Candidates on Darfur

As the Democratic presidential primary campaign limps on, and the cacophony of focus-grouped sound bites strikes a fevered pitch, the candidates are making surprisingly little noise about Darfur.

Despite the sheer size of the “Save Darfur” movement – which claims to be carrying out the “biggest such activism” since the struggle against the war on Vietnam – as well as the candidates’ previous attempts to gain its support, the conflict in Sudan has warranted little airtime in recent Democratic debates. The word “Darfur” has been mentioned in just three and even these references were made only in passing.

Notwithstanding this relative silence, the presidential contenders have indeed gone on the record with their proposals for Darfur. Their policies, however, would exacerbate rather than improve the humanitarian crisis in the region.

Disappointing Approaches

The Bush administration has taken little concrete action to mitigate the crisis in Darfur. It has confined itself instead to largely empty rhetorical threats, while simultaneously coddling members of Sudan’s intelligence apparatus and castrating aid organizations, the African Union (AU) operation, and UN deployment through a marked lack of funding and logistical support.

In contrast, the Democrats have pledged to address the conflict head-on. However, in seeking to both play to “Save Darfur” activists who are rearing for confrontation with Khartoum and prove their foreign policy mettle more generally, both Barack Obama and especially Hillary Clinton have staked out highly bellicose ground in their proposed “solutions” to the crisis. Their proposals are more likely to worsen the crisis than improve the lot of suffering Darfurians.

For instance, consider their advocacy of a no-fly zone over Darfur. The establishment of a no-fly zone would commit the implementing party – likely the. United States or France, given their nearby airbases, and perhaps under the auspices of NATO – to shooting down a Sudanese plane if it entered restricted airspace. Such a move would be a veritable act of war, and Khartoum could react by unleashing its fury on international peacekeepers or Darfurian civilians themselves. As the International Crisis Groups notes, “Khartoum might respond by escalating its actions on the ground against civilians, not unlike what happened in the initial days of NATO’s actions in Kosovo in 1999.”

Further, as the Sudan specialist Julie Flint comments, the implementation of a no-fly zone could pull the plug on the massive – and largely successful – relief operations in Darfur. As she observes,

In the last three and a half years, humanitarian aid has stabilized conditions for the more than 4 million people who currently depend on relief. Mortality and malnutrition have fallen, significantly. If a no-fly zone were imposed, Khartoum would not go belly up. It would in all likelihood retaliate by grounding humanitarian flights. Its proxies in the Janjaweed militias would show their displeasure in the only way they know. Relief workers might be expelled or forced to evacuate the region. People who are now being kept alive would die.

Nor would a no-fly zone substantially diminish the capacity of the Sudanese government and its allies to visit destruction on Darfur. Though Khartoum is indeed guilty of bombing Darfur, the reality is that “the vast majority of attacks are executed by forces on the ground.” Accordingly, a no-fly zone “would only weaken a very small piece of Khartoum’s killing machine” – an insufficient payoff given the potentially dire consequences involved.

More Disappointing Options

The Democrats have proposed other ideas that would add to this recipe for disaster. Clinton, for one, has floated the idea of blockading the Port of Sudan, another measure tantamount to an act of war. She has also pledged to “work with NATO to take military action” in Sudan if Khartoum does not allow the deployment of a UN-AU force, a disturbing proposition given NATO’s pliancy to U.S. foreign policy designs, which are deeply unpopular in the region and elsewhere. Such direct Western (and particularly U.S.) involvement would turn the force into a lightning rod for local and international opposition. In the formulation of Jan Pronk, former special representative of the UN secretary-general in Sudan, a NATO presence in the country would in all probability lead to Sudanese groups “start[ing] a jihad against it.”

As for the presumptive Republican nominee, John McCain has advocated measures very similar to those of his Democratic counterparts. Like Clinton and Obama, McCain has expressed interest in providing logistical support to Darfur peacekeeping forces, though given the lack of emphasis on Darfur in recent months from all three candidates this support may be only rhetorical. Also like the Democratic hopefuls, McCain has supported establishing a no-fly zone. More interestingly, he has called for the United States to use its intelligence capabilities to gather evidence for future use by the International Criminal Court.

A Better Way

To the limited extent that they speak to the Darfur issue, the presidential candidates are more interested in pandering to the more vocal sectors of the Save Darfur movement and bolstering their jingoist credentials than in coming up with viable solutions that can mitigate the crisis. Politicians and many Darfur activists alike have consistently ignored these policy options, even though they have existed all along. A package of options would include: funding aid organizations, pushing for an expansion in the size of (and a broadened mandate for) the AU deployment, advocating increased logistical support for the UN-AU deployment, promoting a common rebel negotiating front for talks with Khartoum in order to achieve a political settlement, and demanding that the Bush administration end its intelligence-sharing relationship as part of the supposed “War on Terror” with some of the worst human rights offenders in the Sudanese government.

Such a package of options, which activists should be pushing the presidential candidates to endorse, are of course less conducive to projecting U.S. military might than a no-fly zone or blockading the Port of Sudan. These alternative policies also represent a perfect opportunity for a smart candidate to stake out an innovative position. As Flint observes, “The current emphasis on coercive measures conceals the fact that the U.S. and its friends have no clear plan of political action, no sensible project for peace to go hand in hand with pressure on the Khartoum regime.”

Unfortunately, should the saber-rattling proposals of the candidates come to pass, the next president would fall into the trap of destroying Darfur in order to “save” it.

Steve Fake and Kevin Funk are contributors to Foreign Policy In Focus. They are social justice activists and authors of a forthcoming book about Darfur. They maintain a blog with their commentary called "confronting empire".