Tuesday, March 17, 2009

President Obama's Practice Test

Must President Obama find his equivalent to Reagan’s “Evil Empire” and Bush’s “Axis of Evil"? Even if he can find a euphemism for a word many once made synonymous with what they said was an arrogant righteousness, no one can deny the nature of the men who govern Sudan.

New York Times columnist Nicolas Kristof has seen many horrors around the world, but wrote of Sudan, “nothing prepared me for Darfur, where systematic murder, rape, and mutilation are taking place on a vast scale, simply based on the tribe of the victim. What I saw reminded me why people say that genocide is the worst evil of which human beings are capable.”

In addition, the essence of the situation is racism—ruling ethnic Arabs enslaving and slaughtering black Africans. On March 4 the International Court indicted al-Bashir on 7 counts of war crimes. As long ago as 2004 Secretary of State Colin Powell found bipartisan support when he said al-Bashir’s regime was guilty of genocide. Can even a moral relativist doubt that whether Sudan is on an axis or just a point, its regime is evil?

This week Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir ordered all major foreign aid agencies out of the country. Secretary of State Clinton said the move would create "untold misery and suffering." She also warned the Sudanese regime that it would be “held responsible for every single death that occurs in those camps, because by their expulsion of the aid workers ... they are putting those 1.4 million lives at risk."

Now President Obama must fulfill that promise or lose his credibility in world affairs. So, how will he hold al-Bashir responsible? Broadly described his policy choices are three:
--diplomatic pressure and criticism
--economic and political sanctions
--military action which might be through the UN, by a coalition, or unilateral
--do nothing

The President campaigned on and entered office with a promise to resolve international crises through diplomacy and coalition building, the kind of solution he said Bush should have used in Iraq. So far the preferred option is the same option that has failed for more than four years—diplomacy and consultation with the UN. The immediate goal, says Sec. Clinton, is nothing more than reversing the expulsion order.

If it works, where are we? Foreign aid and humanitarian agencies have been in Sudan for more than a decade, and neither they nor diplomacy have stopped the slaughter. The UN Security Council offers little hope since China and Russia oppose sanctions and will certainly oppose stronger action. Besides, UN sanctions in Iraq were widely criticized for both increasing the suffering of Iraqis and funding Hussein’s weapons program through UN corruption.

The situation President Obama faces in Sudan is not very different from the situation President Bush faced in Iraq in 2002, except that Sudan has far less strategic importance, and there’s not even a suspicion Sudan poses an external military threat. That leaves President Obama to try to pull off a diplomatic miracle or use force.

The only other option is to say we care deeply, stir the world to sympathy with moving speeches, and watch the slaughter continue. Obama has professed great admiration for Teddy Roosevelt whose policy was “talk softly but carry a big stick.” Talk much and do little might fit under the Nixonian definition of realpolitik, but it won’t satisfy the desire for hope and change.

Joe Biden during the campaign made his famous warning that a foreign power would put Obama to a serious test in his first months in office. Sudan is not that test, but it may be a test of the President’s ability to pass the coming test.

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