An air of unreality, if not cant, surrounds the latest upsurge of calls for UN troops to go into Sudan's western region of Darfur. The actor George Clooney takes to the stage at the UN Security Council, pleading for action. British Prime Minister Tony Blair seizes on the issue to write letters to fellow EU leaders. In cities around the world, protesters hold a "global day for Darfur" to warn of looming genocide.
Is it really possible that Western governments, in spite of being burned by their interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, would use force against another Muslim state?
Groups in the West have long campaigned to have the government in Khartoum replaced. In the US, the Christian right and some of Israel's friends portray it as an Islamic fundamentalist regime.
Human rights activists raise the issue of slavery to suggest that Arab raiders, supported by the government, are routinely abducting Africans from the south to use as human chattel. The Clinton administration listed Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism because Osama bin Laden once lived there.
Against this background, it was always going to be hard to expect fair reporting when civil war broke out in Darfur three years ago. The complex grievances that set farmers against nomads was covered with a simplistic template of Arab versus African, even though the region was crisscrossed with tribal and local rivalries that put some villages on the government's side and others against it.
It is true that the government -- as often happens in asymmetrical war -- overreacted in its use of force when rebels attacked. The so-called Janjaweed militias that Khartoum organized and armed did not distinguish between civilians and guerrilla fighters. They burned huts, raped women and put tens of thousands of civilians to flight, forcing them across the border into Chad or into camps inside Darfur.
But the rebels also committed atrocities, a fact that was rarely reported since it upset the black-and-white moral image that many editors preferred.
In most wars, governments spin and the media (at least sometimes) seek the truth. Darfur reversed the trend: the media spun while governments were more sophisticated. In spite of efforts to describe the killing in Darfur as genocide, neither the UN nor the EU went along with this description -- not because of moral myopia, but because they understood the difference between a brutal civil war and a deliberate policy of ethnic cleansing.
Darfur is not Rwanda. Only the US accepted the genocide description, though this seemed a concession to domestic lobbies rather than a matter of conviction. Washington never followed through with the forcible intervention in Darfur that international law requires once a finding of genocide is made.
Instead, it supported other Western governments in encouraging the African Union (AU) to broker peace talks between Khartoum and the rebels. These culminated in May in an agreement that requires the Janjaweed to disarm before the rebels do. It also gives Darfur's rebel leaders powers to run the region on their own.
Alas, two rebel groups refused to sign. Any fair account of this summer's relapse into war would therefore put most blame on the rebels, whose field commanders recently split into rival groups while their political leaders squabbled in their safe havens in the Eritrean capital, Asmara.
They may have legitimate reasons for arguing that the peace deal did not give enough. Some of the displaced say Khartoum should have to pay families compensation.
Others say the peace deal has no enforcement measures and fails to protect people who want to go back to rebuild their villages. But the answer is to conduct more talks, not resume the war. African and Western diplomats are trying to get the rebels to think again, but find themselves frustrated by the rebels' feuds. Blair's letter on Darfur was careful to call for pressure on the rebels as well as Khartoum, even though most of the media chose to see it as a rather one-dimensional issue.
Putting international peace monitors into Darfur to protect the displaced in their camps was vital. Two years ago the Khartoum government accepted this. It allowed the AU to deploy 7,000 troops. But, short of money, helicopters and other equipment, the AU went along with Western governments earlier this year in asking the UN to take over.
This is where the debate is now. No one expects Western troops to move into Sudan. It has taken weeks to bolster the UN force in Lebanon, while in Afghanistan most NATO members have held back from sending troops into a failing war. In practice, a UN force would be nothing more than the existing AU one with reinforcements, perhaps from India and Bangladesh.
So, behind all the clamor for UN intervention, what is really being discussed is a change in badges. Having AU troops to handle an African problem has symbolic, cultural and political value. But African governments are overstretched, whereas the UN has an established system of subsidizing troop-supplying governments. Ironically, given the demands in the US for firm action, it was Congress that recently refused to fund US President George W. Bush's request for help to the AU.
What of the effort to indict Sudanese leaders before an international court for committing atrocities? Fear of arrest is said to be one reason why Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir, has blocked UN troops. Even if a UN force were still 90 percent African, he might think it could include a Western-led squad tasked to capture him or his Darfurian lieutenants. If that were the case, the Security Council resolution that recently called on Khartoum to accept a UN force carefully avoided any reference to international trials. So did an EU statement last week.
In practice, then, there is a good chance that this week's negotiations at the UN will produce a compromise -- neither the existing AU force nor a new UN one, but a hybrid. It could be an AU force with African leadership but under a UN mandate and answerable to the Security Council. Its contingents might include non-Africans, but its mandate would be little different from the current one. After the huffing and puffing of the past few days, this would be a sensible outcome.
Suspicions remain on all sides. Khartoum feels betrayed by the US. After making a peace deal in the south that rules out Shariah law and provides for a referendum on secession, it expected US sanctions would be lifted. It felt it had shown it was not fundamentalist or even Islamist since its new government of national unity includes southern Christians and other non-Muslims. As for terrorism, Washington has produced no evidence for a decade.
Meanwhile, many of Khartoum's critics suspect the government has not abandoned its indiscriminate bombing raids and excessive use of force against rebel villages.
No foreign peacekeepers, whether AU or UN, can monitor all the vast terrain of Darfur. Sudan's government must discipline its own commanders.
That said, the compromise of an expanded AU force, whether labeled UN or not, is still the best option.
The "something must be done" brigade will be upset, but sending foreign troops into Sudan without Khartoum's consent would be nothing short of disaster.
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