By John Prendergast
Sunday, November 19, 2006
Early in his first term, President Bush received a National Security Council memo outlining the world's inaction regarding the genocide in Rwanda. In what may have been a burst of indignation and bravado, the president wrote in the margin of the memo, "Not on my watch."
Five years later, and nearly four years into what Bush himself has repeatedly called genocide, the crisis in Sudan's Darfur region is intensifying without a meaningful response from the White House. Perhaps Harvard professor Samantha Power's tongue-in-cheek theory is correct: The memo was inadvertently placed on top of the president's wristwatch, and he didn't want it to happen again. But if Bush's expressions of concern for the victims in Darfur are genuine, then why isn't his administration taking real action?
The answer is one of the great untold stories of this young century, one in which human rights principles clash with post-9/11 counterterrorism imperatives. During my visits to Darfur in the past few months, I've heard testimony from Darfurians that villages are still burned to the ground, women are still gang-raped by Janjaweed militias and civilians are still terrorized by the Sudanese air force's bombings. As Darfur descends further into hell, all signs explaining the United States' pathetic response point to one man: Osama bin Laden.
In the early 1990s, bin Laden lived in Sudan, the guest of the very regime responsible for the Darfur atrocities. At the time, bin Laden's main local interlocutor was an official named Salah Abdallah Gosh. After 9/11, however, Gosh became a more active counterterrorism partner: detaining terrorism suspects and turning them over to the United States; expelling Islamic extremists; and raiding suspected terrorists' homes and handing evidence to the FBI. Gosh's current job as head of security for the government also gives him a lead role in the regime's counterinsurgency strategy, which relies on the Janjaweed militias to destroy non-Arab villages in Darfur.
The deepening intelligence-sharing relationship between Washington and Khartoum blunted any U.S. response to the state-sponsored violence that exploded in Darfur in 2003 and 2004. U.S. officials have told my colleague Colin Thomas-Jensen and me that access to Gosh's information would be jeopardized if the Bush administration confronted Khartoum on Darfur. And since 2001, the administration had been pursuing a peace deal between southern Sudanese rebels and the regime in Khartoum -- a deal aimed at placating U.S. Christian groups that had long demanded action on behalf of Christian minorities in southern Sudan. The administration didn't want to undermine that process by hammering Khartoum over Darfur.
The people of Darfur never had a chance.
The term "genocide" became a point of contention in the 2004 presidential campaign, with Democratic candidate John F. Kerry and a united Congress calling on Bush to use it. Finally, on Sept. 9, 2004, then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that "genocide has been committed in Darfur and that the government of Sudan and the Janjaweed bear responsibility -- and genocide may still be occurring."
Powell continued: "[N]o new action is dictated by this determination. We have been doing everything we can to get the Sudanese government to act responsibly."
Everything? The U.N. convention on genocide -- which the United States signed in 1948 and ratified 40 years later -- requires signatories to seek to prevent and punish the crime of genocide. But instead of being tried for war crimes, Gosh was flown to Langley last year to be debriefed by CIA officials. As a U.S. official told the Los Angeles Times, "The agency's view was that the Sudanese are helping us on terrorism and it was proud to bring him over. They didn't care about the political implications."
In the eyes of many intelligence officials, Gosh and other Sudanese informants have become more valuable for U.S. counterterrorism objectives over the past six months because of the unfolding political upheaval in Somalia. The CIA has long pursued al-Qaeda affiliates implicated in the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa. To this end, Washington began secretly funding warlords in Somalia to pursue terrorism suspects. But this strategy backfired: Somali Islamists have taken control of much of southern Somalia, with hard-liners protecting al-Qaeda affiliates. Many leading Somali Islamists have ties to Gosh, a fact Khartoum exploits to strengthen counterterrorism links with Washington.
U.S. inaction on Darfur has continued in the face of the most energetic campaign by U.S. citizens on an African issue since the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. But so far, mobilization by Christian, Jewish, African American and student groups has failed to move the administration's policy.
Indeed, Washington's constructive engagement with the Sudanese regime is as ineffective and morally bankrupt as the Reagan administration's approach to the apartheid regime in South Africa. During Bush's first term, the State Department wanted increased dialogue with Iraq, Iran and North Korea, but lost out to the Pentagon and Vice President Cheney. As consolation, the department took the lead on Sudan, shifting from the Clinton administration policy of isolation and pressure to one of engagement.
That policy has endured as Darfur continues to burn. Along with Powell, former deputy secretary Robert B. Zoellick and Jendayi Frazer, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, remained staunch advocates for engaging with Khartoum. In August, Frazer told reporters: "We believe that President Bashir and the Sudanese government want peace in Darfur." U.S. government sources have said that administration officials recently offered to lift some unilateral trade and investment sanctions imposed during the Clinton administration and move toward normalizing relations in exchange for Sudan's acceptance of U.N. peacekeepers. Khartoum refused.
Now, as the mayhem in Darfur escalates, Bush may have run out of patience. Administration officials say he regularly complains to national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley that more must be done. But to address both the administration's counterterrorism and human rights goals will require overcoming policy inertia and ignorance about the nature of the Khartoum regime -- two requirements perhaps beyond the reach of Bush's current team.
Consider prior efforts to influence the regime in Sudan. In 1995, Sudanese officials were implicated in the attempted assassination of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Responding to the regime's failure to extradite terrorism suspects, the U.N. Security Council imposed travel restrictions on Sudanese officials and sanctions against Sudan Airways. Feeling pressured, the regime dismantled terrorist training camps and revoked passports given to known terrorists. And when the regime faced the prospect of a united armed rebellion in 2005, it signed a deal with southern-based rebels.
Clearly, diplomatic, economic and military pressure can have an impact -- both in pursuit of an end to the Darfur crisis and in the ability to access important counterterrorism information.
Last week, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, the United States and other governments moved closer to a deal with Khartoum allowing for a stronger peacekeeping force in Darfur. However, the regime retains control of the timing of new deployments. The likely result is that a few hundred more observers will arrive in the next six months. More peacekeepers will help only if there is a new peace deal and the Janjaweed militias begin to be dismantled.
The problem remains leverage. Possible pressure points include the threat of sanctions on Sudanese companies owned by ruling party officials doing business abroad; capital-market sanctions on foreign firms dealing with the regime; NATO planning to deploy forces to Darfur; and sharing information with the International Criminal Court to accelerate indictments of Khartoum officials for crimes against humanity.
Khartoum has taken the measure of the United States; it understands that from time to time the president may use the word "genocide" and that the State Department may issue a strongly worded statement to mollify religious activists. But walking loudly and carrying a toothpick only emboldens the regime to escalate its attacks in Darfur.
President Clinton often says that the biggest regret he has about his presidency was not responding effectively to the Rwandan genocide. If Bush does not change course, he may someday echo Clinton, lamenting that hundreds of thousands of Darfurian lives were needlessly extinguished -- on his watch.
John Prendergast, senior adviser at the International Crisis Group, was director
of African affairs at the National Security Council during the Clinton administration.