THE BUSH administration's approach to the genocide in the Sudanese territory of Darfur combines reasonable long-term diplomacy with a lack of strategy to deal with the immediate killing. The danger of this formula has been especially clear recently. The effort to broker a peace between Sudan's government and Darfur's rebel groups has faltered, partly because of government intransigence and partly because of internal splintering among the rebels. Meanwhile, there has been an upsurge in violence in Darfur, costing hundreds of lives and driving at least 10,000 more people from their homes. Many more civilians could be swallowed by the genocide before there's a breakthrough in the peace talks. Remember, it took 19 years to broker peace between Sudan's government and its southern rebels.

The main tool for controlling Darfur's immediate violence is a force of African Union cease-fire monitors. Anxious to pretend they have a plan to deal with genocide, administration officials sometimes talk up this deployment: "The African Union effort in Darfur has demonstrated why deployment of African troops is a viable option," Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi E. Frazer told the Senate recently. But the AU force is underequipped and only 7,000 strong; it cannot bring security to a region the size of France. As a result, the genocide's ethnic-African victims continue to live in fear of attack and cannot cultivate crops. Some 2 million displaced people depend on Western food aid.

This dependency breeds desperation. Rebels and bandits carry out attacks to seize food, sometimes in vehicles painted with aid groups' insignia. The government hits back by unleashing its Janjaweed militia allies on African villages, destroying what little remains of people's ability to support themselves. The insecurity makes it hard to deliver food aid by road; 21 World Food Program convoys were attacked last month, four times as many as in the summer. Meanwhile the regime has sometimes blocked supplies of jet fuel to aid groups, cutting off air deliveries too. Deprived of basic needs, refugees have kidnapped aid workers to draw attention to their plight. The more the insecurity grows, the greater the danger that relief agencies will pull their people out, consigning Darfur to a death spiral.

The administration is right that a solution to Darfur's crisis requires a political settlement between government and rebels. But in the absence of a breakthrough or even the prospect of one, diplomacy is a distraction from Darfur's humanitarian disaster. In 2004, the administration invested considerable effort in securing various United Nations resolutions that didn't have much impact on the ground; in 2005, the effort invested in peace talks has had a similar fig-leaf function.

Both diplomatic efforts disguised the basic question that the administration should face: Does it want to prevent genocide, or not? If it does, it needs to figure out a way to get a much expanded peacekeeping force into Darfur. If it does not, perhaps it should come out and say so.