PrintPrint CiteCite
Style: MLAAPAChicago Close


Journalist Roundtable on Darfur [Rush Transcript; Federal News Service]

Speaker: Michael J. Gerson, Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations
November 6, 2006
Council on Foreign Relations


LEE FEINSTEIN: Welcome, all, to the Washington Club and the Council on Foreign Relations. It is an honor and a real pleasure to welcome you here for this on-the-record briefing with Michael Gerson. Michael was assistant to the president for Policy and Strategic Planning, assistant to the president for Speechwriting, deputy assistant to the president and director of Presidential Speechwriting as well. We know him and have his bio. And he’s been a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations since the end of July.

Michael is associated with some of the president’s most important speeches, some of the president’s most controversial speeches. Jeffrey Goldberg in his New Yorker profile says that the cross-partisan consensus is that Gerson was—I’m quoting—“almost Ted Sorenson’s equal in skill and rhetorical ambition.” And that’s a view shared by another New Yorker writer and former speechwriter Hendrick Hertzberg, who, after your first week on the job, described one of your speeches as, quote, “shockingly good.” (Laughter.)

QUESTIONER: That from the author of the “malaise” speech.

FEINSTEIN: I see lots of frustrated speechwriters in the room. Let me just say from a personal perspective, a perspective of a fellow fellow, Michael seems to have adjusted very well and very quickly to life outside the bubble. He doesn’t draw back from descriptions of a mind meld between himself and President Bush, but he’s also asserted his own voice. And if you haven’t yet seen it, I would call your attention to a piece that came out just this week in Newsweek, which—where Michael criticizes, quote, “the narrowness of the religious right,” and contrasts them with evangelicals, who are becoming, quote, “more globally focused and more likely to consider themselves pro-life and pro-poor.”

I understand that Michael was once a Democrat. Michael, we would welcome you back. (Laughter.) Maybe you’ll change your mind after tomorrow.

But today, we’re here to talk about Darfur. Michael was the pointman on Darfur in the administration, and he understands the president’s views on this subject better than anyone else who served in the administration. And he remains deeply involved in this issue, including in his work at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The situation in Darfur remains precarious and perhaps is somewhat more precarious right now. Renewed attacks in rebel-controlled areas last week displaced some 7,000 people. There are reports of Sudanese army involvement in those attacks. As you know, last August—at the end of August, the U.N. authorized a peacekeeping force of roughly 20,000 troops to take over for the African Union. That resolution invited the Bashir government to accept those troops. The Bashir government so far has declined such an invitation. There’s limited progress to date and hints that Washington may be seeking some kind of a compromise or not depending on who you talk to.

As I said, this is on the record. We will start with some brief opening comments by Michael, and then, I will moderate.


GERSON: Sure. Thank you. I would I guess start by saying that there was—not only was I once a supporter of Jimmy Carter, but that there’s a significant ideological diversity in my own family. When—during the last—right before the last election, the 2004 election, my six-year-old, Nicholas, told me in the car that he wanted John Kerry to win. And I asked him, “Why?”, and he said, “So you can be home on weekends”—(laughter)—which was nice. And my nine-year-old, who was a little more practical, said, “But how would we eat?” (Laughter.) And so I told them, “Well, you know, I think I could get a job. I might go to a think tank.” And he said, of course, “What’s a think tank?” And I said, “It’s people—you know, they have meetings and they give speeches and they write things.” And he said, “You mean, they don’t do anything?” (Laughter.) So that’s my life now.

But I was—you know, I found at the White House the issue of Sudan and Darfur very interesting and disturbing for a couple of reasons.

One of them I think historians are going to say—find it interesting that this issue was driven at the White House almost entirely by presidential initiative, that it was not something that bubbled up through the system. It’s something that came from the president’s own passions and priorities. And I saw him at the White House personally call a series of meetings on this topic, bringing in our people and quizzing them in Oval Office sessions, and that was interesting from the—and I think probably the only way that genocide issues and the prevention of mass killing kind of gets high enough on the agenda is when the president has that kind of involvement.

