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

Advisers say Bush came to accept, albeit grudgingly, the arguments against using U.S. military assets -- especially the possibility that they might attract al-Qaeda. "In my mind, there would never be enough troops to impose order on this place," former secretary of state Colin L. Powell said an interview. "The only way to resolve this problem was for there to be a political settlement between the rebels and the government."

Sharing this belief was Powell's bureaucratic nemesis, then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who advocated sending troops to Iraq but not to the middle of Africa, according to many officials in the government.

This aversion to any use of force was frustrating to some lower-ranking government officials, who saw a modest U.S. military effort as indispensable to making the Sudanese take American diplomacy seriously. Early in the crisis, in the summer of 2004, the U.S. mission in Khartoum made clear to Washington its belief that the African Union was incapable of dealing with the security problem in Darfur on its own.

It recommended that several hundred U.S. troops help fly in African Union forces and provide other assistance, according to a former State Department official. The idea was never seriously entertained, the official said, and it was not until two years later that the United States began making efforts at the United Nations to bolster the overmatched African mission.

Roger Winter, a former State Department official who was intimately involved with Sudan policy during the Bush administration, argues that the United States has never been serious about pressuring the Sudanese government. "They know what we will do and what we won't do," he said. "And they don't respond unless there is a credible threat. And they haven't viewed everything that has happened up until now as credible."

Carrots vs. Sticks

Over the course of the conflict, Bush has found himself torn between different factions in his administration over how to handle Sudan -- whether, simply put, to try carrots or sticks.

In early 2006, Bush empowered Zoellick to seek a peace deal between Khartoum and the Darfur rebel groups. Zoellick, now president of the World Bank, was essentially pursuing what one senior U.S. official described as a policy of engagement with the Sudanese government, even though the Bush administration believed it was involved in perpetrating the atrocities in Darfur.

Zoellick worked closely with senior Sudanese officials and dangled the possibility of improved relations and other incentives should Khartoum cooperate in bringing peace to Darfur. And he came close to pulling it off: An agreement to end the violence was negotiated in the spring of 2006, but it fell apart after key rebel leaders refused to sign on.

Some U.S. officials say Bush never completely bought into Zoellick's approach. He seems to have been influenced in that regard by Gerson, the then-speechwriter who was given a wide-ranging policy berth in the early part of Bush's second term.

Gerson, now a Washington Post columnist, is a devout Christian who was especially animated by the part of the Bush agenda that focused on alleviating suffering in Africa. He traveled to Sudan with Zoellick in late 2005, a trip that included a meeting with Bashir, and came back convinced that Khartoum was not seriously interested in efforts to improve conditions in Darfur.

"There was always a series of incremental steps, and nothing changed on the ground," Gerson said later.

Returning to Washington, Gerson told Bush that Bashir was feeling no pressure to cooperate and that the African Union peacekeepers were not up to the task of protecting civilians. He also suggested that it might be useful to establish a no-fly zone to prevent the Sudanese government from flying bombing missions in support of Janjaweed attacks.

Several months later, Gerson sent Bush some articles criticizing the U.S. approach as anemic, and Bush summoned his aide to the Oval Office, a little hot under the collar because he did not agree with the criticism. But he assured Gerson, as the former aide remembers, "I want you to know we are acting on this."

In February 2006, Bush proposed using NATO forces to help quickly bolster the beleaguered African Union mission. The president seemed so excited about the idea that he mentioned it, almost casually, in response to a question about Uganda during a public appearance in Florida. The statement stunned some in the U.S. bureaucracy.

But even Bush's efforts to promote the idea did little to move the process along. The French were leery of a new NATO mission outside its normal sphere of operations, and there was no interest from Sudan or the African Union in a major role for this quintessentially Western military alliance, according to U.S. officials. The plan went nowhere.

Now, 20 months later, with Zoellick and Gerson gone, new administration figures are working with other countries on new plans for peace and peacekeepers in Darfur. Given the track record, those who have handled Darfur over the years are cautious.

"Overall," concluded John R. Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, "Sudan is a case where there's a lot of international rhetoric and no stomach for real action."

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