MOST ARGUMENTS about the Darfur genocide boil down to a question of urgency. The Post and other critics have called for immediate pressure on the sponsors of genocide in Sudan's government and a quicker deployment of outside troops to defend civilians. Meanwhile the Bush administration has worked toward these goals, but slowly.

Rather than changing Sudan's behavior by, say, imposing a no-fly zone, the administration has sought a durable political solution to the tension between Sudan's government and its regions. Instead of pressing for a quick NATO deployment, the administration has ceded the job of protecting civilians to the slow-moving African Union. To be charitable, the administration's argument is not only that the direct application of U.S. or Western power would be costly and risky. It's that, in the long term, there won't be peace in Darfur without a political solution and that Africa will remain miserable unless it builds up the African Union to address its problems. Recent news has revealed some strength and much weakness in this approach.

The positive news is that the search for a political solution is inching ahead. Last year the administration pressed successfully for a north-south peace deal, under which southerners would be invited into Sudan's central government and given a share of the nation's oil wealth. To secure this deal, the Bush team had to forgo aggressive options such as a no-fly zone; when criticized for this choice of priorities, the administration argued that the north-south settlement would help Darfur because the power-sharing model could be extended to the territory, ending the root cause of its violence. Slowly, the administration is pursuing this vision. Despite the destabilizing death of John Garang, the southern leader, southerners have taken up positions in the central government. The next step is to include them in the government team that is negotiating with Darfur's rebels. If that can be achieved, it would boost peace prospects in Darfur.

The problem is that, in the meantime, horrific suffering continues. The slow response to the genocide last year cost the lives of probably tens of thousands of civilians. This year the case for urgency has sometimes dimmed: Government-backed death squads have been less active, and a huge humanitarian effort has forestalled large-scale starvation. But a recent series of attacks has shown how quickly violence can flare up again. In the last days of September, a Janjaweed death squad crossed into neighboring Chad and killed 36 civilians, and another squad supported by government helicopters attacked a camp for displaced civilians in Darfur, killing 34. These and other attacks drove thousands from their homes and brought relief efforts to a standstill. The United Nations' disaster chief, Jan Egeland, warned that, unless security improved, the Western humanitarian effort "could all end tomorrow." Yesterday, the first killings of African Union peacekeepers in Darfur underscored his point.

The problem the Bush administration now confronts is the same one it's faced since the beginning of the genocide. It has chosen to work with Sudan's government in seeking a durable political solution, but there's no telling how long that quest will take or whether it will succeed at all. The administration's main interlocutor in the government, Vice President Ali Uthman Muhammad Taha, sometimes appears able to lead Sudan in a moderate direction, as he did in agreeing to the north-south peace deal. But sometimes Mr. Taha appears to have been sidelined, as when his government harasses western relief workers in Darfur and resumes massacres of civilians. On other occasions Mr. Taha seems deluded. A Sudanese paper recently reported him as saying that Darfur's trouble "was closely linked to the American election fever."

With interlocutors such as these, the administration should not base its entire Darfur strategy on the potentially endless search for a political solution. Nor should it pretend that a small African Union force can keep the peace in a region the size of France. The administration's long-term desire for a negotiated peace and for African self-reliance in peacekeeping is laudable. But it needs a more muscular short-term strategy. What about punishing the government for its recent massacres by destroying the participating helicopters? What about supplementing African Union troops with NATO ones? To be sure, NATO resources are stretched thin by Iraq and Afghanistan, and Western leaders are tempted to regard Sudan as marginal to their interests. But NATO was born -- indeed, the idea of "the West" was born -- out of the ashes of Hitler's genocide. If it refuses to fight the modern echoes of that barbarism, what does the West stand for?