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The TNR Roundtable Part 1: What Should Obama Do About Darfur?

Click here for links to each part of the conversation.

From: Richard Just

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

Yesterday brought the news we have all been expecting for weeks: that the International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar Al Bashir. My own reaction to this development is mixed. On the one hand, the decision was clearly the right one from a legal perspective. Bashir is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of his own people, and he obviously deserves to sit in the Hague. Moreover, it is always a welcome development when the international community reaffirms that the old rules of geopolitics--the rules of men like Chas Freeman and his ilk--no longer apply: Leading a government does not (or at least should not) entitle you to do whatever you want to your own people. When a state undertakes a campaign of terror within its borders, it is everyone's concern.

At the same time, my sense is that some Darfur activists have invested too much hope in the admirable work of ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo. Courts are good at dispensing justice after a crime has been committed, but we generally don't rely on them to stop crimes in progress. And the tragedy in Darfur is still very much in progress. It seems clear that an arrest warrant from the ICC, however just, is not going to stop the killing and dislocation, or help millions of displaced Darfuris return home. Ultimately, if the problem of Darfur is going to be solved, the solution will come not from international judges but from governments.

Which brings us to the question of this roundtable: What should President Obama do about Darfur? I voted for Obama enthusiastically, but I will admit that I was never quite sure what to make of his stance on Darfur. His call for a no-fly zone was practical and aggressive, but much of his rhetoric on Sudan seemed excessively cautious--as if he was already preparing for the eventuality that, as president, he wouldn't be able to do much to solve the problem. His introduction to Don Cheadle and John Prendergast's 2007 Darfur book was exasperatingly empty, with its bland call for citizens to urge government officials to stop genocide. (Since Obama was himself a government official, I would have liked to hear less about what I could do to convince him to stop genocide and more about what he could do to stop genocide.) But I was heartened by his selection of Joe Biden last summer. Biden was a longstanding Darfur hawk ("I would use American force now," he had said back in April 2007) and, more generally, someone who believed that American power could be used in the service of humanitarianism. I figured Obama's choice signaled that he would at least tilt towards Biden's views on these questions.

But now, six weeks into his administration, I am beginning to wonder if I was too optimistic. Admittedly, no one expected Darfur to be at the top of Obama's list of priorities. He obviously has plenty on his plate, at home and abroad. Plus, from the outside, it is difficult to tell how much attention Obama is devoting to Darfur. Maybe Sudan really is a priority for his administration, even though we haven't heard much about it. Still, a few data points have left me discouraged. Obama has yet to appoint a Darfur envoy, a simple step that would at least signal a basic interest in the issue. And, even though it's a bit far afield from Darfur, I found Hillary Clinton's statement that she wasn't going to let human rights get in the way of other priorities in our relationship with China to be rather chilling--and perhaps telling. Combined with the appointment of Chas Freeman, it seemed to signal a coarsening of attitudes within the administration on the age-old question of whether Washington should try to stop states from harming their own people. If an indifference to the depredations of nasty governments is going to be the general outlook of Obama's presidency, then that is very bad news for the people of Darfur.

Back in December, The Washington Post ran a piece explaining that many in Khartoum were expecting Obama to act forcefully on Darfur. "I know Obama's appointees," said one Sudanese lawyer. "And I know their policy towards Sudan. Everybody here knows it. The policy is very aggressive and very harsh. I think we really will miss the judgments of George W. Bush." I would find it hard to believe that anyone in Khartoum still feels this way. During the six weeks of Obama's presidency, Sudan's government has continued to orchestrate carnage in Darfur--bombing and eventually taking the town of Muhajeria, forcing tens of thousands to flee. Yet Obama has not seemed any more inclined than Bush was to get tough with Khartoum.

Perhaps part of the reason Obama hasn't done more is that there isn't a consensus on what, exactly, he should do. With 13,000 United Nations-African Union troops on the ground; with millions of Darfuris huddled in camps and having no prospect of returning home; with the killing and destruction no longer proceeding at the pace of 2004 and 2005 but with plenty of death and displacement still taking place; with the rebel groups having fractured and at times themselves seeming like a major impediment to peace; with the government hinting that it might initiate new violence as retribution for the ICC arrest warrant--given all of these realities, how should Obama proceed?

To answer that question, I turn things over to our panel: Alex de Waal, whose books Darfur: A New History of a Long War and War in Darfur and the Search for Peace are excellent guides to the conflict; frequent TNR contributor Eric Reeves, whose persuasive book A Long Day's Dying chronicles the failed western response to the genocide; Elizabeth Rubin, who reported from Darfur while profiling ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo for The New York Times Magazine; and TNR contributing editor Alan Wolfe, whose recent essay "Empty Nest: The Demise of a Species" in World Affairs considered the fate of liberal interventionism. I'm looking forward to an energetic exchange.

Click here to read Part 2: Focus on elections.

Click here for links to each part of the conversation.

Richard Just is managing editor of The New Republic.