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Standing down

Sudan | As the crisis in Darfur deepens, President Obama's hard line from last year turns soft

Issue: "Is Christianity in the U.S. doomed?," June 20, 2009

When President Barack Obama talked about Sudan's western region of Darfur during his presidential campaign, the candidate used searing language: He called the government-incited violence against civilians "genocide" and "a stain on our souls." In April 2008, Obama blasted President George W. Bush for considering normalizing relations with Sudan, calling the idea "a reckless and cynical initiative." He added: "We cannot stand down."

A year later, the tune has changed. When Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir ruthlessly expelled 13 foreign aid groups delivering at least half of the life-sustaining aid to millions of people in Darfur in March, Obama called the action "unacceptable." A few weeks later, Obama renewed his call for Bashir to allow aid workers to stay, saying he would otherwise have to "find another mechanism" for delivering aid. But by late May, no new mechanism existed.

Obama's new special envoy to Sudan, Major General Scott Gration, had even softer words when he visited the African nation for the first time in April. Gration, a retired Air Force officer, told officials in Sudan's northern capital city of Khartoum, "I come here with my hands open," and said he hoped Sudan would respond "with a hand of friendship." The envoy didn't mention genocide. Indeed, he didn't mention Darfur.

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For Eric Reeves, that's exasperating. The Smith College professor and long-time Sudan activist decries the lack of action by Obama and his team so far: "I must confess I'm dismayed at the disparity between the rhetoric of campaign Obama and the Obama administration."

Reeves isn't alone. With the 20th anniversary of Bashir's regime coming on June 30, other Darfur activists wonder why Obama has done little about the escalating crisis in Sudan: As Bashir defies an International Criminal Court (ICC) indictment for his arrest for crimes against humanity, millions in Darfur hunker down for the rainy season, cut off from the critical aid that Bashir expelled from the country in retaliation for the indictment. Meanwhile, thousands in the South wonder if the growing unrest will damage their already-precarious peace agreement with the North. And many wonder if the United States will help at all.

It's difficult to add up the full number of Sudanese deaths from violence, disease, or starvation under Bashir's rule, but the known figures are huge: At least 2 million died in a 20-year civil war as Bashir's northern-based government tried to force Islamic law on the predominantly Christian South. That violence also drove some 4 million from their homes. A 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) brought some relief to the South, but many Southerners say the peace remains fragile.

In Darfur, at least 300,000 have died in a scorched-earth campaign orchestrated by Bashir's government against civilians since 2003. Some 3 million have fled their homes. And though war-related killings have decreased, millions languish in the brutal conditions of Darfur's devastated landscape, threatened by malnutrition and disease.

Against that backdrop, Obama and other high-profile members of his administration called for swift action in Darfur before the elections. Obama repeatedly called the violence in Darfur "genocide" and called for stiffer sanctions against the Khartoum-based government, international pressure against Bashir, and U.S. assistance to UNAMID, the joint African Union/United Nations peacekeeping force in Darfur. Obama promised: "I will make ending the genocide in Darfur a priority from Day One."

As a presidential candidate, then-Sen. Hillary Clinton proposed a NATO-enforced no-fly zone over Darfur to prevent government bombing of villages. In 2007, then-Sen. Joe Biden was even more blunt about Darfur: "I would use force now."

At least two other members of the Obama administration have been vociferous critics of the violence in Darfur: Samantha Power-now a member of the National Security Council-became a leading voice calling for an end to genocide in the region, filing harrowing reports of death and degradation from Darfur during some of the most violent moments of the bombardment. Susan Rice-now U.S. ambassador to the United Nations-once pushed for NATO airstrikes to defend Darfur and proposed a naval blockade of Sudan's major port. She vowed to "go down in flames" fighting for Darfur.

As the Obama administration took power, the chorus of stark voices led Ghazi Suleiman, a human-rights lawyer in southern Sudan, to predict to The Washington Post: "Compared to the Republicans-the Democrats, I think they are hawks."

But so far, the hawks in the Obama administration have stayed perched: The president hasn't renewed his calls for sanctions, and the United States hasn't provided helicopters requested by UNAMID forces. Secretary of State Clinton hasn't re-proposed the no-fly zone, and Vice President Biden hasn't pressed for using force. Both Power and Rice continue to condemn the Darfur violence as genocide but seem to be waiting for Obama to form a more definitive policy before speaking further.

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