All tapped out

December 16, 2004

JOHN C. Danforth says he is both awed and a little annoyed by American idealism. As U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and during his earlier career as a U.S. senator, Mr. Danforth said he's been frequently approached by countrymen who were appalled at whatever humanitarian crisis was under way and demanded we move swiftly to fix it.

Such encounters are especially frequent now as the violence, horror and death in Darfur mount daily.

"Some have said if the U.S. really cared, if we really cared enough, we'd stop it. ... We'd put an end to this atrocity," Ambassador Danforth related in a speech at Georgetown University last week. But as Mr. Danforth knows well because of the three years he has devoted himself to bringing peace to Sudan, the United States no longer has enough power or influence to pull off such a rescue mission.

Both our military might and our moral suasion are being drained away by the ill-starred adventure in Iraq, leaving little left over to champion more worthwhile causes.

Certainly, sending in U.S. troops to stop the government-backed militiamen who are driving Darfur villagers from their homes, then harassing them in refugee camps, is not an option. American military forces are already stretched too thin in Iraq.

Appeals for help from the United Nations, where most member countries opposed the Iraq war, fall on deaf ears.

Military forces are out of the question, and Mr. Danforth has been able to persuade his U.N. colleagues to approve only the mildest of warnings of the potential use of economic sanctions against the Sudanese government if it fails to rein in the marauding janjaweed.

An Episcopalian minister, Mr. Danforth spent 2 1/2 years as President Bush's envoy to peace talks in Sudan before devoting most of his six-month tenure at the United Nations to the same cause. As he is about to retire to private life, Mr. Danforth said his hopes for Sudan now rest on a semblance of normalcy that might be advanced by a peace agreement between the Khartoum government and rebels in the south, and the pressure of outsiders in the form of African Union peacekeepers.

Yet within days after he spoke, the United Nations suspended humanitarian operations in southern Darfur following an attack on a convoy that killed two aid workers for Save the Children -- the second such fatal attack in three months.

At base, the Sudanese conflict is about rival ethnic factions competing for power and resources, and won't end "just because people outside the country would like it, even fervently like it," Mr. Danforth predicted.

A few more innocents might have been spared, however, if the United States hadn't so dissipated its ability to protect them.

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