The New York Times
 
May 3, 2005
OP-ED COLUMNIST

Day 113 of the President's Silence

By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
 
 

Finally, finally, finally, President Bush is showing a little muscle on the issue of genocide in Darfur.

Is the muscle being used to stop the genocide of hundreds of thousands of villagers? No, tragically, it's to stop Congress from taking action.

Incredibly, the Bush administration is fighting to kill the Darfur Accountability Act, which would be the most forceful step the U.S. has taken so far against the genocide. The bill, passed by the Senate, calls for such steps as freezing assets of the genocide's leaders and imposing an internationally backed no-fly zone to stop Sudan's Army from strafing villages.

The White House was roused from its stupor of indifference on Darfur to send a letter, a copy of which I have in my hand, to Congressional leaders, instructing them to delete provisions about Darfur from the legislation.

Mr. Bush might reflect on a saying of President Kennedy: "The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis maintain their neutrality."

Aside from the effort to block Congressional action, there are other signs that the administration is trying to backtrack on Darfur. The first sign came when Condoleezza Rice gave an interview to The Washington Post in which she deflected questions about Darfur and low-balled the number of African Union troops needed there.

Then, in Sudan, Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick pointedly refused to repeat the administration's past judgment that the killings amount to genocide. Mr. Zoellick also cited an absurdly low estimate of Darfur's total death toll: 60,000 to 160,000. Every other serious estimate is many times as high. The latest, from the Coalition for International Justice, is nearly 400,000, and rising by 500 a day.

This is not a partisan issue, for Republicans and the Christian right led the way in blowing the whistle on the slaughter in Darfur. As a result, long before Democrats had staggered to their feet on the issue, Mr. Bush was telephoning Sudan's leader and pressing for a cease-fire there.

Later, Mr. Bush forthrightly called the slaughter genocide, and he has continued to back the crucial step of a larger African Union force to provide security. Just the baby steps Mr. Bush has taken have probably saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

So why is Mr. Bush so reluctant to do a bit more and save perhaps several hundred thousand more lives? I sense that there are three reasons.

First, Mr. Bush doesn't see any neat solution, and he's mindful that his father went into Somalia for humanitarian reasons and ended up with a mess.

Second, Mr. Bush is very proud - justly - that he helped secure peace in a separate war between northern and southern Sudan. That peace is very fragile, and he is concerned that pressuring Sudan on Darfur might disrupt that peace while doing little more than emboldening the Darfur rebels (some of them cutthroats who aren't negotiating seriously).

Third, Sudan's leaders have increased their cooperation with the C.I.A. As The Los Angeles Times reported, the C.I.A. recently flew Sudan's intelligence chief to Washington for consultations about the war on terror, and the White House doesn't want to jeopardize that channel.

All three concerns are legitimate. But when historians look back on his presidency, they are going to focus on Mr. Bush's fiddling as hundreds of thousands of people were killed, raped or mutilated in Darfur - and if the situation worsens, the final toll could reach a million dead.

This Thursday marks Holocaust Remembrance Day. The best memorial would be for more Americans to protest about this administration's showing the same lack of interest in Darfur that F.D.R. showed toward the genocide of Jews. Ultimately, public pressure may force Mr. Bush to respond to Darfur, but it looks as if he will have to be dragged kicking and screaming by Republicans and Democrats alike.

Granted, Darfur defies easy solutions. But Mr. Bush was outspoken and active this spring in another complex case, that of Terry Schiavo. If only Mr. Bush would exert himself as much to try to save the lives of the two million people driven from their homes in Darfur.

So I'm going to start tracking Mr. Bush's lassitude. The last time Mr. Bush let the word Darfur slip past his lips publicly (to offer a passing compliment to U.S. aid workers, rather than to denounce the killings) was Jan. 10. So today marks Day 113 of Mr. Bush's silence about the genocide unfolding on his watch.

 

E-mail: nicholas@nytimes.com