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All Bark

As genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan has ground on, President Bush has felt increasing pressure to respond. His administration declared in September 2004 that genocide was occurring in Darfur and that the Khartoum regime and its Janjaweed militia allies were responsible, but the violence, now in its fifth year, has continued unstaunched. And so, on Tuesday, he imposed a series of sanctions on Khartoum, the most significant of which placed U.S. currency restrictions on 31 Khartoum-controlled or related firms, nearly all in the oil sector.

Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte asserted that the new sanctions regime "increases the pressure on the government of Sudan to live up to its obligations, which it has not done so far." The blunt truth, however, is that the sanctions have no meaningful bite. Given the comprehensive U.S. trade and economic sanctions originally imposed by President Clinton in November 1997, these small, incremental additions are nothing more than a bookkeeping inconvenience for the Khartoum regime. Crude oil is a highly prized, completely fungible international commodity. The sanctions will simply oblige Khartoum to convert dollar-denominated contracts to euro-denominated or yen-denominated ones (Japan and China both import huge quantities of Sudanese crude). Indeed, China explicitly warned on Tuesday that it will not approve of any sanctions measures, including at the United Nations--something Negroponte indicated the United States would seek. To that, Negroponte admitted, "Well, it is true that the Chinese do not have the absolutely identical position to ours." It's an understatement that amounts to disingenuousness.

And so, rather than punish the regime, the sanctions simply continue the Bush administration's pattern of empty rhetoric and inconsequential actions. Part-time U.S. special envoy for Sudan Andrew Natsios inadvertently confirmed this on Tuesday, when he said at a State Department briefing, "The purpose of these sanctions is not the sanctions [but] to send a message to the Sudanese government to start behaving differently." That is, they are largely symbolic.

It is thoroughly peculiar that the Bush administration somehow thinks that their message has not gotten through to Khartoum. Given the raft of visits by senior U.S. officials, going back to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell's July 2004 journey to Khartoum, it's difficult to believe that any important message remains un-conveyed. Start behaving differently was the central point of U.S.-sponsored U.N. Security Council Resolution 1556, which "demanded" that Khartoum disarm the Janjaweed and bring their leaders to justice. The United States has also demanded on many occasions that humanitarian access be unfettered and that Khartoum halt its indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets. The message has been delivered clearly; that it has gone unheeded is what is so painfully salient.

But why should Khartoum listen to the United States? China has been the primary supplier of weapons and weapons technology to Khartoum over the past decade and the primary investor in Sudan's Khartoum-dominated economy, particularly its oil sector. And China has offered Khartoum unstinting diplomatic support at the United Nations. With such a benefactor, new sanctions from the United States will have no effect at all.

The poverty of Bush's efforts seems lost on many, who are perhaps wary of seeming to be critical of any action that claims to be pressuring Khartoum's génocidaires. But this marks a deeply confused thinking about this week's developments. If Khartoum's canny security cabal sees that the United States is unprepared to do no more than continue its pattern of bluster and posturing, they will draw the inevitable conclusion: The United States has no more potent leverage to wield.

By Eric Reeves