WASHINGTON'S worries about Sudan's deadly humanitarian crisis are timely and well-founded. Absent the imposition of meaningful sanctions, or any American, European, African, or United Nations willingness to intervene in the ongoing civil war, southern Sudanese will continue to succumb in the thousands.
In 1983 the black, predominantly village-dwelling Christian and animist southern Sudanese rebelled against the northern Muslim overlords who govern Sudan. More than a century ago the Muslims enslaved blacks from the south and sold them in Egypt and Arabia.
British rule from 1898 to 1954 reduced north-south animosities but did little to develop the more remote, less populated south. The vast country's center of gravity remained in the north and focused predominantly on the Egyptian connection. Integration of the two halves of Sudan was never achieved.
Northern rule became more autocratic as well as fundamentalist, first under Gen. Jaafar Nimeiry and then under Lt. Gen. Omar Hassan al-Bashir. Mr. Nimeiry introduced the sharia, or Islamic holy law, and General Bashir applied it decisively to the south as well as to the north.
This was among the final straws. Southerners had always felt themselves deprived of equal opportunity because of their color and faith. John Garang, a United States-educated PhD, raised the banner of revolt decisively and was supported by Marxist Ethiopia.
Now the northerners are bombing the south into submission, putting 2 million southerners at risk and forcing about 200,000 to flee the carnage and their villages and fields. They are seeking refuge across or near the borders of Kenya, Uganda, or Zaire, where 400,000 southerners are already in camps.
Famine follows. Southern Sudan is already short of rain. Last year's harvest was poor. Now fleeing villagers will be unable to plant crops. The Sudanese government also prevents relief agencies from operating effectively and freely in the south. Aid workers fear that food shortages this year will be far worse than the war-induced famine of 1988, when nearly 300,000 southerners died.
If television had been allowed to cover the war in southern Sudan, Westerners would be aware of how southern Sudan's plight rivals that of Somalia before 1993. But this time there will be no UN invasion. Instead, Washington wants the UN Security Council to condemn Sudan for bombing its own people. It is also contemplating economic sanctions, including an oil embargo, and will doubtless have the support of Britain and France.
ISLAMIC Sudan is already a pariah, having been denounced as a country that harbors terrorists. Moreover, it draws support from Libya and Iran, two like-minded anti-Western fundamentalist bastions of Islam. So, unless the West is prepared physically to prevent Sudan's imports and exports and to find a means to curtail financial support from Libya and Iran, it is hard to know what Washington can accomplish.
Exhortation is unlikely to make a difference unless the West is prepared to flex its might. The fundamentalist zealots of Sudan are determined to take advantage of the current dry season and the disarray among their southern antagonists (the Sudanese People's Liberation Army has split into rival factions), to end the revolt once and for all.
The foreign ministers of Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, and Eritrea have been attempting to mediate between north and south for most of the last year. But the ability of neighboring countries to prevail upon outcast Sudan is limited.
Given the lack of alternatives, the US should contemplate much more than urging UN Security Council condemnation. It should find a way to block further arms and fuel, especially jet aircraft fuel, from entering Sudan. That might mean a blockade of Port Sudan, on the Red Sea, and interdiction of air traffic to Khartoum. The Sudanese crisis is yet another test of the willingness of the world's predominant superpower to act in a timely and effective manner against religious intolerance, ethnic oppression, widespread inhumanity, and the military abuse of innocent civilians. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.