I think that it’s an issue that calls attention both to the—how irreplaceable multilateralism is and how frustrating it is, and that it’s a—there’s no worse tangle that I could possibly imagine than working with the AU, the Arab League, NATO and the U.N. Security Council at once. And it’s, you know, a very difficult circumstance, particularly with a government that’s deeply irresponsible.

And it does raise some interesting question about systems, about, you know, how we deal with these things in the future. Because genocide is—just talking with Lee—almost always comes in the shadow of other events. You know, right after Vietnam, you get Cambodia, or right after Somalia, you get Rwanda, and it’s very difficult. So how do you have systems both at the U.N. and in turn in the United States government that raise these issues high enough, early enough and remove from a response to genocide to the prevention of mass killing as a major goal? And Lee’s the real expert on those things and is doing, I think, some of the best work in Washington.

So—but we’re in a time—not only a time of worsening conditions but I think at a time of renewed administration focus, and Andrew’s appointment as special envoy has catalyzed this process. And the desire now is to go to Khartoum in the context of in the next few weeks, in the month of November, with a united negotiating position from a variety of stakeholders, including Arab countries, the AU, the United States, the Europeans, to give them a final position, a kind of last chance at diplomacy. I don’t know if it’s a “last chance,” but certainly a serious, concerted international effort on—with a troop compromise, some kind of, you know, augmentation of the force, with the possibility of protocols being added to the DPA; not reopening the text, but adding some things, some important things to try to include the other rebel groups; reviving the cease-fire commissions, which have really been undermined because they’ve become too exclusive, they threw off all the other rebel groups; strengthening AMIS now in whatever ways are possible; addressing the Chad-Sudan border situation; and moving towards voluntary resettlement as the ultimate goal, not put a gun to people’s heads and force them to go home but voluntarily resettlement.

It seems to me that the questions that are raised in all this, however, are difficult. One of them is, will Bashir accept a U.N. force? And right now there’s a whole lot of debate and discussion between two options, between some kind of joint AU-U.N. approach that would, you know, have a single leadership but a genuine kind of, you know, combined command, which, you know, I have serious questions about how—you know, whether Bashir will accept that or not—and then whether you go to some AMIS plus plus they talk about, which the U.K. and others are talking about, which would be trying augment the AMIS force, and I have real questions about whether that would be a capable enough force when you’re on the ground.

When I was there and talked with the Rwandans and others, it was clear to me that the military situation required intelligence, mobility and firepower and a mandate to be able to respond to violations of the cease-fire. And the AU has lacked, really, any of the force multipliers that would allow them to do this, and I’m not sure you can build up from the current force to get that.

The second question is, what are the sticks to try to make all this happen? And I think there’s a lot of internal debate trying to determine what that is. I mean, there are things that you can do with unilateral sanctions on individuals. There’s a real debate about the—you know, how useful it is to threaten cooperation with the ICC and individual things like that. There’s a lot of discussion about the oil situation, how you can pressure on the capital markets side or on the oil side, and some discussion about having troops in Chad in case there’s a significant disintegration of a situation that could be involved in humanitarian efforts. So that is—you know, there are—I think that’s the current—our current debate: what are the sticks, and who would follow if they’re necessary?

And then I think the other—the third question is really, what’s Plan C? You know, Plan A was just a U.N. force, as the Security Council demanded. Plan B is one of these other hybrids or trying to get a significant augmentation. But what if nothing works and you have to go to a Plan C? And that, to me, is the most problematic. But I think that recommends pre-positioned troops in the region and trying to avoid the worst on the humanitarian side, whether Chad or other places, and then looking at actions to—you know, more direct sort of military actions against Khartoum, either bombings, which I think have significant drawbacks, particularly if you still have humanitarian groups on the ground, and then—or up to a blockade kind of situation, with the—you know, to try to put pressure on the regime.

So those are what people are talking about internally. And insofar as I—you know, I’ve had to keep some hand in at least talking to people, not in the deliberations, but those are—that’s where we are, kind of moving forward. So—

FEINSTEIN: The floor is open. Barry?

