Through the smoke of the Independence Day barbecues and amid the hubbub of Sandra Day O’Connor’s resignation, the use of the G-word by George W. Bush last week went all but unnoticed.
Speaking to a group of Africa-policy experts, Bush for the first time described the mass killing in the Darfur region of Sudan as “genocide.” Though the use of that word requires the U.S. to take action under international law, the presidential comment hardly elicited a response. It was unheard by the 200,000 or more innocent Sudanese who have already died in that conflict, and probably just as unknown to the 2 million others who have been forced from their homes in what the U.N. calls the greatest human catastrophe of our times.
Nor did many Americans pay attention to the president’s words. Except for watching an international staged mega–rock concert through our laptop browsers, we, as a people, seem about as disinclined as our leaders when it comes to making concrete sacrifices for such abstract causes as Darfur.
Indeed, the confluence of Bush’s call, the Live 8 spectacle and having read former Canadian General Romeo Dallaire’s memoir of his command of the U.N. forces in Rwanda over the holiday weekend forced me to contemplate just when we Americans think our soldiers’ lives are worth risking.
In the case of Darfur, it seems, the administration didn’t even really want to call the ongoing mass killing “genocide” — as former Secretary of State Colin Powell did last year. The then–U.S. ambassador to the U.N., John Danforth, now says the strong U.S. statement was nothing more than calculated and cynical political bluster. “I just thought that this was something that was said for internal consumption within the U.S. I did not think it would have very much effect within Sudan,” Danforth told the BBC this past weekend. Asked whether “internal consumption” referred to the kind of language that would have appealed to the Christian right, Danforth replied: “Right.”
At least, I suppose, we should give that same Christian right credit for exerting some political pressure on the issue . . . more than I can say for myself and many of my oh-so-much-more-thoughtful friends.
Not that Bush is going to take any risks for Darfur. The peace movement need not fret. No American combat troops will be sent in to tamp down the murderous gangs carrying out the slaughter. Not a single American soldier will die to stop the killing. Nor will there be any marches demanding such an intervention. Instead, Bush says he’s backing a too-small African force of barely 2,000 troops whose leaders, last week, complained they have yet to see much of the cash promised by Bush and the other powerful nations on Earth.
Nor is the 82nd or the 101st Airborne about to drop a few thousand paratroopers into the Zimbabwean capital of Harare to expedite megalomaniacal dictator Robert Mugabe’s much needed passage into the next world. We sit immobile as more than a million of the poorest people in the world are being forced at gunpoint from their shacks and even from their subsistence gardens by a regime literally gone berserk. And, again, there will be no pressure from the American right or left to do anything except watch — if that.
The indifferent Bush administration does nothing but follow in the worst traditions of its predecessor. General Dallaire tells how, at the height of the Rwandan holocaust, he got a phone call from a U.S. Pentagon staffer who wanted to know how many Rwandans had already died, how many were refugees and how many were internally displaced. Writes Dallaire: “He told me that his estimates indicated that it would take the deaths of 85,000 Rwandans to justify the risking of the life of one American soldier.”
Ultimately, 10 times that number of Rwandans died, and the Clinton administration — paralyzed by the death of eighteen soldiers the year before in Somalia — not only didn’t intervene but did everything it could to obstruct the heroic work of General Dallaire and his brave and tiny force of Tunisian and Ghanaian peacekeepers. When American relief forces finally arrived in Rwanda after the mayhem concluded and as cholera was ravaging the survivors, U.S. water trucks remained parked at the Kigali airport for fear that their military drivers might risk getting fired on. Clinton even stiffed the U.N. for the $30 million he promised to help finance the U.N. peacekeeper force. Clinton, you remember, some years later bit his lower lip and apologized as if somehow his moment of staged contrition would bring back the lives of nearly a million butchered souls. But it wouldn’t change the incontrovertible fact that Tunisia and Ghana were willing to sacrifice infinitely more on behalf of the nameless wretches of Rwanda than was the most powerful nation on Earth.
George Bush would like us to think those feckless days are now over. Heading into this week’s G-8 summit, he proposes to double U.S. aid to Africa to more than $8 billion by five years from now. But that’s how much Bush currently spends in just two weeks of warfare in Iraq. The president would also like us to believe that we’re willing to spend that staggering amount of cash in Iraq because our armed forces (and the American people behind them) stand hair-trigger ready to defend all of the world’s oppressed and repressed. In yet another speech, at West Virginia University over the weekend, Bush said that continued violence in Iraq has been “hard for a compassionate nation to watch.” Violence against Americans, I have to imagine the president meant. For let’s be clear: If there had been no September 11, the systematic violence committed by Saddam solely against his own people would have never been used as a pretext for a massive U.S. invasion. On the American scale of worthy victims, Iraqis should make no mistake: They rank no higher than Rwandans, Sudanese or Zimbabweans.
But the al Qaeda attacks on the Twin Towers so traumatized America that the Bush administration couldn’t resist exploiting the national fears to justify its adventure in Iraq. We can only speculate as to what the administration’s real motives are. Bush still can’t come up with a plausible explanation. After hearing the president’s national address on the war last week, a friend of mine best summed up the experience as akin to “listening to an autistic child describe his private relationship to the patterns on the windowpane. Nothing can penetrate that mental landscape.”
Yet, we were told in that address by Bush that there is no burden too heavy to bear, no sacrifice too great to make, no price too high for us to pay, to complete the liberation of Iraq and guarantee its full transition to democracy. Mr. President, why don’t you go tell that to the people of Darfur — that is, to the ones who are left?