More than 70,000 people have fled fighting in Sudan's western Darfur region in the last three months, swelling numbers at a major refugee camp by more than a third. ( Olivier Chassot /UNAMID via Reuters)

“The Arab League wanted us to do something. The minute we did something, the Arab League began criticizing us doing it. I think that, you know, two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is a lot. I think that the problem we have in Pakistan, Egypt, Yemen — you go around the region. We could get engaged, by this standard, in all sorts of places. Sudan has been killing — the Sudanese government has been killing people in Darfur for years and years, and somehow all the major powers avoided thinking about it. I’m just suggesting to you there’s no standard here.”

--Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), March 23, 2011

Newt Gingrich, who is mulling a run for the presidency, put his finger on a conundrum of leadership during an interview Wednesday on NBC’s “Today Show.” What makes a crisis worthy of military intervention — and when? Can a president really rely on a one-size-fits-all standard, or do the circumstances at the moment matter the most? There is really no easy answer. (We’ll leave aside the question of whether Gingrich flip-flopped with his Libya comments.)

Take the issue of Sudan’s Darfur province, for instance. Sudan borders Libya, and Sudan’s president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, last year became the first head of state to be indicted for genocide. (Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, by contrast, has merely been referred to the International Criminal Court.)

We would differ a little with Gingrich’s comment that “all the major powers avoided thinking about it.” The problem is not that major powers avoided thinking about Darfur; it is that they avoided doing much about it, despite deaths in the hundreds of thousands — dwarfing anything done by Gaddafi and his forces in recent weeks.

Indeed, Darfur is a tragic example of the large gap that can exist between a presidential candidate’s rhetoric and a president’s performance once elected. We will look at this foreign-policy problem as part of an occasional effort to provide context about issues in the news.

The Facts

Sudan has known little but civil conflict since its independence more than a half-century ago, especially between the largely Arab, Islamic northern part of the country and the largely animist and Christian African south. The government located in Khartoum controlled much of the country’s wealth (especially oil riches) and had imposed sharia law.

The North-South conflict lasted more than two decades, leaving 2 million people dead, primarily from famine and disease, and 4 million homeless, before then-President George W. Bush succeeded in forging a tenuous peace agreement between the two sides in 2004.

But American eagerness to reach a peace deal led Khartoum to conclude it probably would have a free hand to brutally put down a budding rebel movement in the western part of the country, known as Darfur — an area the size of France. In February 2003, two African rebel groups had attacked police stations and military outposts in Darfur. They also wanted greater control over their own affairs — though unlike the South Sudanese, they were largely Muslim — and were worried that the deal between Khartoum and the south would still leave Darfur marginalized.

Khartoum had become adept at manipulating local conflicts to suit its own ends. Arab herders and African farmers had long coexisted uneasily in Darfur, and it was relatively easy for Khartoum to recruit local militiamen, called the Janjaweed, to crush the rebellion. The result was a catastrophic reign of terror, in which 2,000 villages were burned, more than 2 million people made homeless and hundreds of thousands died from conflict or disease. (For more on this policy bungle, check out Chapter 5 in The Fact Checker’s book, “The Confidante.”)

The Bush administration labeled Khartoum’s actions as “genocide,” but it failed to take decisive action, despite the president’s deep passion for the Sudan issue. The African Union dispatched a peacekeeping force of 7,000, but it was inadequate, and the United States did not send its own troops. As The Washington Post reported in 2007, “even Bush has complained privately that his hands are tied on Darfur because, with the U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, he cannot be seen as ‘invading another Muslim country,’ according to people who have spoken with him about the issue.”

Enter Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. He had some pretty firm views about what needed to be done in Darfur, including robust U.S. involvement, as seen on this 2007 video posted on YouTube by the Save Darfur Coalition.

“The United States has a moral obligation anytime you see humanitarian catastrophes,” Obama declared. “When you see a genocide in Rwanda, Bosnia or in Darfur, that is a stain on all of us, a stain on our souls. . . . We can’t say ‘never again’ and then allow it to happen again, and as a president of the United States I don’t intend to abandon people or turn a blind eye to slaughter.”

Stirring rhetoric, yes. But once Obama became president, the Darfur crisis appeared to fade in importance. Rather than confront the Sudanese government, as candidate Obama suggested he would do, the administration’s special envoy for Sudan, retired Air Force Maj. Gen. J. Scott Gration, attempted to win Khartoum’s cooperation by offering incentives. As he memorably put it: “We’ve got to think about giving out cookies. Kids, countries — they react to gold stars, smiley faces, handshakes, agreements, talk, engagement.”

In the past year, the administration has largely turned its focus toward Sudan’s North-South divide. The peace agreement overseen by Bush allowed the southern part of Sudan to hold a referendum on independence six years after it was signed — a provision originally intended to force Khartoum to actively work to keep the country together. But old animosities never ended. When it became clear that a new civil war potentially could break out, the Obama administration scrambled to provide incentives to Khartoum to let a peaceful vote go forward.

Darfur was a casualty of this new focus. In November, the administration announced it was “decoupling” Sudan’s inclusion on the list of state sponsors of terrorism from what officials called the “Darfur issue.” In other words, Khartoum could get off the black list if it complied with the North-South peace accord, notwithstanding what happened in Darfur. This was a huge, if largely missed, shift from the president’s campaign rhetoric. But perhaps it had the intended result. In January, South Sudan voted to secede, and the North appeared to accept the outcome.

But Human Rights Watch warned in January that the situation in Darfur had sharply deteriorated while the United States was focused on the North-South vote. “Sudanese government and rebel attacks on civilians in Darfur have dramatically increased in recent weeks without signs of abating,” the organization reported. Tens of thousands of people have fled their villages, as shown in the photograph above.

The Bottom Line

Just as the government in Khartoum used the North-South accord in 2004 to detract attention from the budding conflict in Darfur, it may be once again operating from the same playbook. The status of the oil-rich province of Abyei — which is claimed by both North and South — remains unresolved. New reports suggest that Khartoum is moving to take over Abyei by slowing building up its military forces in the region. The result could be a new war in that part of Sudan — while Darfur further fades from the headlines.

No one can expect a presidential candidate to stick to every campaign promise. Circumstances and priorities change. The tragedy in Darfur has been a slow-motion conflict, unlike the rapidly developing civil war in Libya, potentially requiring a different set of tools. But the conflict in Darfur has not gone away, despite Obama’s campaign rhetoric that “I don’t intend to abandon people or turn a blind eye to slaughter.”

Some day, those words may come back to haunt him.

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