THE BUSH administration shrugged its shoulders last week at the genocide in Sudan's western province of Darfur. At an extraordinary meeting of the U.N. Security Council in Kenya, it sponsored a resolution that not only failed to advance those that passed in July and September but actually stepped back. The veiled threat of sanctions on Sudan's government was dropped. So was the demand that Sudan's government disarm and prosecute its allies in the Janjaweed death squads, which have burned villages, raped and murdered their inhabitants, and left nearly 2 million people homeless and at risk of starvation.

The Bush administration presents this abdication as a triumph. It argues that, by tolerating a weak U.N. resolution on Darfur, it was able to secure a unanimous 15-0 Security Council vote and that this may bring about peace in the separate conflict between Sudan's Muslim-led northern government and the Christian and animist southern rebels. The north-south civil war has been running for two decades and has led directly or indirectly to the deaths of an estimated 2 million people: Ending it would indeed be a victory. The two sides have already agreed to a cease-fire and to a complex power-sharing arrangement that guarantees rights and representation for southerners. Only details remain to be worked out, and Friday's resolution sets a deadline of Dec. 31 for their resolution.

This isn't the first such deadline in negotiations over the north-south conflict. Last year Sudan's government promised Secretary of State Colin L. Powell that it would conclude negotiations soon -- by Dec. 31, 2003 -- and the White House hoped that the two sides would mark their reconciliation by attending the president's State of the Union address. The Bush administration hopes that the new deadline will prove more meaningful because it has the imprimatur of a U.N. resolution. With luck it will be proved right, but the power of such resolutions has been compromised by Friday's failure to sanction Sudan's government for its flouting of past resolutions on Darfur. The Bush administration also argues that a north-south deal will improve Darfur's prospects: The power-sharing formula will be extended to all parts of the country, assuaging the grievances of rebels in Darfur whose violence provoked the government's genocidal response. Again, this may prove true, but probably not in the short term: Power-sharing will take months or years to implement.

Darfur's people cannot wait that long; their catastrophe is immediate. The families that have been driven from their villages have no means to plant crops or raise animals; they depend on food aid that is hostage to the budgetary whims of Western governments and Sudan's murderous tendency to restrict aid workers' access. The death toll is already enormous. The commonly cited number of 70,000 victims is a monstrous sugarcoating of reality: It leaves out deaths in areas not visited by aid workers, nearly all deaths from violence as opposed to malnutrition and all deaths before March. The Bush administration itself has described the killing there as genocide. How can it regard an uncertain and only loosely related advance in the north-south conflict as a substitute for punishing the perpetrators? How can it recognize genocide, shrug its shoulders and then carry on claiming that its vigorous foreign policy is about creating a better world?