After years of standing on the sidelines and making ineffective threats about punishing Sudanese leaders for slaughtering the people of Darfur, the Bush administration finally took concrete action this week. Its decision to airlift vehicles and heavy equipment to an undersupplied United Nations peacekeeping force was a welcome, if largely symbolic, gesture, but more interesting was the timing of the move.
In his announcement of the airlift Monday, National Security Advisor Stephen J. Hadley took pains to point out that it was "further evidence that Nicholas Kristof's portrayal last week of this administration's response to the genocide in Darfur was inaccurate." Hadley was referring to a Dec. 28 column in the New York Times in which Kristof cited a leaked memo by Ambassador Richard Williamson, the U.S. special envoy to Sudan, that laid out three possible military responses aimed at the Sudanese regime: The U.S. could jam all communications in Khartoum, the nation's capital; it could blockade Port Sudan, from which the country exports its oil; or it could destroy Sudan's air force.
Kristof reported that these options were ruled out by Hadley and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Hadley acknowledged Monday that military responses had been considered and rejected, but he said the decision was driven by pleas from leading church, advocacy and humanitarian organizations that feared such actions would only make things worse for Darfuris. That came as news to the Save Darfur Coalition, an umbrella organization for Darfur advocacy groups that has long favored a tougher response by Washington, and whose spokesman told this page on Tuesday that the coalition hadn't been consulted by the administration.
It's perfectly true that implementing any of Williamson's recommendations would have dangerous repercussions. A blockade would infuriate China, Sudan's main oil buyer. Attacks on communications or aircraft could result in the expulsion of humanitarian aid workers. Yet the weak sanctions imposed so far by the U.S. have done nothing to stop Sudanese soldiers and government-backed Arab militias from murdering, raping and displacing Darfuri civilians, and it's obvious that tougher measures are needed. Fortunately, they're probably on the way.
In 2007, Susan E. Rice, President-elect Barack Obama's nominee for U.N. ambassador, advocated strong actions against Khartoum in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, including a bombing campaign against Sudanese aircraft and other military assets. The fact that Obama almost certainly will take Darfur more seriously than President Bush did might explain the timing of the airlift, a last-minute attempt to show that a president whose positive legacy rests largely on his generous approach to Africa didn't entirely ignore the crisis. Too bad it's much too little, too late.