Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


APRIL 2005

Ethnic warfare in Sudan's Darfur region, resulting in tens of thousands of civilians killed by government troops over two years, raises the question of America's responsibilities in this conflict in East Africa.

Two weeks ago the U.N. Security Council endorsed a resolution giving the International Criminal Court authority to try Sudanese citizens for war crimes committed in Darfur. Fifty-one people, ten of them high Sudanese officials, were identified as conspirators who carried out what the State Department labeled genocide. The U.N. imposed new sanctions on the country, including a travel ban by indicted individuals.

Sudan's government reacted angrily, rejecting the International Court's role and asserting its intention to conduct its own investigation and prosecution of those responsible for crimes. Security Council members, including the United States, have no faith in Sudan's willingness to bring the perpetrators of these crimes to justice.

Ten years ago President Clinton faced a dilemma about what to do in regard to ethnic warfare in Rwanda. Despite massive killings and United Nations calls for international intervention, Clinton decided not to organize a peace-enforcing combat force to stop the killings. He later apologized for his decision.

More recently, in 2003, George Bush was urged to send troops to Liberia to oust a ruthless dictator, Charles Taylor, and stop a brutal civil war that was destroying the country. The Pentagon, with its hands full in Iraq, resisted State Department urgings to send Marines to Liberia to help restore order. Eventually the president agreed to deploy a small force of Marines, but only after Taylor resigned and left the country.

An ill-fated U.S. intervention occurred in Somalia in 1992-1993 when President George H.W. Bush dispatched 20,000 troops, with U.N. backing, to that east African country to restrain armed thugs and ensure that starving peasants received international food aid. That adventure ended when eighteen U.S. troops were killed in Mogadishu attempting to arrest a local warlord. Congress then demanded that the troops be removed.

I cite these earlier decisions about using U.S. troops in Africa to make this point: neither Republican nor Democratic presidents have given peace-enforcing missions in Africa a high priority in terms of U.S. world-wide interests..

Last month a letter writer to Charlottesville's Daily Progress ("Directly Intervene in Sudan," March 25) argued that the situation in Darfur had become so perilous that the United States must intervene: "If we don't take the lead in demanding and enforcing a cessation of this mass murder, it is unlikely that any other nation will."

Had the Darfur atrocities occurred before 9/11, it is conceivable that the president would have responded to the humanitarian tragedy in a way similar to his father's response to Somalia in 1992. But the costs of recent interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq are higher than Americans were led to believe, with the result that there is little appetite in Congress for peace-enforcing missions in Africa.

Sudan's tragic ethnic warfare points up two important aspects of current U.S. foreign policy: the priority among competing U.S. national interests, and the reluctance of the Defense Department to use U.S. forces for humanitarian purposes.

All American presidents have placed national defense at the top of their list of national priorities. They also put a high premium on promoting the economic well-being of the American people, and on the need to preserve regional peace. No president has used the armed forces to intervene in another country solely for the purpose of stopping atrocities by a government against its own people.

In the cases of Bosnia and Kosovo, President Clinton was persuaded by the Europeans that Serbia's president, Slobodan Milosevic, supported ethnic cleansing and was a threat to the security of Western Europe. In the case of Clinton's intervention in Haiti, humanitarian concerns were present, but they were not as crucial as preventing the huge influx of Haitian boat people into Florida.

The Pentagon is reluctant to take on humanitarian assignments because when U.S. forces intervene in a foreign country, they seldom find it easy to depart if the local government is unable to exercise control. That results in an American occupation, which we are learning again in Iraq is a thankless undertaking.

Those who urge the president to show "leadership" and send U.S. forces to stop atrocities in such places as Rwanda, Congo, and Sudan are not a majority of the American public. It is doubtful that many would volunteer to join the Army to do so. One might also speculate on how many of those who urge President Bush to send troops to Sudan to stop the killing of innocents were also supporters of the U.S. intervention in Iraq, to oust a ruthless tyrant responsible for major atrocities against his own people.

The plight of the hapless people of Darfur certainly calls for economic sanctions and strong diplomatic measures. But the introduction of U.S. troops would not stop the civil war and could become as divisive among Americans as was intervention in Somalia.

File last modified on Saturday, 23-APR-2005 03:10 PM EST

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