Help for Sudan: bombing Africa to save it?

Last-ditch, often far-fetched, use of military force alone won’t bring resolution to the complexities of conflict and genocide prevention in Africa.

A gloomy consensus is emerging among policymakers, experts, and advocates that genocide may explode again soon in Sudan. In a referendum scheduled for Jan. 9, the south and the oil-rich Abyei region – which faces a choice between remaining with the north or forming a new state – will vote on self-determination.

As tensions mount over whether the vote will occur, politicians from the north and south are warning of war if the referendum does not go their way.

Given Sudan's bloody recent past, renewed conflict there could be horrific. Yet, in a familiar pattern, the international community – despite its "never again" commitment to genocide prevention – is struggling to marshal the political will and resources to stop it.

Last-ditch military intervention

The Obama administration's approach to Sudan – a case of "too little, too late" – isn't getting results. So pundits have defaulted to suggesting far-fetched military schemes in Sudan, exemplifying the paternalistic militarism that often characterizes Westerners' approach to Africa.

Columnist Nicholas Kristof recently proposed complementing the Obama administration's diplomatic carrots toward Khartoum with an aggressive stick: "Why shouldn't we privately make it clear to Mr. [Omar al-] Bashir that if he initiates genocide, his oil pipeline will be destroyed and he will not be exporting any oil?"

Oil, of course, is the foundation of the Sudanese economy, constituting 95 percent of export revenues and 60 percent of government revenues.

This is not the first time Mr. Kristof has proposed force to bring the Sudanese government to its knees. In 2006, Kristof suggested that the United States could easily "enforce a no-fly zone" in Darfur by using the nearby air base in Abéché, Chad, and in 2008 he recommended that the US "warn Sudan that if it provokes a war with the South … we will destroy its Air Force."

The limits of force

Quixotic militarism is not limited to Kristof, nor is it aimed only at Sudan. Two years ago, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen called for a Predator drone to intimidate Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe – a scheme one-upped by former diplomat and human rights advocate John Prendergast, who suggested a "messy in the short run" multinational military invasion to oust Mr. Mugabe.

Despite the complexity and duration of African nations' strife, Kristof, Mr. Cohen, Mr. Prendergast, and others think that US intervention can solve entrenched problems by taking a forceful show-them-who's-boss attitude, bolstered by American might.

What these ideas have in common is a fundamental lack of understanding of the limits of force, which does not always achieve its military and political objectives. Intelligence fails, missiles misfire, and the target rarely alters its behavior substantially and constructively.

Moreover, military force does not constitute a strategy for dealing with an adversary; rather, force must be accompanied by a whole-of-government approach that includes robust diplomacy and development components. Force alone is risky and potentially escalatory, with little promise of resolution.

However, the punditocracy is not entirely to blame for proposing to save Africa by bombing it. Belying this Hail Mary approach is the grim reality of America's limited appetite for engaging in African conflicts.

The US provides many words and some money, but not manpower. While the US funds 27 percent of the United Nations peacekeeping budget – the overwhelming portion of which is spent in Africa – the US government has largely abandoned active participation, with only 84 police, military experts, and troops deployed.

Since the 1993 "Black Hawk Down" episode, the United States has avoided sending a significant number of troops in support of African peacekeeping.

Half-hearted, sporadic engagement

This hands-off approach applies equally to genocide prevention, as was absent in Rwanda and Darfur, and to bolstering failed states that may serve as terrorist havens, as in Somalia today, where special-operations raids and cruise missile strikes substitute for real American involvement.

The US must end its half-hearted and sporadic engagement with Africa. Time after time, Washington focuses on conflicts only when they approach boiling point – and when military force seems the sole yet untenable option.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton recently called Sudan a "ticking time bomb," but the clock has been ticking since 2005 when the Bush administration helped broker the Comprehensive Peace Agreement.

Sudan is only the latest example of the insufficiency of the United States' 11th-hour preventive efforts. Consequently, it is past time for Washington to get serious about sustained, long-term conflict prevention.

Micah Zenko and Rebecca R. Friedman are, respectively, a fellow and a research associate in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations. Mr. Zenko recently published "Between Threats and War: U.S. Discrete Military Operations in the Post-Cold War World."

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