August 17, 2009

African Roulette

The wind was finally at their backs. George Bush made an attempt, but his efforts never satisfied the passionate and demanding elements of Save Darfur. Barack Obama was supposed to be different, a black man with African heritage flanked by vocal Darfur activists.

Now Save Darfur is supposedly dead according to many of its lead advocates. In June, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof blogged its demise and lamented President Obama’s lack of effort. Randy Newcomb, CEO of Humanity United, reached the same conclusion. Save Darfur may have lost momentum, but President Obama’s support hasn’t necessarily waned. Distraction is a more plausible culprit.

Officials bristle at the notion that the Middle East, Iran, and North Korea have sucked the energy out of his African agenda.

“The Administration is committed to Africa,” Johnnie Carson, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, told reporters before Secretary Clinton’s recent trip to the region. “The Administration is capable of handling multiple foreign policy issues at one time.”

Reality doesn’t favor him though. Obama has visited Africa, Europe, Russia, Turkey, and Egypt, only stepped a toe into South America, and is still planning for Pakistan. Afghanistan and Iraq are waiting, so are China and India. The consuming economic/health care debate suggests that Obama is distracted not just from Africa but his entire foreign policy. He appointed a stable of envoys because he knew America’s domestic crossroads would devour him.

But non-action is a blessing in disguise for Darfur, where immediate action would’ve been a mistake with so many options to choose from. Chad, the DRC, and the Central African Republic are equal candidates for peacekeeping forces. Somalia needs an active duty force that will never come. Zimbabwe, Nigeria, and Kenya are examples of how Africa can spawn a new catastrophe at any moment.

Save Darfur must be careful what it wishes for; “saving” is code for an increased UN peacekeeping force, and possibly NATO or US forces. Given the potential for error, deploying American troops to a failed African state is more roulette than strategy. Still, it stands to reason that President Obama, given his African blood and the lack of US military attention in the region, has one bullet for Africa. While humanitarian aid, economic sanctions, political pressure, and the AU are necessary to relieve suffering, they've fail to resolve the conflict.

That Obama must choose to save one people over another is the unfortunate reality of Africa. Fortunately for Save Darfur activists, Sudan makes the most sense for American military action. Chad and the Congo demand similar attention, but Sudan diverges in one critical aspect: the hourglass in its Comprehensive Peace Agreement, or Naivasha Agreement. An election to decide the union of North and South Sudan is to be held no later than March 2011.

No one predicts the Sudanese government would allow the South, home to the majority of Sudan’s untapped oil reserves, to break away. A government crackdown would exacerbate the political conflict in both Darfur and with the international community. President al-Bashir lashes out when he feels threatened; his reaction to the ICC’s arrest warrant will likely duplicate if the South secedes. A looming deadline, on top of the piling corpses, is why Save Darfur activists are so hungry for action.

They believe now is the only opportunity to stabilize the country before it tears apart and causes another refugee crisis or genocide. Though Obama was correct to delay his initial response, waiting too long tempts ruination.

As of May 31st, 2009, two UN peacekeeping missions - UNAMID and USMIS - have failed to bring lasting security through a combined 21,000 troops and 5,000 police. At four times the size of Afghanistan, Sudan has greater demands. Susan Rice, the UN ambassador and Obama’s leading Darfur hawk, argues the necessity of a larger UN force, which Sudan has rejected. President Obama, and in turn the American people, must accept that military operations are the only hope of "saving" Darfur, of forcing a political solution on Khartoum.

Establishing a more robust peacekeeping force would require the American Air Force at a minimum. Insertion, Rice told PBS in 2006, “would entail the United States, with backing from European partners and hopefully the political support of African governments, bombing Sudanese targets -- air fields, air assets, command and control installations -- that have been instrumental in the perpetration of the genocide.”

“The aim is to get Sudan to cry uncle."

Rice has since softened her position on military intervention, but the reality of Darfur hasn’t changed. More likely, her elevated position muzzled her real opinion. Military means, through increased UN peacekeeping and possibly an American arm, are the only option to make a significant difference in Sudan's attitude. Waiting for “a negotiated political settlement between the government of Sudan and all parties to the conflict,” according to envoy Scott Gration, is futile. Too many resources are being competed over. The Naivasha Agreement is a recipe for destruction, not peace.

President Obama is understandably hesitant about pulling the trigger; Sudan is a potential death trap and the odds of inspiring al-Qaeda-style militants are high. But the time has come to exorcise Somalia's demons or else America will never properly re-engage Africa’s conflict zones. Save Darfur should brace for military operations - they can’t object once Obama fires.

He’ll need support if he shoots himself.

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