Commentary

Let the African Union Intervene in Darfur

Under a plan being considered by the Bush administration, U.S. military personnel could soon be going to Darfur as part of a wider NATO mission aimed at halting the violence there. According to The Washington Post, based on interviews with administration officials, “The move would include some U.S. troops and mark a significant expansion of U.S. and allied involvement.”

This latest proposal comes even as the chairman of the African Union, former president of Mali Alpha Oumar Konare, is resisting greater involvement by outside powers. Given that the AU’s efforts have failed to halt the genocide there, there is more that the United States and other NATO countries can do to support the AU effort. But while U.S. policymakers should continue to work with African governments to seek a resolution to the crisis, the Bush administration should refrain from introducing U.S. troops into the country. Now is not the time, and Darfur is not the place, to add yet another peacemaking mission to our military’s already-long list of responsibilities.

The reasons for this are straightforward. It is true that the United States spends considerably more on its military than any other country on the planet, and it is frustrating to spend so much money and yet to feel powerless in the face of great human suffering. However, our men and women in uniform cannot be everywhere, and they cannot do everything. Ambitious goals, no matter how well-intentioned, are not always matched by the resources to carry them out. Foreign policy entails a series of choices, all of them difficult, some of them painful.

The small minority of policy thinkers here in Washington who have pressured the Bush administration to send U.S. troops to Darfur are reluctant to confront these choices. They buy into the assumption that the United States has almost unlimited power. This belief is shared by many people around the world. But the United States lacks the military resources to intervene almost everywhere, and doesn’t have the political will to sustain such operations indefinitely—a reality revealed by the American public’s eroding support for the U.S. mission in Iraq.

Leaving aside the question of U.S. troops for the moment, calls to deploy NATO troops to Darfur may seem reasonable, and other member states in NATO may choose to send troops to Darfur. Those NATO countries with few troops in Iraq, for example, might be more inclined and more able to deploy troops to Africa.

On the other hand, Afghanistan is already a priority for NATO, and a Bush administration official told The Washington Post that some NATO allies “think Darfur could potentially become a distraction” from a mission that has clear security implications for all NATO member states. Americans also should be extremely wary about a NATO mission that has the potential to draw attention and resources away from the fight against al Qaeda and Taliban remnants in Afghanistan.

The advocates of NATO intervention claim that no such trade-offs are needed. According to Susan Rice of the Brookings Institution, NATO’s Response Force includes 17,000 troops and “is ready to take on the full range of missions.” Rice concedes, however, that a NATO deployment should include “at least a small U.S. presence.”

To the extent that the military options in Darfur and elsewhere are limited, U.S. policy is partly to blame. Throughout the 1990s, officials in Washington actively discouraged the Europeans from developing an independent military force, one that was capable of operating without U.S. support. Addressing the EU’s plans to develop an autonomous defense and foreign policy known as the European Security and Defense Initiative, Madeleine Albright demanded that ESDI be based on “the principle that these institutions should be the European pillar of a strong transatlantic alliance and not separate and competing entities.”

This short-sightedness is now undermining the West’s ability to respond to multiple crises simultaneously. Darfur is precisely the sort of mission a European force might have been expected to take up, and it might have been able to do so without drawing forces away from NATO missions elsewhere.

Ultimately, however, individual governments will decide what to do based on the resources at hand, and consistent with the wishes of their citizens. And right now the public in both the United States and Europe demands that policymakers remain focused on security. Since the slaughter in Darfur does not threaten Western citizens, the solution to halting the genocide there must come from Africa, with the world’s help, not the other way around.

The neighboring African countries recognize what is at stake. Although no one has known for certain what the United States and NATO might do, this uncertainty did not stop Nigeria and Egypt from sending peacekeepers to Darfur last year. The African Union force currently numbers some 7,000 troops, but two to three times that number might be needed to secure a region the size of Texas. Leaders in Chad, Kenya, and even Libya have expressed a willingness to help resolve the conflict.

The deployment in Darfur is an important test case of the African Union’s credibility. Given the many urgent demands on American and European troops in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, the United States and its allies should do nothing to discourage Sudan’s neighbors from taking the initiative; unfortunately, that is exactly what NATO involvement would do.

Christopher Preble is director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, and a founding member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy.