SUDAN MAY be extremely poor, but its spin doctors are sophisticated. The suffering in Darfur is terrible, they say, but don't blame the government. The violence is a function of generalized anarchy, which is a function of underdevelopment, which is a function of the West's failure to help: To chastise Sudan's impoverished rulers is therefore hypocritical. Rather than urging punitive sanctions, outsiders such as The Post should urge engagement and assistance.

So how do the spin doctors explain this week's news? On Monday Sudan's government showed its real feelings about Western help by bringing charges against the Sudan director of Doctors Without Borders, an intrepid medical charity that runs clinics in Darfur. The next day it detained the charity's Darfur coordinator. Over the past six months, the government has arrested or threatened more than 20 foreign aid workers in Darfur -- not exactly evidence of an appetite for Western engagement.

The idea that Darfur's crisis is not really the government's fault has never fit the facts. In response to a rebellion by two local armed groups, Sudan's government attacked civilians with helicopter gunships and armed a local militia to raze villages. Then, far from soliciting international help to deal with the humani- tarian fallout, Sudan's government actually blocked aid groups' access to Darfur. Its policy toward displaced people was to deprive them of food, sanitation and protection: in other words, to kill them. Recently, government troops and their militia allies have engaged in a systematic policy of raping civilians. Doctors Without Borders has been targeted this week because it documented these offenses.

The harassment of aid workers poses an immediate risk to Darfur's 2 million or so displaced people, who have been unable to plant food and so remain dependent on Western assistance for the near term. But it also poses a challenge for outsiders. Western diplomacy toward Sudan has oscillated between the pressure that we and others advocate and the engagement that implicitly endorses the government's claim that Darfur's suffering reflects anarchy and poverty. Sometimes the United States has persuaded its allies to threaten to bring U.N. sanctions against Sudan. But at other times outside nations have treated the government as a partner that's constructively bringing the violence under control; they've pledged large amounts of aid to support the tentative North-South peace deal on the theory that this will help solve the Darfur crisis. Sometimes, in other words, the world has treated Sudan's government as though it were the cause of Darfur's suffering. And sometimes it has acted as though it might be the solution.

On Wednesday President Bush called the Darfur killings "genocide," a description that implies some moral obligation on the part of the United States to act to stop the killing. But his administration has yet to improve on the schizophrenic pressure-cum-cooperation approach of the past year, in part because it is hemmed in by the world's indifference. China courts Sudan because of its oil. Russia seeks to sell arms to Sudan. Egypt and other Muslim states appear unmoved by the killing of Darfur's Muslim people. The diplomatic challenge for the United States is to persuade these partners to see Sudan's government for what it is: the problem, not the solution.