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Flex Time

Neither George W. Bush nor John Kerry has found much occasion to talk about the ongoing genocide in Darfur. Mention of the systematic destruction of western Sudan's farming tribes by Khartoum government proxies was ominously absent from both parties' nominating conventions. And Darfur is hardly a centerpiece of either candidate's stump speech. Not surprisingly, given the infrequency of their discussions of Darfur, the two candidates are less than fluent in the details of the massacre. In fact, during the first presidential debate, when asked what they would do about Darfur, both Kerry and Bush misrepresented how the United States has responded to the crisis.

Kerry erred when he criticized the president for failing to provide logistical support to the African Union (AU) troops monitoring the April cease-fire signed by Khartoum and Darfur rebel groups. "Right now, all the president is providing is humanitarian support," Kerry said. But that's not quite true. The United States footed the bill for the private contractor that set up the AU base camp and that is handling some logistics for the AU's small force in the field. Moreover, the State Department has earmarked an additional $20.5 million in support of a proposed expanded AU mission.

But Bush's comments were worse. He cited last year's U.S.-led intervention in Liberia as a model for what the United States should be doing in Sudan, noting, "We helped stabilize the situation [in Liberia] with some troops. And, when the African Union came, we moved [American troops] out." Unfortunately, the administration's strategy in Darfur bears little resemblance to the one it pursued in Liberia. In Liberia, the United States positioned three Navy warships within sight of the capital and dispatched 200 Marines to provide backup to West African peacekeepers. In Darfur, on the other hand, the Bush administration has ruled out sending any American troops, saying that U.S. armed forces are overstretched.

The administration treats Darfur more like a natural disaster than a murderous government-directed strategy. "We are not trying to punish the Sudanese people or the Sudanese government. We are trying to save lives," Secretary of State Colin Powell told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month. The United States is offering a relief response when a political response is needed, dealing with the results of a crisis rather than its causes. And some members of the U.N. Security Council are happy to play along. Prodded by China and Russia, which have economic interests in Sudan, the Council has allowed Khartoum to continue killing after the cease-fire--without any consequences. Meanwhile, 50,000 Darfurians have died and 1.4 million have been driven from their homes.

The president is right about one thing, however: Liberia is a good model for Darfur. It will likely take several months to get an effective AU force up and running, since all members of the Union must sign off and outfitting the troops is laborious. But, as in Liberia, until the AU is ready, the United States should provide enough military aid to be the initial backbone of the force in Sudan. Certainly, the war in Iraq limits what Washington can do militarily. Yet officers that have led previous peacekeeping missions concede that the United States still has enough flexibility to send a battalion--500 to 900 soldiers--for a limited stabilization mission in Darfur. And, by sending a contingent of troops, the United States would send a vital psychological signal in a part of the world where havoc is wreaked by ragtag militias easily shocked and awed by American might. In Liberia, even a small number of American troops scared off irregulars who had never dealt with a professional army before. In Darfur, the United States could do the same.

During the debate, Kerry suggested he would be willing to send troops "if it took American forces to some degree to coalesce the African Union." In so doing, he made an important moral and political point. Emphasizing his willingness to intervene in Darfur without U.N. approval would help deflect Bush's criticism that a Kerry presidency would be a slave to international opinion, allowing foreign leaders to determine U.S. national interests and policy agendas. And, by hammering home this message, Kerry would show how absent Bush has been. After all, it is Bush, not Kerry, who is now presiding over 6,000 to 10,000 Darfurian deaths each month. It is up to Bush, as president, to stop the genocide.

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By The Editors