Seldom has the gulf between diplomatic talk and effective action been as stark as it was this week at the United Nations. Yesterday President Bush, speaking before the U.N. General Assembly, called on the Sudanese government to stop the killing in Darfur, reiterating Secretary of State Colin Powell's declaration that the atrocities there constitute genocide. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan also condemned Khartoum for its campaign of violence. And three days earlier, the Security Council passed Resolution 1564, a toothless and watered-down warning to Sudan that sanctions might be considered should the carnage continue.
Unfortunately, Sudan's barbarity almost certainly will continue in the absence of effective action and U.S. leadership. The failure of world nations to force Sudan to change its behavior is merely the latest reminder of a fact we should have learned since the end of the Cold War -- in the Balkans, in Rwanda and in Iraq. The United Nations is slow and weak, and the United States, especially when waiting on the United Nations, is itself often too slow to act.
The United States will eventually act on Darfur. After the election President Bush or President Kerry will not sit by and permit the second genocide in Africa in a decade. We will intervene -- belatedly. The question is how belatedly, and how effectively.
The regime in Khartoum is unwilling to end the bloodshed it has unleashed in Darfur. Some 50,000 people have been killed, with 1.2 million forced to flee their homes. The Janjaweed militia backed by the Sudanese government continues to attack refugees, destroy villages and obstruct aid activities, acting in what the International Crisis Group has characterized as "a state of total impunity."
The U.S. government has done everything it can diplomatically to resolve the crisis. For nearly six months Bush, Powell and other senior officials have urgently and publicly demanded that the Sudanese government pull back the militia. The U.S. government has repeatedly threatened "consequences" if Sudan failed to do so. In this, the Bush administration has the support, indeed the encouragement, of a bipartisan, right-left, "never again" consensus.
Now it's time for the threats to end and the consequences to begin. After all, in addition to the humanitarian imperative, the United States has a strategic interest in Sudan. Khartoum is one of seven regimes on the U.S. government's list of state sponsors of terrorism, and Sudan's dictatorship has had ties with almost every significant terrorist organization in the broader Middle East. Al Qaeda was based in Sudan during the 1990s, and other terrorist groups continue to operate there freely. This month Die Welt reported that Syria and Sudan have been collaborating in developing chemical weapons and may have used them against civilians in Darfur. Thus, in moving against Khartoum for its human rights abuses, we will also be striking a blow in the war on terrorism.
For months it has been obvious that stopping Sudan's campaign in Darfur will require putting several thousand foreign troops on the ground. It has also been obvious that some of these troops will have to be American. As in the case of the Balkans, Rwanda and Iraq, U.S. policymakers have waited for the United Nations to take the lead in authorizing such a force. But after Saturday's Security Council vote, it is clear that at least two members of the council -- China and Russia -- will veto any genuine action against Sudan. Khartoum enjoys a strategic relationship with Beijing, which is hungry for Sudanese oil and doesn't worry about human rights or, for that matter, genocide. The Kremlin has a robust weapons trade with Sudan, having just this summer shipped an order of the very MiG warplanes that have been implicated in strafing civilians in Darfur. (The Sudanese ambassador in Moscow reports that his government is "very pleased" with the purchase, which the Russians delivered five months ahead of schedule.)
Of course, U.S. policymakers might wish that the problem of Darfur could be outsourced to our allies in the region, and some African nations have indicated that they would be willing to contribute troops. But that contingent will need to be backed up by the United States. If the regime in Khartoum is going to be forced to accept foreign intervention on its territory, or if that regime is going to be changed, Washington must be a leader in the effort.
So, as is so often the case, the coalition of the willing that goes into Sudan is going to have to be largely organized, sustained and financed by the United States, most likely without a U.N. mandate. That intervention is going to happen, but the sooner we act, the more lives will be saved and the sooner the forces of terrorism and barbarism will be dealt a blow. And given the bipartisan support for such action, waiting until after our election is both unwise and unnecessary. Indeed, preparations for intervention would serve as a useful signal that the next president, whoever he is, will continue to promote America's role and responsibilities in the post-Cold War, post-Sept. 11 world.
William Kristol is editor of the Weekly Standard. Vance Serchuk is a research associate in defense and security policy at the American Enterprise Institute. Serchuk will answer questions at 12 noon today on www.washingtonpost.com.