QUESTIONER: (Off mike)—certainly not close to the White House. I don’t remember it that way, as—Bush being quickly innovative, right on the money, fast. I remember at the State Department great debate over whether this should be even called genocide when hundreds of thousands of people are being killed.

But we’re not doing history here. If we were, I would ask you how you compare the administration to the Clinton administrations on Rwanda. I mean, all these atrocities don’t seem to get attention in time by the white Western world.

But let me stick to the news. Tony Blair is saying one last chance for them to straighten up or we have to do something. Doesn’t quite say what we have to do. But that’s today’s dark—(inaudible). They have one last chance to shape up, or the European Union, the United States, et cetera will have to do something.

Do you think anybody but the British can be, considering the lack of interest all these years—can anybody but the British be rallied to, quote, “do something,” something that means something?

GERSON: Well, there are two stages here. I think there’s some good evidence, recent evidence, that a lot of these stakeholders, including some Arab countries, might be rallied to come up with a face-saving compromise for Bashir to accept an augmented force. That’s the current diplomatic effort, and it’s worth a try.

That’s a separate question from saying: Would there then be consensus on the sticks that might follow if there—if it doesn’t? I think that you might lose a lot of Arab countries in that process of determining what the consequences would be afterwards.

QUESTIONER: You had some reservations yourself just a moment ago about an augmented force. But—

GERSON: No, I don’t have reservations about an augmented force—

QUESTIONER: Being successful, I mean—

GERSON: Yeah, I have concerns about whether Bashir and others will accept a U.N. force—


GERSON:—for one reason: because I think that they believe that force might find the—you know, the mass graves and the evidence of atrocities.

QUESTIONER: Who is put on this augmented force? What countries? Arab countries? European countries?

GERSON: Well, that’s what the administration right now is trying to negotiate, is an Arab and African face to the force that—trying to downplay and minimize or—you know, the role of Western countries. And, you know, and as I said, there’s two models to do that. You either keep it as, you know, an AMIS force and try to significantly augment it, or you go to a joint command, you know, a U.N.-AU—a kind of blue hat/green hat force.

Now, Lee can tell us—I don’t know how unprecedented that is. Did they do something similar in Haiti? Are there any models for that?

FEINSTEIN: Well, I mean, there are lots of different ways you can skin the cat. In some ways it’s a terminology issue. I mean, in Lebanon you had the opposite, right? In Lebanon, with UNIFIL, you have UNIFIL on steroids. And the truth is it’s really a single country-led force, but it’s under the U.N. rubric. Now, that’s created some problems in that regard. And so I think Michael’s quite right, if you did something that was different, which was, you know, effectively a multinational force under an AMIS heading, you would create command problems and other things.

GERSON: But I’m happy to answer your initial question as well. You know, this is a circumstance where a lot of administration attention and effort, of course, early in Sudan was taken with the CPA, and one of the bloodiest wars—civil wars in history. And those efforts were consistent and successful.

Now, many of these problems were emerging in ‘03 and ‘04 at exactly the same time that those—the CPA process was moving forward and was fragile, and it created, I think, a real difficulty. But as far as calling it a genocide, very few others have in the world.

QUESTIONER: (Off mike.) I don’t mean to quibble.

GERSON: It almost always, unfortunately—

QUESTIONER: It’s like pornography; you know, you know it when you see it.

QUESTIONER: But on the idea of genocide, does it really matter? I mean, I think it was interesting at the time that the administration called it genocide, but when you talk about all this responsibility of a nation to label something a genocide, and then when you see what’s been done or what hasn’t been done since then, I mean, would you argue that because a country went out on a limb like that and labeled something like that a genocide, I mean, does this country, having done so, have a responsibility to be the leader in advocating sanctions, in advocating tougher measures, in advocating an oil embargo?

I mean, I almost think that maybe it would have been—I don’t know if it makes a difference that we’ve labeled it a genocide if then the action that you would think would happen hasn’t.

