Presidents don't get to choose their first foreign policy crisis. It usually chooses them. For President Clinton, it was the killing of 18 U.S. soldiers in Mogadishu. For President Bush, it came when a U.S. EP-3 military plane collided with a Chinese fighter pilot, forcing the American crew to land on the Chinese island of Hainan. Many think that President Obama's first crisis came last month in the unlikely form of Somali pirates. (Actually, pirates have been patrolling those waters longer than there have been American presidents and they will likely be there hundreds of years from now.)
While Obama may have handled the high seas showdown, his most dangerous foe in Africa isn't a rag-tag group of teenagers with AK-47s and speedboats. No, that adversary is Sudan's Omar al-Bashir, the world's first sitting president with a warrant for his arrest.
Darfur, the war-torn western region of Sudan, is being pushed perilously close to the edge by the Sudanese government. The biggest test for Obama's foreign policy in Africa will not be pirates; it will be Bashir.
The emerging crisis is of Khartoum's making. In March, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Bashir on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Bashir immediately lashed out, expelling 13 foreign aid groups—groups such as Oxfam, Save the Children, and Doctors without Borders—from the country. These relief organizations were providing clean water, food, and medical attention to roughly 1.5 million people. Now, two months since Bashir's cruel directive, Darfur is again near the brink: water reserves have been depleted, food is in short supply, and medical care is desperately needed. The United Nations has scrambled to make up the shortfall before the rainy season begins. The hardest hit are Darfur's women and children, who make up more than 60 percent of the 2.7 million people driven from their homes.
Bashir isn't content holding his own people hostage. Rather than hole up in his presidential palace, he thumbed his nose at the international community by embarking on a whirlwind tour—visiting Egypt, Eritrea, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar in a little over a week—to demonstrate his defiance of the ICC and support among Arab states. He then appointed Ahmed Haroun, a senior Sudanese official also wanted for war crimes, governor of a border province. Bashir is not acting like a man who is about to fold. Indeed, he is upping the ante.
Like it or not, the Obama administration now faces an important test. Foreign policy challenges are typically of the thorniest variety, and in many cases, decisive action is precisely the wrong choice. That isn't the case here. It is vital that the administration recognize the danger of muddling along. More than two months since Bashir decided to victimize his people once again, the administration has yet to respond and the clock is ticking for Darfur.
The Obama administration should first signal its support for the ICC's warrant. In international politics, there is nothing worse than feckless sanctions. If sanctions are no more than empty threats, they not only fail to deter a dictator's behavior, they reduce your credibility in the future. That could be particularly costly for a young international institution such as the ICC. Besides achieving justice for the millions of victims of Khartoum's crimes, the court's prosecutions are the best hope of deterring future mass atrocities.
Second, the U.N. Security Council has the power to defer the warrant, if it chooses. But, in articulating its support, the White House should make it plain that this option is off the table. Bashir would like nothing more than to enter into the back-and-forth of negotiations, and then stall on his promises. His track record makes its clear that he respects sticks, not carrots.
Third, the United States and its allies should launch a diplomatic campaign to isolate Khartoum. In some respects, there is less a need to apply pressure on Bashir's regime than to apply pressure everywhere else. One of the reasons that Egypt, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia rolled out the red carpet for Bashir is because the Obama administration had not spoken clearly about what the costs would be for doing so. Each of these countries values its relationship with Washington more than Khartoum, and Bashir's brutal tactics have made him a growing liability for his traditional allies in the Arab League and China. Targeting or freezing the bank accounts of Sudan's elites would also encourage the country's political establishment to reconsider their president's worth. Ultimately, if Bashir ever appears before a judge, it will probably be because those close to him found the costs of his leadership to be too great.
William J. Dobson is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.