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Increments That Kill

Thursday, March 10, 2005; Page A20

IT'S BEEN A YEAR since the world woke up to the mass killings in the Darfur region of Sudan, and six months since the Bush administration termed them "genocide." Revulsion at the death toll, which stands at an estimated 300,000, has produced a humanitarian relief effort and the deployment of 1,900 armed cease-fire monitors by the African Union; both responses have saved lives. But Darfur's people still live in fear of rape, murder and starvation; perhaps 10,000 of them die monthly. And the worst of it all is the low-tech nature of this butchery. Sudan's government has armed a primitive militia that goes about on horses and camels; the government has supported the militia with rudimentary airpower, which NATO could cripple easily. So many lives could be saved with relatively little Western effort. But the killing continues.

This is the context in which to judge the latest U.N. resolution on Darfur, the fourth since last summer. To the diplomats inside the U.N. bubble, the new resolution, which circulated in draft form this week, may represent a breakthrough. It may resolve a dispute between the United States and other nations as to which sort of international tribunal should hold Darfur's war criminals accountable. It may urge extra support for the underpowered cease-fire monitors. It may lead to a ban on travel by leaders suspected of war crimes and a freeze of any assets that they hold abroad. But though these measures amount to incremental progress, incrementalism is itself the problem. How can the world's prosperous and powerful nations accept sedate progress when hundreds die each day?

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For an example of what a more serious response would look like, consider the option of a no-flight zone. This could be organized from Chad, Sudan's western neighbor, which already is host to a contingent of the French air force. According to retired Gen. Merrill A. "Tony" McPeak, a former chief of staff of the Air Force, enforcing a no-flight zone in Darfur would take one squadron of 12 to 18 fighter aircraft, backed up by four AWACS planes and other support aircraft. This would represent a small fraction of NATO's capability; France alone could provide the necessary fighter aircraft. Sudan's limited air force and air defense system would offer little resistance. And yet, although the no-flight zone would impede attacks on civilians by helicopter gunships and send a powerful signal to Sudan's criminal government, it is not on the table.

The same is true of beefing up the cease-fire monitors. It's been known for months that the African Union force would require Western logistical and financial support to deploy effectively. But the support has been late and tentative, with the result that even the modest promise of a 3,000-strong deployment has yet to materialize. U.N. officials say that a force of 10,000 is needed, and NATO's secretary general suggested last year that his organization could support the African Union. But France, which jealously guards its position as the chief military intervener in Africa, objected to the NATO option. The new U.N. resolution does not squarely address the need for an expanded Darfur deployment.

This evasion and caution partially reflects the mood of Western publics. Polling by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland suggests that 60 percent of Americans support a U.S. contribution to a U.N. military intervention when they are asked about the subject. But this majority is mostly silent, prompting a group called the Save Darfur Coalition (www.savedarfur.org) to organize a letter-writing campaign starting next Thursday.

It shouldn't take letters to make President Bush do the right thing on Darfur. A leader who prides himself on a bold and morally grounded foreign policy should have no patience for the incrementalism that enables mass killing.

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