BAN KI-MOON has assumed the impossible job of secretary-general of the United Nations with a "problem from hell" at the top of his agenda. In office just since Jan. 1, Ban is already being tested by how to respond to the slow-motion ethnic cleansing in Darfur, the 3-year-old conflict that has landed squarely in his lap.
The reputation of a secretary-general rises and falls on his response to mass atrocities. That's unfair, but it is an understandable expectation for an institution created out of the ashes of the Holocaust. Just ask Kofi Annan. His term was a 10-year effort to exorcise the ghosts of the Rwandan genocide, which unfolded while he headed the United Nation's peacekeeping office. As secretary-general, Annan eloquently asserted the international responsibility to stop genocide, and he pushed the General Assembly to endorse a "responsibility to protect" that removes respect for national sovereignty as an excuse to look the other way when populations are being wiped out. But Annan was unable to convert these lofty phrases into a plan of action in Darfur, and the U.N. still lacks the capacity to mobilize peacekeepers when it counts.
Pinning responsibility on the United Nations for the failure of its members is a time-honored tactic of presidents and prime ministers. In Darfur, Ban confronts the conundrum that bedeviled his predecessor in Rwanda and Kosovo: how to be effective when your bosses who sit on the Security Council are disinclined to act or are divided. It is, as Annan said, a "job from hell."
For Ban, the test is two-fold. First is his immediate response to the conflict he has inherited in Darfur, which has now claimed more than 200,000 lives. Equally important will be the steps he takes over the long run to give the U.N. the wherewithal to prevent future Darfurs. Ban seems to recognize the stakes. His first official phone call was to his special envoy on Darfur, and he announced plans to travel to Africa this month for a one-on-one with Sudan's defiant leader, Omar Hassan Bashir.
But the long-running international failure to call Khartoum's bluff has narrowed Ban's options. Perhaps to make himself a viable negotiating partner with Bashir, Ban said last month that "there is no military solution to this crisis." But that's risky. After three years of failed diplomacy, seeming to rule out military strikes while atrocities continue will be read by Khartoum as permission to do as it pleases. The only way to get Sudan to relent may be the credible threat of military action, specifically a ban on offensive military flights, which the U.N. agreed to two years ago but never enforced. Ruling military options in or out is a decision that will be up to others. The step Ban should take now is to put troops in place for an international force should one be called into action.
The Security Council authorized deployment of a peacekeeping force of 20,600 troops and police to Darfur six months ago. Yet only a few countries -- Bangladesh, Nigeria and Tanzania -- have offered troops, and Norway and Sweden have offered a joint engineering battalion. The absence of a force-in-waiting is rightly interpreted by Khartoum as a sign of international weakness.
China, Sudan's major oil investor, continues to protect Khartoum on the Security Council. Russia hides behind China. And although the Bush administration has called the situation in Darfur a genocide, it has decided that Beijing's cooperation on North Korea is more important and precludes pressuring China to stop blocking action on Darfur. The African Union states are each waiting for another to act first. Nobody would want to follow President Bush's lead, and nothing seemingly can be done without American leadership. This is where Ban can step in. As a lame duck, Annan lacked the clout to persuade states to pledge troops to a prospective Darfur mission, and he did not pull out all the stops.
However, Ban was handpicked by Washington and Beijing, and he should use his influence to coax, cajole and embarrass them into shouldering responsibility for assembling an international force. Ban should travel to Beijing to ask China to pledge troops -- 2,000, roughly 10% of the force, would be a good start -- and to turn the heat on Sudan to accept U.N. peacekeepers. He also should enlist Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to get on the phone to personally solicit troop contributions from militarily capable North African states and NATO allies. Darfur began on someone else's watch, but Ban will find it impossible to succeed at U.N. reform -- or much else -- while atrocities there continue.
Fair or not, the credibility of the United Nations will always be at risk when the world's response to mass atrocities is inadequate, as it is now in Darfur. Ban's job is to build institutional muscle so that if and when the world finds the spine to respond to a mass atrocity, the United Nations is in a position to act.