Certain terms should not be tossed around lightly, and genocide is one of them—which is why President Obama’s special envoy’s comments on Darfur have created such a stir in the foreign policy community. General Scott Gration said that conditions on the ground are not what they were in 2004 and he is probably right. He also lambasted our policy of sanctioning Sudan and lumping its government on our list of state sponsors of terrorism, (a dubious distinction when you consider that Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and other nominal allies of Washington are suspiciously not on the list). He says these distinctions hinder our ability to deliver aid to the refugees who need it most. On all these points, he is probably correct.
His critics have a point, though, too. There is a whiff of Stockholm Syndrome in their charges (or just plain naiveté), that the envoy has been duped by Khartoum into downplaying the humanitarian disaster to avoid further opprobrium from the international community, and that the Sudanese regime cannot be trusted to carry out policies to stop the ethnic cleansing and other atrocities. Nor is it nearly safe yet for refugees to return to their village. Again, all valid points.
But the term “genocide” should mean something and force outsiders into action, which it doesn’t anymore (after former Secretary of State Colin Powell dropped the g-bomb in September 2004, during what was then the worst of the fighting, the United States still sat on its hands). I also think that slapping sanctions on a regime or sticking them on some terrorism list is just an easy way to make it look like the United States is being tough against regimes like Sudan’s, without actually having to commit troops or helicopters, rally our African allies, or send aid. As one of the few countries remaining to have not signed onto the International Criminal Court, which has sought a warrant for Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir, we hardly can claim the moral high ground on issues of international humanitarian law.
Darfur may no longer be technically a genocide. But if that distinction keeps it in the headlines and requires stronger U.S. action, then that is preferable to trusting Khartoum to resolve the crisis on its own, no matter if Gration is right.