GERSON: Well, I think I agree on one level, which is I think debates about the legal definitions of genocide are often an obstacle to action and attention in the world; you know, the complicated legal arguments and intentions and other things. I mean, I think we should be moving towards an emphasis on the prevention of mass killing, not on the determination of reaction to genocide. So as those things unfolded, you have to say, well, you know, who has primary responsibility there?

You know, clearly it’s difficult when you have a government that is like the one that we’re dealing with. I think at some level that it—you know, when I was in—when I’ve been to the camps, you have the immediate reaction that you wish the United States would come in and send the Marines. You know, that’s the clear reaction.

I think that there are significant problems for that approach. I think to have American boots on the ground in a situation where the government that would be resistant and encourage kind of Islamist mischief could be a really bad situation.

So what do you do? You work through the—you know, you work through the tools that you have. I mean, there are significant sanctions on Khartoum. There are a series of efforts to try to get first the DPA and then put pressure on Khartoum, and they’re considering the right steps right now.

QUESTIONER: When you listed all these various people who might get involved, one that was glaringly absent was China. Have we basically given up on them playing any role in here, that they’re just so economically tied into Sudan that they’re just useless on this particular issue?

GERSON: You know, State Department people will tell you that they were less of a problem in the Security Council process than maybe thought—some thought or predicted.

The real problem with China, in my view, comes on the oil side, if you’re going to take actions against joint ventures, for example, Chinese-Sudanese joint ventures, you know, which I think is an option. Are you willing to offend the Chinese in those circumstances? And I think we should be willing to, but I think that that’s a debate, internal debate. And, you know, that’s— China has a strategic decision to make. Do they want to be a defender of the irresponsible, and do they want to be seen that way? That’s true in Zimbabwe, it’s true in Sudan. They have a resource-driven foreign policy, and they don’t have any—right now, very much of a reputational cost because of it. And I think that’s something we ought to consider. And I tell outside groups that that’s actually something they should consider as well. I think some significant amount of attention from outside groups on China’s role in all this would probably be a helpful thing, because I don’t think they like to be seen in the world as the defender of the irresponsible.

FEINSTEIN: Okay. Our print colleagues have actually lined up, as opposed to our broadcast colleagues, who jumped in. So let me start with Glenn; I have Carol, Howard, Peter.

QUESTIONER: I just wanted to go back to the DPA for a minute. When that was negotiated, you know, Zoellick flew back, the president had a ceremony in the White House hailing the negotiation of the peace agreement. And at the time, many experts were rather skeptical that just having one group sign on, particularly one that doesn’t necessarily represent all the people of Darfur, and elements of that agreement—they were skeptical that that would actually achieve the results that the administration was saying at the time that it would.

And I’m just curious, was that apparent at the time, when you were there at the White House, or was it really a belief that this—you know, there was momentum from this agreement that could actually be turned into something that would get you somewhere?

GERSON: I think it was more in the latter category. I think there was a feeling like it was genuine momentum. And it did eventually play an important role in one way, which is to get the U.N. Security Council to be more willing to act on these things. I don’t think they would have been as willing to do that in the absence of an agreement.

But, you know, I think that Bob knew at the time that implementation was going to be a big problem with one, but it was worth a try. I mean, I don’t know what you do. He tried endlessly to try, you know, to get, you know, Wahid and these guys to sign on. And—but I do think there’s an openness, from what I can tell, not of let’s start from scratch in the DPA, but what kind of amendments could be brought in this process to bring in other people. I mean, they talk in those terms. So.

QUESTIONER: Right. So was then there a failure of implementation? Because shortly after Bob negotiated that, he left, and you went basically through the summer till you ended up, just before UNGA, having the appointment of Natsios. So would it—did the administration lose its eye on the ball there?

GERSON: I left too.

QUESTIONER: And you left too.

GERSON: And it—so, you know, I wish—and we don’t have a deputy secretary of State—or they don’t have a deputy secretary of State.

