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Optimism Gap

“I am an optimist,” proclaimed Ban Ki-moon, the new secretary-general of the United Nations, in his introductory speech to the General Assembly last Friday. He will certainly fit right in. What has taken place at Turtle Bay over the past six weeks represents nothing so much as the triumph of optimism over sanity. In late August, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution calling for peacekeepers to deploy to Darfur to stop a genocide that has claimed some 400,000 lives over the last three years. But the resolution contained a cruel catch: an implicit promise that no peacekeepers would enterDarfur without the approval of Sudan’s leaders. This was optimistic logic, to say the least, since it is widely known that Sudan’s leaders are the very same people who have orchestrated the Darfur genocide; and what genocidaire would, given a choice, invite foreign troops to enter his country to bring a halt to his evil work? As a result, it probably should not have surprised anyone when Sudan offered a blunt response to the U.N.’s entreaties: No. Yet the optimists were not done trying, and, six weeks later, they are still at it—urging, begging, cajoling the thugs who rule Sudan to please allow U.N. troops to enter Darfur. Still, the thugs say no. Still, the pleading of the diplomats goes on. This is optimism, of a sort. It is also—excuse our lack of diplomacy— utter madness.

Meanwhile, in the real world, where Darfuris live, things continue to get worse. Consider recent events in an area of southern Darfur called Buram. There, in late August, Arab militiamen from the Habbania tribe attacked 45 villages, killing several hundred civilians. The villages were burned and looted and their residents forced to scatter. “Reportedly, women and children were thrown into burning dwellings as they attempted to flee,” according to a recent U.N. report. “Children as young as three years old, including the daughter of an interviewee, were killed in this manner.” But that, apparently, was not enough. After the initial round of attacks, militia from another Arab tribe—the Fallata— attacked those fleeing the carnage, causing “the displaced population to scatter even further” and “hampering efforts to deliver aid to those affected.” As a result, one eyewitness told the U.N., “Most of our people are hiding in the bushes.” Concerning Khartoum’s role, the U.N. report left little doubt: “Government knowledge, if not complicity, in the attacks is almost certain.”

If this scene—African children being tossed into burning dwellings by Arab militiamen almost certainly backed by the Sudanese government—has a familiar ring, it should. Identical scenes have been unfolding across Darfur for three years. And, for three years, every proposed solution that has received a respectable airing in the international community has involved obtaining the consent of the murderers themselves. No wonder not one of these so-called solutions has worked. The question now before the West, and Americans in particular, is simple: When will we have had enough of this charade? Will we wait until 600,000 die? 800,000? One million? Is there a magic number at which our moral outrage will suddenly trump our deference to Sudanese sovereignty?

Fortunately, elite American opinion may finally be reaching that point. Several weeks ago, Anthony Lake, one of the architects of U.S. inaction in the Balkans, co-authored an op-ed suggesting that NATO would be justified in using force against Sudan in order to get peacekeepers into Darfur. And even The New York Times editorial page recently contemplated the possibility that NATO might need to push its way into Sudan without permission from Khartoum.

Which is, of course, the only way this genocide is going to end. The sole alternative to using military force against Sudan is to continue our current approach—counting on the good will of Khartoum’s unrepentant killers—and we know how well that has worked thus far. Still, after all these years of murders and rapes and lootings—and after all the roadblocks to peace engineered by Khartoum’s ruling regime—some officials, inexplicably, continue to hold out hope that Sudan’s leaders will suddenly cooperate in their own undoing. The absurdity of this mentality was never more apparent than in a recent U.N. press release that described the Buram massacres. In response to the deaths, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights came up with a bold proposal: Her office, she announced, “is urging the government of Sudan to order an independent investigation into recent militia attacks.” She must be an optimist, too.

This article originally ran in the October 30, 2006 issue of the magazine.