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The TNR Roundtable Part 4: What Should Obama Do About Darfur?

Click here to read Part 3: Change the calculations of Sudan's rulers.

Click here for links to each part of the conversation.

From: Alan Wolfe
To: Alex de Waal, Richard Just, Eric Reeves, Elizabeth Rubin

Unlike the other participants in this exchange, I am no expert on Darfur. Indeed, to the extent that I know anything at all about the tragedy that has been unfolding there, it is due to the people with whom I find myself now interacting. So let me direct my comments not so much to what Obama should do about Darfur specifically as to what America can and should do about mass atrocities more generally.

One conclusion we might reach from the decision of the International Criminal Court is that it is about time America joined it. Facing resistance from Congress after he signed the Rome Statute in 2000, Bill Clinton took a pass on the ICC, even going so far as to recommend that his successor refuse to submit the treaty unless concerns about American sovereignty were addressed. George W. Bush went well beyond that; he essentially “unsigned” the treaty, one of the early steps he took to announce to the world that under his leadership the United States would damn well do whatever it chose to do. As a result, the United States played no role in handing down the charges against Omar Al Bashir. When it comes to such vitally important questions as crimes against humanity and the limits of state sovereignty, the country that took the lead in asserting rights to self-determination and once sought to be the world’s best protection against genocide is out of the loop.

Barack Obama has indicated a willingness to reconsider the question of American membership in the ICC. I am not sure that even if he made it one of his highest priorities, it would ever gain the support necessary in the U.S. Senate. If I am right, we will have the war in Iraq to thank. Because of the needless deaths produced by that adventure, the current mood in the United States is more isolationist than it was when Bill Clinton was in power. Yet the world’s crisis spots are even more numerous. At best, Obama will have one or two priorities. It is not clear that membership in the ICC is more important than, say, restarting Arab-Israeli peace talks or helping to settle disputes about Kashmir.

If joining the ICC is unlikely, it is even less likely that the new administration will intervene in any significant way in Darfur. After George W. Bush’s neoconservative version of idealism, some kind of return to hard-nosed realism is inevitable. What is at stake, I can hear a liberal realist asking, for the U.S. national interest in Sudan? Perhaps if the ICC had declared Bashir guilty of genocide, a case could be made that, to win back the trust of the world community after our debacle in Iraq, we ought to be the leader of any international action against the worst of crimes. But even though Moreno Ocampo pushed for a charge of genocide, the court rejected it. Although Bashir is being charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity, and even though such charges sound impressively serious, the fact is that the court refused to buy into the allegation made by so many activists that in Darfur we are dealing with genocide pure and simple. Is this not, in its own way, something of a political victory for Bashir? Will this not be read by his supporters, whether in China or the rest of Africa, as the ICC backing down? I wonder in particular if Eric Reeves, who has done so much to make the case for genocide in the region, is happy with the court’s decision.

I also have a question for Richard Just, who expresses a touch of dismay that the Obama administration has not followed through on some of its more tough-sounding rhetoric on the issue. Obama, he points out, had been willing during the campaign to call for a no-fly zone over the area. But David Rieff has told us that groups such as Doctors Without Borders were not thrilled with the call by Darfur activists for a no-fly zone because it would make it more difficult for them to do their work. Darfur is a complex situation. A politician has to be more sensitive to complexities as president than as a candidate.

My question, then, is this: In reaction to the ICC decision, Bashir immediately ordered ten major humanitarian aid organizations out of the country, including not only Doctors Without Borders but Oxfam. Bashir has been roundly criticized for his actions and he deserves every bit of it. But if some two million people are harmed by it, can we really say, as Richard does, that “the decision was clearly the right one from a legal perspective”? Perhaps it was, but perhaps the court should also have thought about the political consequences of its decision, especially when those consequences may prove so harmful.

Okay, I have questions rather than answers. I hope my fellow commentators can enlighten me.

Click here for Part 5: Obama should back the ICC.

Click here for links to each part of the conversation.

Alan Wolfe is a contributing editor at The New Republic.

By Alan Wolfe