Friday, April 28, 2006

Darfur, Congress, and Transitions

Last week I received a letter from Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA) who represents the congressional district in which my family resides. It wasn’t the usual campaign literature (a bit too early for November 7) or even the perennial two paragraph form letter thanking me for agreeing with my representative’s position on an issue even if I heartily disagreed.

This was a 2-page letter about the atrocious events in that region of western Sudan known as Darfur that, in September 2004, the Bush administration labeled “genocide.” It was about the atrocious living conditions and the violence in refugee camps on both sides of the Sudan-Chad border to where most of the 2 to 3 million displaced people have fled. It was about the miniscule amount of money that Congress may finally approve for humanitarian relief, support of the African Union’s 7,000 monitors currently in Darfur, and the costs of converting the AU force to a UN operation and expanding it.

Congressman Wolf has traveled to Sudan 5 times and observed first-hand the conditions against which tens of thousands must struggle on a daily basis. When H.R.1424 could not gain House leadership support due to its authorization of oil sector sanctions and the use of force against Sudan, Wolf cosponsored new legislation (H.R.3127) that was directed more toward restrictions on those Sudanese officials the UN found were involved in the genocide.

The House version of the 2006 Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Bill provides $66.3 million for humanitarian needs in Darfur, $173 million to support the African Union Mission in Darfur (AMIS), another $98 million for the expected transition from the regional peacekeeping force to a larger UN mission, and other assistance for a total of $499.1 million. Wolf supported these provisions.

The full Senate is now considering its version of the supplemental. As reported out of committee, the legislation mirrors the House version on Darfur-related allocations except for one item: the Senate provides only $38 million for the AMIS-UN transition.

(In recognition of the re-opening of the USAID (United States Agency for International Development) office in Khartoum, the Senate also allocated $6 million to accelerate this process, but the impetus for this money was less Darfur than the end of the North-South civil war.)

Darfur is exceptional in the amount of congressional interest generated in resolving both the North-South civil war (accomplished last year after more than two decades) and now Darfur. But in terms of need, the people of Darfur are far from unique. The problem really comes down to the old observation that foreign aid has no constituency – and so is always among the first program areas to be cut when lawmakers trim appropriations.

But if one really looks closely at the proposed supplemental, what stands out is the real bargain represented by the millions allocated for diplomatic, humanitarian, and development activities in Asia, Africa, and Latin America-Caribbean compared to the billions allocated to the Defense Department.

Over the course of the Cold War, the U.S. public lost sight of the lesson of post-World War II Europe and the Marshall Plan. And without interest from voters, Congress gradually lost focus as well. The result has been a new form of isolationism, not inner-directed as during the inter-war decades (1920-1930) but the “splendid loneliness” of being “king of the hill,” the “top dog,” “the decider.” The mind-set revealed by this last linguistic creation from the lips of the president reverberates with scorn for the patience required to fashion enduring diplomacy.

A Congress educated in and imbued with the spirit of George Marshall would intuitively recognize that fewer lives would be put at risk and less treasure consumed if the arts of the diplomat enjoyed as much congressional favor as the arts of the soldier do today. One idea about how to get this re-adjustment started was made by Congressman Wolf some 12 months ago. He suggested each member of Congress pick one developing country and, in effect, “adopt” it by visiting it, examining its humanitarian and development needs in detail, encouraging good governance but not penalizing society when this is missing, integrating the needs of this country with its neighbors – in effect becoming the “country expert.” Congress could then better evaluate proposed White House foreign aid programs and exercise a more informed oversight of foreign policy trends and actions by the sitting administration.

As it is, five members of Congress were arrested April 28 for “disorderly conduct” when they participated in a demonstration at the Sudanese embassy in Washington. Saturday and Sunday will see more Darfur-related protests.

This year has been labeled “the year of transition” in Iraq. The Pentagon in general and the U.S. Army in particular is undergoing wide-ranging structural changes. Moreover, this is an election year, leaving open the possibility that Congress itself may experience a transition. Might this suggest that it’s time to transition from the “decider” to the “cooperator”?

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