICC. Shea thinks Bashir's defiance of the war crimes indictment leaves the Obama administration debating whether the United States should encourage the court to drop the indictment so outside nations can negotiate peace for Darfur. (Bashir has used the indictment as an excuse to continue withholding aid from Darfur.)

That's a controversial question within the pro-Darfur community: Some human-rights activists-including Franklin Graham of Samaritan's Purse-believe the indictment only enflames Bashir and destabilizes the whole country, especially if he continues easily to avoid arrest. (Some African neighbors have refused to turn over Bashir to the court.) But other activists say the indictment at least makes strides toward exacting justice for the Bashir-led campaigns of violence against his own people.

The ICC has long been a controversial issue for the United States. The United States isn't a member of the UN-led court-both former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush expressed concerns over the court's expansive powers, and many are waiting to see if Obama will reverse that course. The Bashir debacle may make that decision more complicated.

So far, the United States has supported the Bashir indictment but has also offered little commentary. Vanderbilt University professor Michael Newton thinks that's because the Obama administration doesn't have a clear policy on the ICC in general, not just on the Bashir indictment. "There's no clear central voice," says Newton, who helped formulate the court's documents on defining crimes.

Reeves of Smith University has a different theory: The professor doesn't believe Obama's delay has anything to do with the ICC, but instead, a lack of political will. Reeves thinks the crisis in Darfur was a popular campaign issue for most candidates since "it was easy to be on the right side."

Finding a solution is harder. An administration spread thin by domestic turmoil and thorny issues elsewhere in the world may have lost steam on Darfur, says Reeves: "It's one thing to criticize from the outside. It's another-when you have the power-to exert it in a way that really makes a difference in a very difficult crisis."

Reeves describes Gration's tone toward Sudan as "squishy soft," and laments: "We're looking at an administration that is trying to tamp things down at the moment when they've reached their most critical point."

Things aren't just critical for Darfur: Officials in southern Sudan worry that if violence escalates in Darfur again, war could spread to the South as well. They also worry that Bashir may continue to defy significant portions of the 2005 peace agreement.

For those languishing in Darfur, the crisis is more immediate. Millions in sprawling refugee camps are running out of resources, and Reeves says the fast-approaching rainy season may mean it's too late to spare many lives: "It's a desperate moment."

That's something most Darfur activists agree on. Shea also believes the crisis in Darfur could plunge the entire country into war, and warns: "Make no mistake, if something isn't done to save Darfur . . . the Blue Nile will turn red."

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie is national editor of WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously worked for the Charlotte World. Jamie has covered politics, disasters, religion, and more for WORLD. She resides in Charlotte, N.C. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.