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Exit Iraq, enter Darfur?

For 2008 presidential candidates, will “withdraw from Iraq and intervene in Darfur” prove to be an appealing message?
A woman sits beside her injured son inside the hospital in Adre bordering Sudans Darfur region
A woman sits near her injured son inside a hospital in Chad on the border of Darfur.Emmanuel Braun / Reuters
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For presidential candidates, will “withdraw from Iraq and intervene in Darfur” prove to be an appealing message?

One question the 2008 presidential contenders face is: In the wake of the protracted U.S. deployment in Iraq, what future interventions elsewhere in the world would the electorate be willing to support?

The unpopularity of the U.S. entanglement in Iraq seems to have made Americans wary of intervention, even in a place such as Darfur in the African nation of Sudan, a case in which television viewers have seen ethnic cleansing.

This week the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York. has been stressing the need for U.S. action in Darfur.

In the rhetorical climax to her speech to the Democratic National Committee last weekend in Washington, Clinton sounded a twin call to action, “We can stop the genocide in Darfur. And, yes, we can find the right end to the war in Iraq.”

Clinton supports no-fly zone
On Wednesday when Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Clinton pressed them on whether the Bush administration would order U.S. aircraft to enforce a no-fly zone to prevent the Sudanese government from bombing civilians in Darfur.

This would not involve thousands of U.S. soldiers, Clinton implied, stressing the relatively limited military commitment her proposal would entail.

“This does not need to be a no-fly zone on the scale of what we formerly ran over Iraq, but could be accomplished with a significantly smaller outlay of resources by directing punitive strikes against Sudanese planes known to have taken part in illegal bombing missions in Darfur,” she told Gates.

She also called for U.S. logistics support and airlift capacity for the 7,000 African Union troops in Darfur to prevent killing of civilians.

Meanwhile, on Iraq, Clinton has called for a limit on the number of U.S. troops deployed there and promised to end the U.S. involvement once she becomes president.

Other presidential contenders, including Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., and Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., have voiced skepticism about or opposition to the Bush administration’s course in Iraq, but support for greater efforts in Darfur.

Difficulties with no-fly zone
University of Texas political scientist Alan Kuperman, the author of "The Limits of Humanitarian Intervention: Genocide in Rwanda," warned that Clinton’s recommendation was “a little unrealistic.”

Kuperman predicted that, if a no-fly zone deprived the Sudanese government of air power, it “would rely even more on ground forces, especially the Janjaweed militia, who are responsible for the most atrocities.… It is quite possible that a no-fly zone, albeit well-intentioned, would trigger an escalation in violence against civilians in Darfur.”

An effective no-fly zone would require U.S. aircraft and refueling tankers, and might require an aircraft carrier, “which ties up one of three or four we usually have deployed worldwide at any one time, which are needed for defense/deterrence in the Persian Gulf and deterrence in North Korea,” Kuperman said.

In a recent Greenberg Quinlan Rosner survey, conducted for the Genocide Intervention Network, nearly three out of five respondents were opposed to the idea of intervention in Darfur if it would require 10,000 U.S. troops and “may cost more than 100 U.S. lives.”

But a large majority in that survey, 63 percent, favored the less risky step of freezing assets of Sudanese leaders, and a slightly smaller majority favored preventing tankers carrying Sudanese oil from docking at American ports.

Few paying attention
Another survey, by the Pew Research Center in December, found that few Americans were paying attention to the Darfur conflict.

Just 13 percent of the 1,500 people interviewed by Pew said they’d paid close attention to the Darfur situation.

But Pew found that 51 percent agreed that the United States “has a responsibility to do something about the ethnic genocide in the Darfur region.”

The Pew survey also found that 53 percent would favor the use of U.S. troops in Darfur as part of a multinational force to help end genocide.

But at the same time Clinton is calling for greater U.S. action in Darfur to stop genocide, supporters of President Bush's policy in Iraq warn that ethnic cleansing and genocide would result there if U.S. forces were to exit soon.

“Suppose we announced tomorrow that we would withdraw (from Iraq) within four months to six months,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a leading GOP presidential hopeful, said to the new U.S. commander, Gen. David Petraeus, at his confirmation hearing on Jan. 23. “What are the results there in Iraq and in the region?”

Petraeus answered, “Sectarian groups would obviously begin to stake out their turf, try to expand their turf. They would do that by greatly increased ethnic cleansing.”

Two days earlier McCain predicted that if U.S. forces were unable to impose order on Baghdad or if they withdrew, “We would see a bloodletting in Baghdad that would make Srebrenica look like a Sunday school picnic. We can't expect Americans to sit outside Baghdad or outside the borders and watch such a thing go on.”

The town of Srebrenica in Bosnia was the site of massacres of thousands of unarmed Muslims by Serb military forces in 1995. The U.N. had designated the town as a “United Nations Safe Area,” but Dutch forces deployed there were unable to stop the killing.

Hoyer worried about genocide
Even House Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer — a critic of Bush’s policy in Iraq — has raised the specter of genocide in Iraq.

“There is no better means for resolving such conflicts, especially escalating civil wars that run the risk of becoming genocide, than to convene an international conference to achieve a cessation of violence and to advance reconciliation,” he said in an address on Iraq two weeks ago.

Hoyer warned of “failure — and by failure I mean the full-blown civil war — I mentioned genocide — mass killings that might occur.”

“We want Darfur to be part of the discussion in the 2008 elections,” said Sam Bell, the director of advocacy for the Genocide Intervention Network in Washington. “We don’t do an ‘Iraq versus Darfur’ (analysis). But I believe the American people believe we can do good around the world” and therefore they would support efforts, such as a no-fly zone, to end the Darfur bloodshed.

When to use American power to stop genocide and ethnic cleansing is likely to remain a dilemma not only for this president and this Congress, but for their successors.