FEINSTEIN: And by the way, the violence is a lot worse. I mean, can you argue it backfired? I mean not that it was an opportunity lost, but it actually made things worse by, you know, bringing—you know, the cease-fire quickly was broken. You had the open fighting between the various rebel factions—

GERSON: Well, you have it now, you know, particularly in the West the factions are, you know, in pretty much open warfare. You know, there eventually has to be some structure that allows for—I think that the U.N. would be very hesitant to intervene in the circumstance. They view themselves as peacekeepers, not as peace-establishers. You have to have some element of agreement in order to make this work.

And, you know, that was the hope in that circumstance, that—and it was only option that was there. I mean, I don’t know what the other option would be. But it’s clearly going to have to—there are going to be changes to the DPA in order to try to get—you know, get a broader buy-in in this process. And that’s—the desire right now is not just to negotiate on the troop side, but to open up a variety of issues to get a comprehensive settlement, and that’s what I think is bringing a lot of people into the process.


QUESTIONER: One point of clarification, and then I have another question. Did I hear you say that bombing is an option that is discussed?

GERSON: No, I think the bombing is an option that has been proposed in newspapers.

QUESTIONER: Seriously, is it being discussed?

GERSON: Not that I know of, and I’ll give you the reason. The—because I think that—you know, a lot of people in the administration have contacts with the relief groups on the ground, and I do too. And that type of pinpoint bombing or, you know, attacking the air force of Sudan would likely have a—you know, an immediate reaction of throwing them out of the country. And they play more than a role of just providing humanitarian aid. They’re actually, along with the AU, a kind of break, a force for stability in the country.

But let me tell you what I think would make a difference. If the government in Khartoum were to increasingly view the camps as the problem and were to themselves create a circumstance that was so disorderly that the groups would have to leave or be thrown out of the country, you know, then you’d face an entirely different circumstance and, you know, which might open up more options as far as military options. But that’s my concern about those specific—

QUESTIONER: And just the question that I had was China. I mean, what role has China really played? When the administration sits down and says, “Look, here’s the situation, genocide, do the Chinese just say, ‘This isn’t one of those stakeholder issues that you’ve put on the table with us’?” Do they say, “This is merely an internal issue that we can’t really”—I mean, arguably, yeah, I think they’re the largest oil consumer of Sudan.

GERSON: That’s true both in oil production and—

QUESTIONER: So they have a lot of clout if they wanted to exercise it.

GERSON: I think that’s true. And there’s a couple of arguments. You know, I’m a little bit—the thing is I’m not speaking for the administration here. (Laughs.) I view—I mean, there is a State Department attitude often, “Ooof! If we’ve got North Korea, we can’t, you know, offend the Chinese.” And I’ve found that not just on the issues of genocide, but also on democracy promotion and a lot of other areas.

Now, I think that’s flawed theory in some way. Fred and I have talked about that. It’s—the Chinese will act in their interests in North Korea; if we talk about the treatment of—you know, people in democratic circumstances. They might not like it. I’m not sure it fundamentally means they won’t act in their interests in other kind of areas. I mean, they have a reliable, you know, approach.

But, you know, I think that it would be a good idea to increase the reputational cost to China to engage in this type of activity. I think it is a—you know, other than bombing, I think that things having to do with particularly the Sudan-China joint ventures, okay, that would have to open up an opportunity of sorts if the United States were willing to do that; you know, that would be genuine leverage, because the Chinese don’t just—as far as I know—and this is not field of expertise—they don’t just write checks to Khartoum. They engage in these joint ventures on oil and other things. And there have to be some levers that I think would be useful on that side.

And I do think that, you know, the groups themselves—I mean, the outside groups, the advocacy groups can call attention to this because the Chinese are sensitive. I mean, have you ever seen the Chinese when they come for a visit to the United States how sensitive they are about appearances. You know, it’s one area that you can try to—you know, I think plays a role. And so I think that’s a promising area.


QUESTIONER: Yeah. You were saying—while you were talking initially that these kinds of problems tend to follow other problems—you gave the example of Somalia and Rwanda—I’m just wondering what you see is the impact of Iraq on what the U.S. government can do or is willing to do. And also more generally, just where you sort of see the state of this idea of a right of intervention.

