Barack Obama was clear about the African leader who had turned his troops on his own people: The dictator was creating an unacceptable refugee and humanitarian crisis, Obama said. “When genocide is happening, when ethnic cleansing is happening somewhere around the world, and we stand idly by, that diminishes us. And so, I do believe that we have to consider it as part of our interests, our national interests, in intervening where possible.”
He went on to acknowledge that in a world full of violence, the United States cannot be everywhere. But it should be in certain places. “We could be providing logistical support, setting up a no-fly zone at relatively little cost to us, but we can only do it if we can help mobilize the international community and lead,” Obama said.
The year was 2008 and Obama was talking about the Darfur region of Sudan. Then a presidential candidate, he was pushing for the U.S. to do more to stem the humanitarian crisis in the Central African nation. His critics say he never enacted the policies he called for in the campaign -- a lapse that seems all the more glaring now that the U.S. is considering military action in Libya.
The crisis in Libya has once again highlighted the troubles in neighboring Sudan, which shares the country’s southeast border. Despite a much larger humanitarian crisis in Sudan—some 2 million people have died during a decades-long civil war between North and South -- it is Libya where the administration has gone from zero to 60 in three weeks with its threat to use force to protect the people. The death toll in Libya, while gruesome, is still just a few thousand people. Those who have been pressuring the administration to do more in Sudan wish that the administration was showing the same determination toward pressuring the regime in Khartoum that it is dsiplaying toward Qaddafi’s regime in Tripoli.
“I’m encouraged by his statements with regard to encouraging [Libyan President Col.] Muammar el-Qaddafi to step down,” said Elizabeth Blackney, a GOP strategist-turned-writer who is active in Sudan relief. “My concern is with the inconsistency in calling for dictators who perpetrate human-rights violence against their own people.”
She’s not alone. Sam Bell, the executive director of the Save Darfur Coalition and Genocide Intervention Network, two groups that recently merged, said that the Sudanese would be “scratching their heads” over the president’s decision to threaten to use force to carry out humanitarian assistance in Libya, but not in Sudan. “The [Sudanese President Omar] Bashir government has been as, if not more, brutal in terms of suppressing its people and perpetrating violence against them than Qaddafi has.”
As human-rights activists see it, one difference is that Libya’s disintegration threatens other Arab regimes; Sudan’s collapse has not caused a wave of instability. More important, Libya is oil-rich and Sudan is not. The Sudanese are “at the bottom of the geopolitical pecking order,” said Sudan researcher and analyst Eric Reeves. “And they’ve been treated accordingly.”
If the human-rights community had high expectations of Obama, it is not hard to understand why. As a candidate, he spoke of a national interest that included acting as a world policeman against ethnic violence. Sudan was ground zero for humanitarian assistance. A long war between the Arab Muslim North and the black Christian and animist South cost 2 million lives and ended on paper with the signing of a Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005.
During the 2000s, fighting in the western Sudanese province of Darfur led to massive ethnic cleansing that the Bush administration unabashedly dubbed genocide. Bashir faces an arrest order for war crimes. Earlier this year, the South voted overwhelmingly to succeed, but whether the dictator will allow the split remains to be seen.
Darfur was the central Sudan issue when Obama sought the presidency. In fact, as a candidate, he supported taking many of the same measures in Sudan that the U.S. has either taken or is considering for Libya. On his campaign website, he called on the international community to deploy a “large, capable U.N.-led and U.N.-funded force with a robust enforcement mandate to stop the killings.”
He also called on Washington to further pressure the regime in Khartoum – which was charged with supplying weapons to the Arab Janjaweed militias used to kill Southern Sudanese. Candidate Obama wanted sanctions, no-fly zones, and other forms of pressure brought to bear. In 2007 and 2008, he joined with then-Sens. Joe Biden and Hillary Rodham Clinton in criticizing the Bush administration for engaging with Khartoum. The trio called for the use of sticks, not carrots, in U.S.-Sudan relations.
The administration's policies, however, have been very different from what Obama promised during the campaign. The U.S. helps fund a minor military presence, the African Union/United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur, providing a $536.6 million estimated contribution in FY2011 to a force with a $1.8 billion budget. Of the 22,443 total uniformed personnel serving in UNAMID, zero are from the United States. If an international force goes into Libya, no one expects it to be free of Americans.
This article appears in the March 14, 2011 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.