LIKE A MAN WHO sees a child drowning and won't plunge in to save him, the world is failing Darfur, the western Sudanese province where more than a million civilians have been driven from their homes by the government and its militia allies. The failure is most glaring in the case of France, which acknowledges "the world's most serious humanitarian crisis" and calls for "the mobilization of the international community," as the French ambassador wrote recently to The Post. Despite maintaining a military base in neighboring Chad and another in Djibouti, France refuses to supply the United Nations relief operation with needed helicopters or to enforce a no-fly zone that could end the Sudanese military's aerial attacks on villagers. But no powerful nation is free of blame. The Bush administration, which has been generous with relief and which has led the charge for tough action at the United Nations, is guilty of equivocation too.

The equivocation hinges on the question of who must restore peace in Darfur. On Thursday Secretary of State Colin L. Powell offered his answer: "The burden for this, for providing security, rests fully on the shoulders of Sudan's government." This view conveniently absolves outsiders of responsibility for getting a civilian protection force into Darfur and reassures Security Council members such as China and Russia that Sudan's sovereignty will be respected. But it is naive.

Sudan's government has attacked civilians with helicopter gunships. It has armed a militia that burns villages, slaughtering the men and raping the women. It has spent months obstructing humanitarian access to the resulting refugee camps, denying aid workers visas and impounding their equipment in customs, condemning tens of thousands of people to die for lack of food and medicine. Even the recent ramping up of diplomatic pressure, which has allowed relief to flow more freely, has not distracted Sudan's government from its purpose. Its commandants have been closing down refugee camps and sending inhabitants off into the torched countryside, where there is no food, no protection and no foreign witnesses.

Asking a government like this to provide security in Darfur is like calling upon Slobodan Milosevic to protect Albanian Kosovars. The real solution is the reverse of the one Mr. Powell appears to believe in. Rather than summoning Sudan's government into Darfur to protect refugees, the United States should be calling upon the government to pull back from the region. Just as was the case in Kosovo, security in Darfur is going to require a foreign presence, preferably an African one that builds on the small African Union observer mission that is already in the region. Mr. Powell may fear that calling for such a force is risky: What if no Africans come forward, and the job of peacekeeping falls to the United States? But the secretary must weigh that risk against the opposite one. What if Sudan's government maintains control of Darfur and uses it to exterminate hundreds of thousands of people?