Michael Gerson

The greeting given to visitors at the presidential palace in Khartoum, Sudan, is an exercise in intimidation. You pass guards in white uniforms with AK-47s, walk under a pair of enormous elephant tusks, then file past a machine gun emplacement. Guests are reminded they have entered the rebuilt palace where Gen. Charles Gordon -- the British father of humanitarian interventionism -- was killed in a 19th-century Islamist uprising. The message of warning to a new generation of Western idealists is given and taken.

Immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, the regime in Khartoum, which once sheltered Osama bin Laden, was suddenly cooperative -- fearful of being visited by the fate of Afghanistan. By the time I met President Omar Hassan al-Bashir in 2005, the fright had worn off. The regime felt shielded from pressure by close relations with China -- its main market for oil -- and by solidarity with Arab governments. Bashir dismissed accusations of genocide in the Western province of Darfur as "legitimate defense operations" and boldly pushed for an end to American sanctions on his country.

Traveling in Darfur a few days later, I got a whirlwind tour of hell. These "defense operations" involve the use of local militias to destroy village after village, sending millions into densely populated camps. The outskirts of those camps are ruled by brutal mounted militias that use rape and murder as tools of intimidation.

During that visit, it was clear that 15,000 to 20,000 U.N. peacekeepers, armed with attack helicopters and a mandate to protect civilians, could make a difference. That mission was eventually approved by the U.N. Security Council. But leaders of the regime have obstructed the deployment of that force at every turn, fearful it might eventually be used to arrest them on charges of genocide.

Yesterday's welcome announcement by President Bush of stronger American sanctions against Sudan, and new efforts in the Security Council to internationalize those sanctions, is an attempt to break this resistance. Within the administration, most concede these actions by themselves will not be enough. But the effective use of this stick -- banks expelling Sudanese accounts worth hundreds of millions of dollars -- might make the threat of other, heftier sticks more credible in the future.


Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
 
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