Brave talk -- no action

The U.S. and England rattle their sabers at the Sudan -- where civil unrest has led to 30,000 deaths -- and still nothing has happened.


Simon Tisdall
August 3, 2004 5:37PM (UTC)

Sudan is becoming a dark study in disillusion. Only two weeks ago, Britain was openly hinting at military intervention to end the humanitarian crisis in the Darfur region. In an echo of the build-up to war in Iraq, Tony Blair spoke gravely of a "moral responsibility" that must not be shirked.

Not to be outdone, Colin Powell, the US secretary of state, warned of dire consequences should the Islamist-led Sudanese government fail to fulfil its undertakings to the United Nations. He demanded an immediate end to a conflict that has cost an estimated 30,000 lives (there are no wholly reliable figures) and displaced more than 1 million people.

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The clamour to "do something" and quickly became a crescendo as the UN, development officials and aid agencies warned of a catastrophe in Darfur and in the refugee camps in neighbouring Chad.

Anxious to have its say before going on holiday, the US Congress grabbed some headlines of its own by labelling as genocide the mayhem perpetrated by Janjaweed Arab nomad militias.

Serious stuff indeed. So what happened? Did the B52s scramble? Did Nato volunteer to go "out of area"? Did Pentagon supremo Donald Rumsfeld rally the "new" (as opposed to "old") Africa to confront what the US deems a terrorism-sponsoring state of concern?

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Not exactly. After all that noisy talk, the UN security council met last week and passed a motion.

The Sudanese government was given 30 days to call off its proxy killers or face unspecified punitive "measures" but, mark well, not formal sanctions, not military force and certainly not a regime-changing invasion. And that only if the UN deemed the government to have made insufficient progress by September.

Khartoum's militia puppet-masters were, in effect, let off the hook. They now say they will comply to the best of their ability but want 90 days rather than 30 to do so, as previously agreed with the UN boss, Kofi Annan.

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Even this conditional acceptance is hedged with qualifiers. For Sudanese ministers also claim that they do not control the Janjaweed, who (they say) may be impossible to rein in.

And they warn that implementing the UN resolution in full, including assisted resettlement of displaced people and the resumption of a political dialogue in Darfur, will be "extremely difficult" in so short a timeframe. After over a century of foreign interference and post-independence neglect, disputes over customary water and land use, and growing ethnic and tribal tensions in Darfur, that contention has a ring of truth.

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But it also seems clear that Khartoum plans to play for time. The government is likely to exhibit only limited compliance with UN demands while waiting for the international hubbub to die down and for some new political and media sensation to shift attention elsewhere.

That, after all, is how it has always been in Sudan since the 19th century joustings of Ismail Pasha, the Mahdi and Herbert (later Lord) Kitchener. In the end, everybody tends to walk away from Sudan, somewhat baffled, lances a trifle bent. It is just too big and too complicated.

Sudan's present-day leader, Omar al-Bashir, may not be the smartest bean in the box. But he probably calculates that Mr Blair, for all his moral conviction, has a lot of other fish to fry. The prime minister surely cares. But he is no Charles "Chinese" Gordon, the British general killed in the siege of Khartoum in 1885 after refusing a way out.

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Similar calculations also suggest that George Bush, in a neck-and-neck autumn US election race, will avoid a post-Iraq adventure overseas. It smacks too much of Somalia, his father's parting folly in 1992-93. Nor will his hyper-cautious Democratic challenger, John Kerry, push for intervention.

And what if the UN does move towards punitive "measures" this autumn? Russia or China, with oil and commercial interests in mind, may veto them.

But even if they do not, such restrictions would make little difference to Khartoum's already isolated leadership although ordinary people could suffer. The US, for example, already has bilateral sanctions in place.

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So far the only concrete western military move has been the deployment of French troops along the Sudan-Chad border.

Such maneuvering may make President Jacques Chirac, a rival to Mr Blair in Africa as in so much else, feel like a player. But like the British, and indeed like the EU's nascent military organisation, the French do not have the numbers, the gear or the logistical reach to make a real difference.

There is something depressingly familiar in international affairs about this sequence of events, this transition from brave words and high principles to shabby compromises and receding expectations.

In truth, the west's behaviour to date is the opposite of Teddy Roosevelt's old maxim about speaking softly and carrying a big stick.

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On Darfur, it transpires, western leaders are all hat and no cattle (perhaps that should be camels).


Simon Tisdall

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