GERSON: I think that Iraq has a couple of effects. I think it sucks oxygen out of other foreign policy issues. There’s no question. And this is where I’ve seen the president have a role in consistently reviving this within the system, because, given the kind of priorities and urgencies, it may not be in the first tier.

Secondly, I think it makes, frankly and understandably, the military very hesitant to be involved in any way. Normally, as you would think, find in a lot of different administrations, the Department of Defense is hesitant when it comes to humanitarian interventions. But this compounds that hesitance. I think there’s no question about that.

And then, of course, you know, we have a complicated problem across this disputed ground of Africa with Islamist movements and—you know, from Somalia to Sudan to Nigeria to a lot of other places. And so that—you know, there’s no question that that feeds in as a consideration in—you know, in having American troops on the ground and being in an exposed circumstance like that.

So I think those are all real. They’re not, you know, people’s poor intentions, but they’re historical facts, and so I think it does figure in.


QUESTIONER: Franklin Graham has gotten a lot of attention and a lot of credit for bringing attention to Darfur, including lobbying the president. We know that he runs medical centers in the Sudan; he’s also made a lot of very sort of heated comments about Muslims generally and stuff. I wondered if you could talk just a little bit about the role that Graham and other evangelicals have played in bringing the Darfur issue to the attention of the president, but also just generally in terms of influencing administration policy.

GERSON: Well, it’s one of the things that I actually address in the piece—in the Newsweek piece that I had out today is that, you know, I saw—and maybe this is just because of who I am and what issues that I was interested in—but a lot of the input and—that—or questions or requests that I got from evangelicals, evangelical leaders was on these issues, was on global AIDS in particular, where there was a real interest and concern about the implementation of PEPFAR, on sexual trafficking, which has a, you know, kind of deep resonance in evangelical history because of the abolitionist kind of element to that, and, you know, a significant amount of interest.

And then Sudan—you know, initially because of the civil war but now because of Darfur, and I saw some really pretty amazing cross-ideological alliances on those issues in one of the most divisive periods of modern political history, which was actually quite encouraging—African-American groups, liberal human rights groups, you know, evangelical groups on that set of issues.

Now, to me, I hope that promises a kind of interesting reorientation on some of these issues. It at least raises the prospect that you could have a serious constituency—American constituency for these issues of international compassion that might have some political influence going forward. I hope that’s true. I think it’s possible. And I think it represents a change that’s gone on within evangelicalism that I find quite interesting. I mean, some of the reasons that I talked about, which I’ve seen, are—just an interesting fact that most people don’t know—you have—you know, last year, you had 1.6 million American Christians going to developing worlds on short-term mission trips, you know. And that’s—you know, these are a whole generation of people that are exposed to the needs and vitality and, you know, heroism of the developing world.

QUESTIONER: But in general, I mean, they’re not there just for their education or even just to provide services. I mean, they’re there partly to bring the word of God—Christian God to these countries. Is there some concern about that sort of commingling of message in American foreign policy?

GERSON: Well, that wouldn’t be the role of American foreign policy. But certainly a lot of what’s going on are church-to-church ties. I mean, which—you know, you’re—if you look at what Rick Warren tries to do with his approach, it’s very focused on social needs. It’s very focused on capacity building of local churches through—of local indigenous churches through American activity. That seems like pretty good development theory, you know, where you’re strengthening these kind of institutions.

And so I think the more sophisticated people that are doing this are—you know, are doing a good job. The problem comes, you know, obviously, in areas of, you know, predominantly Muslim areas and others. And I guess I’m not—I’ve never visited one of these programs. I don’t know how they do it, you know, whether they—how they combine relief with their, you know, gospel message.

I will say that from certain elements of the religious right, there have been statements that have significantly complicated the war on terror and other things. And the president’s been pretty harsh about them, got a lot of controversy for saying, in a press conference with Blair, that—you know, that the God of Islam is the God of great monotheistic faiths.

And so, you know, I think the president has distanced himself significantly from that approach and—but I do think it plays in the Arab press. I mean, they play it up significantly, too.


