By Nicholas D. Kristof
The New York Times
Some day an American president will visit a genocide museum in Darfur and repeat the standard refrain: If only we had known ...
But that excuse will ring hollow, because there was a whistle-blower in the heart of the Bush administration. Roger Winter, whom President Bush had appointed in 2001 to a senior post in the U.S. Agency for International Development, frantically tried to ring alarm bells — but instead the administration turned away.
If there was a hero within the U.S. government on Darfur, it was Mr. Winter. But it was doubly frustrating for him because in 1994 he had the same experience during the Clinton administration, when he was running a refugee organization and desperately trying to galvanize officials to respond to the Rwandan genocide.
In outrage at Bill Clinton’s inaction during the Rwandan slaughter, Mr. Winter abandoned the Democratic Party and became a Republican.
Mr. Winter, 65, who also served in the Carter and (briefly) Reagan administrations, traveled regularly to Sudan for the Bush administration, trying to end the 20-year war between northern and southern Sudan. On those trips, Mr. Winter encountered the slaughter in Darfur as it began.
In May 2003, long before any newspaper noticed, Mr. Winter warned in Congressional testimony that violence was erupting in Darfur. Then, on Nov. 3, 2003, the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum transmitted a message warning Washington that “the situation in Darfur is critical” and adding that “ethnic cleansing ... is underway.”
But Washington shrugged.
State Department officials apparently worried that an uproar over Darfur would derail the north-south agreement in Sudan, a prize achievement for the Bush administration. So they looked away. The State Department was even angry when the Agency for International Development released satellite photos showing the burned villages in Darfur.
Before testifying to Congress, Mr. Winter had to submit prepared remarks to the State Department for vetting. Frustrated by State’s passivity, he used his off-the-cuff remarks to speak passionately — and uncensored — about the horrors in Darfur.
Mr. Winter once took an administration colleague with him to fly over Darfur from Chad, to show him the Janjaweed militias as they burned villages. Administration officials aren’t supposed to invade another country’s air space and buzz militias as they slaughter civilians, but Mr. Winter was desperate to get another administration witness.
“We were trying to get everybody’s attention, including the White House and State Department and everybody else,” Mr. Winter recalls.
When Sudanese forces blocked a road to aid groups, Mr. Winter invited aid groups to join his own convoy and insisted on going down the road to assure humanitarian access.
It was agonizing, he says, to feel that Mr. Bush wanted to do the right thing on Sudan — and yet see the administration acquiesce on mass murder. Later Mr. Winter served as State Department envoy for Darfur, but at State he burned with the same frustration and retired last year, deeply disillusioned.
“Khartoum looked the U.S. in the eye, and we looked away,” Mr. Winter said, adding: “There was no real intention of taking effective action. They saw that. They read us. And so they weren’t threatened.”
Mr. Winter favored — and still favors — a no-fly zone over Darfur. We wouldn’t keep planes in the air, or even shoot planes down. But after Sudan bombed civilians in Darfur, we would later destroy a Sudanese attack helicopter on the ground.
Aid groups worry that such a strike would endanger their efforts. But I think Mr. Winter, who has 26 years’ experience in Sudan, is exactly right that a no-fly zone is the best way to shake up Sudanese officials and make them negotiate seriously for a peace agreement in Darfur.
“What we have done with our handling of Darfur is show Khartoum that in certain circumstances we are a toothless tiger,” he says. “No matter how forceful the words we use, we don’t act. Or we act in ways that the bad guys in Khartoum find tolerable. ... It tells them that they can get away with mass murder.”
The upshot, Mr. Winter believes, is that Sudan is increasingly likely to resume its war against southern Sudan, erasing one of Mr. Bush’s genuine achievements. Mr. Winter says of administration officials, “They’re turning a silk purse into a sow’s ear.”
Mr. Winter admires Mr. Bush for pushing for north-south peace but fears that the administration is simply running out the clock on Darfur. “Where we have gotten to with Sudan,” he says heavily, “is a tragedy.”
Photo Credit: Nicholas Kristof. (Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times)