Why the U.S. Must Stand Up to Sudan

This week marks a milestone of misery for millions of Sudanese citizens. It is the anniversary of the military coup that brought Field Marshall Omar Bashir to power in Sudan in 1989. Since then Bashir has earned international notoriety for his sustained campaign to cleanse his nation of people who do not agree with him. This includes seven years of genocide against the citizens in Darfur, for which he was been indicted by the International Criminal Court.

Sudan is a joyless place for many of its citizens, marginalized by the mainly Arab elite along the Nile who control the oil revenues. Bashir's vision is of an exclusively Arab Sudan adhering to the twisted version of extreme Islam favored by his close friends in Hamas, Hezbollah and in Iran. Bashir ideological brother was Osama Bin Laden, to whom he gave sanctuary for five years, and he was inspired by Colonel Gaddafi's racist rantings.

In April Bashir faced uproar about the scale of public floggings of women (43,000 in Khartoum state alone in 2008) for "public indecency," which in Sudan means daring to leave their homes to go to school or college. He confessed he was bemused by the fuss, saying that Islam can be defined as, "To cut and the stone and the kill." The Sudanese leader has also stated that rape does not exist in Islam.

While some might survey his pitifully undeveloped economy and the absence of schools, hospitals and infrastructure as a sign of failure, the Sudanese president has had other priorities. He wanted to purge his country of ethnically black African people, Christians and those who do not submit to his interpretation of political Islam. As he said recently, when he rewrites the constitution there will be nothing in it about ethnicity or diversity.

He has achieved many of his aims. The US State Department estimates two million have died in southern Sudan while 300,000 are dead in Darfur thanks to bombing and attacks by the Sudanese armed forces and their militia proxies, grabbing the land and resources of the black Africans whom they are ethnically cleansing. The violence continues to this day, with hundreds of thousands uprooted in May and June as Bashir's forces unhesitatingly crush any signs of dissent, the Field Marshall's unambiguous response to the Arab Spring.

Last month reliable church groups reported the systematic rounding up and execution of anyone who is "too black" in South Kordofan state. Military trucks filled with young men, hands tied behind their backs, were seen heading for mass graves on the edge of the capital, Kadugli. In the Nuba mountains, survivors speak of Sudanese helicopter gunships hunting the ethnically black African people like animals.

It was a triumph of US diplomacy that Washington, working with its British and Norwegian partners, forced Bashir to allow a vote last January to allow the mainly black African people in the long-suffering south to form their own country, which will become independent on July 9th.

It is therefore disappointing that the US offers only words as Bashir's killing machine increasingly targets both Darfur and the black Africans who have the misfortune to live north of the new border.

Former US envoy Roger Winter recently remarked that Washington is letting Bashir's regime off the hook because its broader objective is bringing about a thaw in relations with the Arab and Muslim worlds. Others in the Washington believe that Sudan's cooperation in the war on terror is worth the price being paid by those who object to Bashir's regime. Before the recent outbreak of violence along what will be the new north-south border, members of the UN Security Council, including the USA, were known to be considering voting this summer to suspend Bashir's indictment for genocide. In other words, his regime's crimes in Darfur were about to be swept under the rug.

America has condemned the Khartoum regime's renewed program of massacre, but at the same time, Sudan's dictators are privately receiving a different message: we want to do business, and we're prepared to look the other way just so long as you stick to your agreement to allow the south to become independent.

Other dictators in the region perceive this as international diplomacy as usual, and they heave a sigh of relief because the spotlight is unlikely to shine on them so long as they offer us the right platitudes about the war on terror. This cynicism undermines any positive influence America may hope to have in encouraging freedom of speech, democracy or tolerance in the Arab, African and Muslim world.

This is not a plea to invade Sudan or depose Bashir. The US has more leverage over Khartoum than it imagines. Sudan wants access to the IMF and World Bank to help deal with its $38 billion debt: its leaders want to strut with the big boys on the international stage. It also wants to be removed from the list of state sponsors of terror, but in January the administration unwisely signaled it would grant this if Khartoum held off slaughtering people in South Sudan long enough for them to vote for freedom. Instead of holding Khartoum to all its previous promises, we have given away our strongest bargaining card prematurely.

The UN Security Council approved smart sanctions targeting the personal finances of the architects of Sudan's despair, but they have never been enforced. Stopping their shopping trips to Paris and their medical treatment in London will enrage Bashir's cronies far more than our lofty words of condemnation.

If twentieth century history has taught us anything, it is that if we do not recognize genocide for what it is, and if we appease racist dictators, we eventually have to send our sons and daughters to defend our own backyard. So long as we avert our eyes from Sudan's suffering, we send a dismal message to other tyrants and would-be dictators.