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Sudan Protests Bring Out Pragmatic Side of Idealism

April 17, 2001|JAMES P. PINKERTON | James P. Pinkerton writes a column for Newsday in New York. E-mail: pinkerto@ix.netcom.com

What works better in U.S. foreign policy: realism or idealism? Should the U.S. look to its own narrow national interest or should it take a broader view, seeking to uphold international principles of human rights? U.S. foreign policy always has bounced between realism and idealism, but the plight of Christians in Sudan--seemingly an idealist issue if there ever was one--offers an opportunity to realists as well.

It's a miracle of sorts that President Bush and the Rev. Al Sharpton agree about religious freedom in Sudan. But the even greater miracle could be the effect a strong policy toward Sudan could have on the strengthening of religious freedom in China. That too is a dream of idealists, but it also should be a goal of realists because a China that behaves decently at home is more likely to behave decently abroad.

For the past two decades, Sudan, the largest country in Africa, has been convulsed by ethnic and religious war between Arab Muslims, who control the government and the army in the north, and black Christians and animists in the south. About 2 million, mostly blacks, have been killed, and millions more have been driven from their homes and even enslaved.

The Western media have been slow to pick up on this issue, in part because Sudan is so remote, but also because liberal-leaning reporters don't know what to make of a news story in which there are no white villains and the victims are Christians.

The cause of Sudan has been embraced by conservatives in the U.S. Now, after years of battling the Clinton administration, the Christian right has found an ally in George W. Bush. Just last month, Bush told a religious audience: "We're responsible to stand for human dignity and religious freedom wherever they are denied, from Cuba to China to southern Sudan."

Finally, the issue has broken out into bipartisanship. The Rev. Walter E. Fauntroy, a black Democrat who once represented the District of Columbia in Congress, visited southern Sudan recently. He was so moved by the suffering there that when he came back to Washington, he and two others handcuffed themselves to the entrance of the Sudanese Embassy and waited to be arrested. A new era of activism, recalling the anti-apartheid protests of the 1980s, has begun.

Sharpton, just back from his own trip to Sudan, told reporters: "Slavery is wrong no matter who the slave master or the slave is. This is not about Muslims versus Christians. This is about right versus wrong."

The future flash point for human rights in Sudan is oil revenue; the Khartoum regime needs foreign companies to do the exploring and exporting. No U.S. firms are involved, and activists on both the political left and right are uniting in their effort to stop foreign companies from investing in Sudan.

One of those oil companies is Chinese, and that leads to the realist angle amid all this idealism. China not only abets the persecution of Christians in Sudan, but it also oppresses about 50 million Christians within its own borders. Michael Horowitz, a former Reagan administration official and now a fellow at the right-leaning Hudson Institute in Washington, argues that if the Sudanese Christians can be saved, other beleaguered Christian communities, including those in China, would benefit too.

Horowitz approached Sudan with idealism--he was arrested alongside Fauntroy at the embassy--but his view of China rings with realism. Success in Sudan, he says, will "send a powerful signal" that the civilized nations of the world value religious freedom. And just as the staunch defense of Soviet Jews two decades ago helped bring down the Soviet Union, China could find that its totalitarian structure would be undermined if it had to respect religious liberty.

In the wake of the Hainan island hostage incident, the U.S. must take the threat from China seriously. Yet military confrontation could be avoided if China were to join the ranks of "normal" nations that respect human rights at home and abroad.

And so the Christian persecution issue is an opportunity to leverage change in brutal regimes. Americans should look abroad with realism, but they should remember that sometimes idealism is the more potent weapon.

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