TCS Daily

The Bosnia of Our Time

By Michael Totten - August 22, 2005 12:00 AM

Every day 500 black African Muslims are murdered by Islamists in Sudan's northwestern region of Darfur. The total number of dead now exceeds 400,000. That's 133 September 11ths.

The U.S. is airlifting 1,200 Rwandan troops for humanitarian relief. It's a nice gesture. But that's all it is -- a token gesture. Actually stopping a genocidal regime and its death squads will take a lot more than a handful of Rwandan troops. It would require a full-scale military intervention by Western powers.

The U.N., where state sovereignty trumps human rights, will never authorize anything of the sort. If the West -- through NATO or an ad hoc "coalition of the willing" -- doesn't put a stop to this soon, the genocide won't likely end until it is complete.

We've seen crises like this one before.

In the early to mid-1990s Serbian forces under Slobodan Milosovic waged a savage war of extermination in Bosnia and Croatia for four years while the "international community" convened talks, held conferences, and sent farcically under-equipped and ineffectual "peacekeepers" into the killing fields. The relatively well-armed Croats managed to roll back the Serbian invasion (while committing no small number of war crimes of their own). But not until the Clinton Administration unleashed the American armed forces did Slobo surrender Bosnia to law, order, and civilization. Belgrade's crushing of Kosovo, the Bosnia campaign's shorter lived little brother, was likewise squelched by Western European and American power.

Just as the Clinton Administration moved with agonizing slowness toward interventionist positions over Bosnia and Kosovo, the Bush Administration is incrementally turning the ratchet up on Sudan. The U.S. government, including Colin Powell and President Bush himself, has finally stopped prevaricating and declared the eliminationist campaign in Darfur a "genocide." This is no idle statement. The Genocide Convention requires signatory nations "to prevent and to punish" genocide wherever in the world it occurs. Prevention and punishment include the unilateral use of military force. That's why almost every government in the world balks at the g-word. The U.S. is the first country to take that critical step beyond which passivism (or is it pacifism?) is illegal as well as immoral.

So many cried out in unison after the Holocaust: never again. "Never," however, turned out not to mean never. "Again" was the operative word. Terry George's recent film Hotel Rwanda ought to make short work of any doubts about that. Most everyone seems to agree these days that the entire world - the U.S., NATO, the U.N, everybody - failed Rwanda. President Clinton later apologized for his part. Yet hardly anyone dares compare Sudan and Rwanda, even though the similarities between the two could not be any more obvious.

Hardly anyone wants to think about this, I know. Hardly anyone wanted to think about Bosnia either. Hardly anyone wanted to think about Rwanda. Most of us will regret it later, though, if Sudan does in fact become the next Rwanda instead of the next Bosnia. We'll regret it even more if it becomes the next Afghanistan.

Sudan is not the West's number-one threat. Neither, though, was Yugoslavia. Neither, for that matter, was Iraq. How much a threat Saddam Hussein posed to the West is obviously debatable and ultimately unknowable. But Slobo in Belgrade wasn't even remotely a threat to the United States. No one ever claimed that he was. That didn't stop us from pulling the plug on his Greater Serbia project.

The Islamists in Sudan are more murderous than Slobo and Saddam put together. They also worked closely with Osama bin Laden in the past, probably more so than any other government in the world aside from the Taliban.

Sudan isn't as strategically significant as Iraq and Iran. Unlike those two under Saddam and the Ayatollahs, it isn't a regional mini-superpower. Neither, though, was Afghanistan. That was one of the lessons of September 11. Even a backwater country of a backwater region can launch devastating attacks against countries on the opposite side of the world. Who would have thought on September 10, 2001, that Afghanistan would wound the American homeland more than either Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan ever could manage? This is the dark side of globalization. Asymmetric attacks are the hardest in the world to predict and therefore the hardest to defend against. Here's a hint though: any government that collaborates with Al Qaeda - especially one that is actively committing genocide - is ideologically hostile and can become militarily hostile at any time.

Long-term occupation and nation-building is not in the cards. Sudan is an enormous country, many times larger than Iraq. It can't be occupied for any length of time by anyone, especially not by us while we're tied down in Iraq. The American public's yearning for yet another occupation is hovering somewhere near zero.

There are other options, though. The Sudanese armed forces are considerably weaker than what we faced in battle with Serbian fascists in Yugoslavia. Slobo had tanks. The janjaweed have camels. Sudan's regime could easily be "persuaded" to surrender its assault on Darfur just as sustained air strikes in Yugoslavia convinced the Serbs to capitulate.

Regime-change would not be strictly necessary to put a stop to the genocide. It wasn't in Serbia. It may, however, be desirable. Half-finished wars are often prologues to bloodier second wars. The last thing we should want is a wounded Islamist regime enraged by a Western assault.

Planning a regime-change without a follow-through occupation is like stepping blindfolded off a ledge. You don't know what will happen next, but whatever it is it will come fast and it could be big. But it may be the least bad out of a set of bad options. Darfur is the abyss. Sudan already is falling. Sudan already has an Islamist regime in power. Sudan already is embroiled in civil war. Sudan already is wracked with genocide. Sudan already is the most violent place in the world.

Regime-change might fracture the country along ethnic lines and break it into pieces. It may sound horrible, but I'm not convinced that it is. Sudan's border isn't natural. It was carelessly drawn by European imperialists with no regard whatever to the consequences of corralling mutually hostile groups together into one polity. The forging of separate sovereign nations settled the war in the former Yugoslavia. It's what will end the war in Israel/Palestine, too, whenever the two-state solution is put into place. There are worse things than short Western interventions. And there are worse things than new smaller countries. Civil war, genocide, and Islamist regimes are three of those things.

Michael J. Totten is a TCS columnist. His work has also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the LA Weekly, and Beirut's Daily Star. He keeps a daily web log at


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