QUESTIONER: I want to extend that a bit and sort of talk about the kind of racist element of this, which—we were in—a bunch of us were with Condi Rice in Cairo when she raised Darfur, and you can see that it’s an Arab African issue. I mean, that’s the way it’s seen, and certainly that’s the way Bashir plays it. He may look black to us, but he clearly thinks of himself as an Arab and clearly sees his forces as Arab forces against black African forces.

How much trouble is the administration having? And how do they bring the Arabs into this in a way where they don’t see it as a racial issue? It seems that this is more important—this racial-cultural issue, linguistic issue is important, certainly, than the religious issue, since they’re all Muslims.

GERSON: I agree with you. I think that if you look at—like I did when I was at the White House—haven’t seen as much of it recently, but you look at the translated Egyptian press as it relates to Sudan.

QUESTIONER: It’s horrific.

GERSON: It’s deeply irresponsible and conspiratorial. It talks about the return of the Crusades. It talks about the Christianization of Arab countries. It talks about, you know, oil grab. It talks about—it’s, you know, the worst sort of propaganda. And you know, that’s, I think, quite common in this setting.

People that I talk to, you know, who deal with people in—you know, people from the regime in Khartoum, they really seem to believe it. You know, it’s not just a—you know, they talk about—they threaten, you know, the fate of Gordon and, you know—and—but that has been—I think Condi’s emphasis and Andrew’s, in a certain way, is, is it possible to get the Egyptians and Qatar and some others that have not been very helpful in this more engaged on this set of issues to take away some of the obvious cover from the regime, this kind of—

QUESTIONER: Are they making any progress at all?

GERSON: They—I was told that the Egyptians want to appear helpful. (Chuckles.)

QUESTIONER: Want to appear helpful—(laughs)—but not actually be helpful.

GERSON: Well, you know, I don’t know.

QUESTIONER: (Off mike)—appear to be—(off mike.)

GERSON: Right. Yeah.

And so that’s a—you know, there’s a genuine kind of outreach going on now to try to change that dynamic in ways that will isolate Bashir and take away his—what, you know, people call his heat shields. And you know, that’s the Chinese, and that’s the Arabs, in many ways.

And so it would be an important development if it were possible to bring Bashir a united front proposal that included Arabs. He always benefits from chaos, and he plays people off against one another. And so any attempt to have a kind of single message and stop up those holes that he goes through is a useful enterprise.

QUESTIONER: Can I throw one more on, too? This has been pointed out by John Prendergast and a lot of others—that we need the Sudanese for the war on terror, but their intelligence chief is—who provides information about al Qaeda and Somalia and other places and so on is the same guy who’s behind the Janjawid. How do we get through that?

GERSON: Well, I’ve had to answer to that. You know, I think that the problem—I didn’t—at the White House did not see that as much. I didn’t—I really didn’t see that dynamic at work. I saw much more of a dynamic—well, if we press too hard, we might blow up the CPA and you want a resumption of the civil war and other things. But I didn’t see that dynamic.

I am for—you know, I’m tough on the regime. I think the carrots have to be real. I think I’d be for, given their actual performance, taking them off the terror list under the right circumstances, if they were to accept a capable force that had U.N. involvement, and maybe, you know, doing things on debt, maybe doing things on—you know, they want legitimacy, visits. They’re cheap. I think there has to be a genuine kind of up side for the regime—

QUESTIONER: Couldn’t we kind of offer those things?

GERSON: I think we have in various ways.

QUESTIONER: And Bush sent that letter at the time of the DPA.

GERSON: I think, you know, normalization, sending an ambassador—I think we’ve offered that. And—but those are the three things that you have, you have carrots, you have sticks, which are still really very much in the air, and you have face-saving compromise that’s consistent with a capable force. That’s where all the focus is. And, you know, I’m not quite sure—and then planning for the worst. But I’m not sure quite what you do otherwise.

FEINSTEIN: Jonathan?

