Darfur Now Has An Election-Year Headache for Obama

by Rafael Medoff

Just when it seemed that Darfur had been all but forgotten by political leaders and the news media alike, it’s suddenly front and center again–and could turn into an election-year headache for President Obama.

A fierce struggle is underway behind the scenes on Capitol Hill, over a bill to penalize countries that host visits by Sudanese president Omar Bashir, aka the Butcher of Darfur. The Obama administration opposes the bill–but a significant portion of President Obama’s own base supports it.

Bashir was indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2009 for sponsoring the Arab militias that have been “murdering, exterminating, raping, torturing, and forcibly transferring large numbers of civilians, and pillaging their property” in Darfur. Flaunting the indictment, he has traveled openly to numerous Arab and African countries, some of them major recipients of U.S. aid, such as Egypt, Iraq, and Libya. Yet President Obama has never publicly criticized those regimes for hosting Bashir.

Congressman Frank Wolf of Virginia recently introduced an amendment suspending non-humanitarian aid to countries that host visits by the Butcher of Darfur. The House Appropriations Committee adopted the amendment. Foreign aid “should be a direct reflection of American values and priorities,” Wolf said. “Surely we can all agree that bringing a war criminal to justice is in our national interest. Leveraging our foreign assistance in this way sends a powerful message.”

Hard to disagree with that.  But the Obama administration does.

State Department officials are working behind the scenes to dilute or bury the Wolf Amendment, in advance of upcoming House-Senate negotiations on foreign aid appropriations.

Why?  Call it the Politics of Genocide. Bashir has important allies. Russia and China are his major arms suppliers.  The Arab League sees his indictment as an anti-Arab conspiracy by Western imperialists. The Obama administration doesn’t want to strain its relations with Moscow, Beijing, or the Arab League. That’s why President Obama’s envoy to Sudan, Princeton Lyman, said last year that “we do not want to see the ouster of the [Bashir] regime, nor regime change.” That’s why President Obama has been heartbreakingly silent about arresting Bashir.

But silence sometimes carries a political price.

Some of President Obama’s most important donors care passionately about Darfur. Actor George Clooney raised $15-million at a fundraising dinner for the president last month. The same George Clooney who last month was arrested, together with United to End Genocide leader Tom Andrews, at the Sudanese Embassy in Washington, protesting against Bashir’s atrocities.

Andrews’ group this week held a dinner to honor International Criminal Court prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the man who indicted Bashir. In his remarks, Ocampo, echoing Congressman Wolf, declared: “Stopping the assistance to those who help Bashir will work and it’s not happening. Stop all the money to them and they will arrest Bashir, it’s simple.”

It’s worth noting that the dinner was hosted by a prominent Jewish institution, the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance; and one of the featured speakers was Richard Dicker, a senior official of Human Rights Watch.

Hollywood celebrities, Darfur advocates, American Jews, and human rights activists are all important components of President Obama’s core constituency.

And here’s another: liberal pundits. In two blistering columns this past week, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof lambasted the president on Darfur.  Bashir is carrying out “mass atrocities that echo Darfur” against non-Arab tribes in Sudan’s Nuba Mountains, yet Obama has responded with “dithering” and “paralysis,” Kristof wrote. “I am not only embarrassed by my government’s passivity but outraged by it.”

Kristof became the first commentator of note to mention and criticize Ambassador Lyman’s declaraton that the U.S. does not seek regime change in Sudan. As a result, Kristof charged, “we now have the spectacle of a Nobel Peace Prize winner in effect helping to protect [one] of the most odious regimes in the world.”

Finally, Kristof poignantly described the plight of Hamat Dorbet, a Presbyterian pastor who has been tortured by Bashir’s police for ringing his church bell. “I’d like to explain to [Rev.Dorbet],” Kristof wrote, “why the world lets this happen without even speaking out strongly, and I just don’t know what to say. President Obama?”

So far, the White House has not responded to Kristof’s question. But in an election year, it may have to respond to this one: Will the president risk alienating his base in order to shield Omar Bashir from Congressional action?

June 2012