Bridging the gap in Darfur

February 23, 2006

Diplomacy advances sooooo sloooowly at times, even when the lives and security of millions are at stake, that President Bush's call last week for more international muscle to help stop the carnage in Darfur sounded downright urgent by contrast.

At the end of a lengthy question-and-answer session Friday with supporters in Florida, Mr. Bush revealed that he is working to assemble an international force under the "stewardship" of NATO that could double the ranks of African Union peacekeepers overwhelmed by the raging civil strife and ethnic violence in western Sudan.

The president stopped short, though, of promising to deliver quickly the sort of hard-hitting, rapid-response NATO force required to bring stability to the region until United Nations forces arrive, perhaps a year from now.

With NATO already providing the AU with airlift support and training, quickly dispatching a few thousand NATO troops to bridge the long gap before the blue helmets arrive seems the obvious next step, and is being strongly urged on the president by a bipartisan group of senators.

By glacial diplomatic standards, there's been real progress on Darfur of late. After two years of deception about its own role in the Darfur conflict and resistance to international interference, the Islamist regime in Khartoum was unable to block the U.N. Security Council from voting this month to send in perhaps 5,000 to 7,000 peacekeepers.

But planning for the U.N. mission is expected to take a year or more, and it's still not clear whether the peacekeepers will have the authority they need to prevent violence rather than being limited, as the AU forces are, to simply responding after the fact.

So it's critical for Mr. Bush to seize the moment of apparent international consensus to take the lead in dispatching NATO forces to the region as quickly as possible.

That may well be the only way to ensure there are people and villages left to protect by the time the blue helmets finally arrive.

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