Silence in the face of genocide – again

America’s track record in this area has largely been one of moral failure and complacency.

March 7, 2012 22:50
4 minute read.
Omar al-Bashir

Omar al Bashir 311 R. (photo credit: Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah / Reuters)


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The news from Sudan’s Nuba Mountains is sadly familiar: a brutal dictator is slaughtering his own citizens, human rights activists are urging the United States to intervene, and the Obama administration says it’s doing all it can to stop the killing. But this time, a senior US official has revealed the administration’s real position. And it’s not good.

In a series of powerful dispatches last week from the Nuba battle zone, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof described the attacks launched by the Arab regime of Sudanese president Omar Bashir against the non-Arab residents of the Nuba mountains. The Obama administration has responded with a quiet diplomatic effort to end the food blockade on Nuba, while taking no serious action against Bashir’s aggression. Kristof wrote that the attacks carry “echoes of Darfur.” So does the Obama administration’s response.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama sought to distinguish himself from the other candidates by vowing that when it came to the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan, America would not allow mass murder to take place on his watch.

“There must be real pressure placed on the Sudanese government,” he said.

That would have represented a significant change in US policy, since America’s track record in this area has largely been one of moral failure and complacency. The absolute sovereignty of nations and the concessions of realpolitik have usually trumped other values.

US planes bombed German factories adjacent to Auschwitz but were never sent to strike the nearby gas chambers and crematoria. The US ignored genocide in Cambodia in the 1970s, and in Rwanda in the 1990s, even though those mass killings took place in front of the world’s television cameras. And America responded far too slowly to “ethnic cleansing” in the Balkans, waiting for an international consensus rather than simply taking immediate humanitarian action.

As president, however, Obama has refrained from taking meaningful steps for Darfur, such as imposing a no-fly zone over Sudan or bringing about the arrest of President Bashir, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for his role in the Darfur genocide. Over the past several years, Bashir has visited Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other countries that are major recipients of American aid. This outlaw absurdly and mockingly travels around openly like a respected statesman, and the US neither apprehends him nor penalizes those who host him.

It always struck us as curious that when asked by reporters about the Bashir indictment, administration officials mumbled vaguely about the need for “justice” in Sudan. They never said clearly and openly that the US was trying to have Bashir arrested.

Now we know why: in a recent interview, Obama’s envoy to Sudan, Princeton Lyman, told the London-based Arabic daily Asharq Al-Awsat: “Frankly we do not want to see the ouster of the [Bashir] regime, nor regime change... It is not in our interests to see the ouster of the regime in Sudan, for this will only create more problems.”

So there you have it. The Obama administration is not interested in arresting the world’s most notorious practitioner of genocide and thereby ousting his regime. Instead, it prefers – in the words of Lyman’s predecessor – “giving out cookies” and “gold stars” to encourage Sudan’s leaders to behave better.

Cookies are for children and gold stars are for lazy employees. Those who commit genocide should not be treated as if they are being asked to play nice in the international community.

Indeed, by virtue of their misdeeds, they have already forfeited their place at the grown-ups’ table, having demonstrated that they are unfit to serve as leaders among nations.

The administration’s weak response to Darfur and halfhearted strategy on Nuba is symptomatic of a broader Obama foreign policy strategy that prefers empty gestures of diplomacy to direct, righteous action. It is a strategy that has not worked.

Leaving Omar Bashir in power in Sudan has not changed his behavior.

Hillary Clinton’s praise of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad last year as a “reformer” did not make him one. The Obama administration’s refusal to support the Green Revolution dissidents in Iran enabled a regime with nuclear ambitions to believe that its actions would never be challenged.

Ironically, and most tragically, nations and government leaders all one day come to regret their failure to act – long after their efforts to save lives would do any good. The mass murderers have already finished their job. The chorus of those lamentably late is always louder than the drumbeat of death, which could have been silenced if the nations of the world had not been so deafeningly silent.

Dr. Rafael Medoff is a historian and founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. Thane Rosenbaum is a novelist and law professor at Fordham University, and the author of The Myth of Moral Justice

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