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U.S. Promises on Darfur Don't Match Actions

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By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 29, 2007

In April 2006, a small group of Darfur activists -- including evangelical Christians, the representative of a Jewish group and a former Sudanese slave -- was ushered into the Roosevelt Room at the White House for a private meeting with President Bush. It was the eve of a major rally on the National Mall, and the president spent more than an hour holding forth, displaying a kind of passion that has led some in the White House to dub him the "Sudan desk officer."

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Bush insisted there must be consequences for rape and murder, and he called for international troops on the ground to protect innocent Darfuris, according to contemporaneous notes by one of those present. He spoke of "bringing justice" to the Janjaweed, the Arab militias that have participated in atrocities that the president has repeatedly described as nothing less than "genocide."

"He had an understanding of the issue that went beyond simply responding to a briefing that had been given," said David Rubenstein, a participant who was then executive director of the Save Darfur Coalition, which has been sharply critical of the administration's response to the crisis. "He knew more facts than I expected him to know, and he had a broader political perspective than I expected him to have."

Yet a year and a half later, the situation on the ground in Darfur is little changed: More than 2 million displaced Darfuris, including hundreds of thousands in camps, have been unable to return to their homes. The perpetrators of the worst atrocities remain unpunished. Despite a renewed U.N. push, the international peacekeeping troops that Bush has long been seeking have yet to materialize.

Just this weekend, peace talks in Libya aimed at ending the four-year conflict appeared to be foundering because of a boycott by key rebel groups.

Many of those who have tracked the conflict over the years, including some in his own administration, say Bush has not matched his words with action, allowing initiatives to drop because of inertia or failure to follow up, while proving unable to mobilize either his bureaucracy or the international community.

The president who famously promised not to allow another Rwanda-style mass murder on his watch has never fully chosen between those inside his government advocating more pressure on Sudan and those advocating engagement with its Islamist government, so the policy has veered from one approach to another.

Meanwhile, a constant turnover of key administration advisers on Darfur, such as former deputy secretary of state Robert B. Zoellick and presidential aide Michael Gerson, has made it hard for the administration to maintain focus.

"Bush probably does want something done, but the lack of hands-on follow-up from this White House allowed this to drift," said one former State Department official involved in Darfur who did not want to be quoted by name criticizing the president. "If he says, 'There is not going to be genocide on my watch,' and then 2 1/2 years later we are just getting tough action, what gives? He has made statements, but his administration has not given meaning to those statements."

Since the United States became the first and only government to call the killing in Darfur genocide, Bush and his aides have grappled with how to provide security for civilians in a large, remote area in the heart of Africa.

While almost everyone involved in Darfur policy agrees that an African Union peacekeeping force of just 7,000 troops is not up to the task, the United States has refused to send troops and, despite promises of reinforcements, has yet to secure many additional troops from other countries. At the same time, it has been unable to broker a diplomatic resolution that might ease the violence.

Even Bush has complained privately that his hands are tied on Darfur because, with the U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, he cannot be seen as "invading another Muslim country," according to people who have spoken with him about the issue.


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