QUESTIONER: Can I ask you an election question, which, I suppose, is a bit of a hypothetical. But you’re saying that the evangelicals have been pressing on this issue, and they’ve got a strong voice. And there’s also reports that they’re losing their influence, perhaps, to some extent. Some social conservatives may lose seats. And then, if the president loses, you know, either house or both houses of Congress, he’ll clearly be on the back foot on Iraq.

Are you worried that the whole Darfur issue is just going to slip down the agenda for obvious political reasons?

GERSON: Yeah, no—

QUESTIONER: What can be done just to sort of—what can be done by those who are concerned about it to make sure it doesn’t?

GERSON: Well, I mean, it’s my real concern. I mean, I think—as I was saying to Glenn, I think that the election is likely to be over-interpreted either way. If somehow, you know, the Republicans were to hold on to the House, it would be the greatest victory in history; if they were to—if they lose the House, it will be over-interpreted as a complete rejection of Iraq. And I don’t think either of those things are really quite true. I mean, it’s a complicated electoral dynamic that doesn’t yield an easy kind of meaning.

But in the aftermath, you know, I guess so much attention is naturally taken up in the system by Iraq and Iran within the administration, I think I wouldn’t underestimate how much time and attention is Iran-related right now, that it’s—you know, it, to some extent, takes a strong president to raise these issues because the legislative process doesn’t naturally necessarily raise them. And insofar as the president were weakened, I think he has been the main sponsor of these ideas within the U.S. government; I don’t see anybody else.

QUESTIONER: There was an op ed in The Washington Post by several prominent Democrats calling for unilateral military intervention, so—

QUESTIONER: Two, anyway. (Laughter.)

GERSON: Well, can I tell you—I do think it’s promising. Lee and I have talked about this. I mean, there’s some debate, internal debate, on what the Security Council did as far as allowing U.N. troops to go into Chad, okay, across the border, who might be there both for the stability of the border, but also, in a worst-case scenario, to enforce humanitarian corridors or to do other things that would be forcible interventions. And I think that’s very much worth talking about. I think we should be using this time to both push for this compromise, and to prepare for the possibility of real decay in the situation. And that would be one of them, you know, you might—that’s different from bombing, but, you know it might be necessary, eventually, to have some more active military involvement on the humanitarian side, particularly if the groups are thrown out and if there’s real instability. So.

QUESTIONER: So if I could just quickly ask, I mean do you have a feel—it’s a very simplistic question—but do you have a feel that you went after the wrong guy, that you’d have been happy for America to use its military might to get rid of somebody like—




GERSON: Oh, that’s a hindsight question. You know, I can only tell you the case for what we did in Iraq at the time was compelling at the time.


QUESTIONER: Well, I want to follow up on that. I mean, everybody in this room has heard countless times Condi Rice and Jendayi Frazer say that they’ve spoken to Bashir and told him in the strongest possible terms that he must accept a U.N. force. Are we losing—is America losing its ability to get people to listen to us? What’s happening to our leverage and our influence?

GERSON: Well, I mean, I do believe—this is my only interpretation of the history—is that the aftermath of 9/11, I think the regime was scared because of their ties to al Qaeda and other things. And the—and I think that’s at least part of the explanation on the CPA side—they’re willingness to engage on those issues.

I think over time through their own rather successful efforts they’ve developed a series of these heat shields, an ability to find, you know, kind of protection in other places—you know, particularly in the Arab League and China and others—which has increased their confidence. Now, that’s increased their confidence. At the same time—and there’s conflicting information on this—where Bashir might be feeling significant pressure from the right in his own coalition. I’m not sure we know much about it, but it’s—you know, it’s a possibility here that—you know, so he—you know, feeling more support abroad and more pressure in his own coalition, you know, has had a, you know, bad affect on our leverage.

I don’t think that the small things that might be considered on the leverage side are going to affect that dynamic very much. I think the things that affect that dynamic are peeling away his support structure insofar as possible, and then, serious sticks in the process that have something to do with his economy and that—you know, eventually the stability of his regime. And oil, I think, is one way to do that, both in immediate measures having to do with, you know, capital markets or other things, but also the possibility of under the right circumstances you’d have to consider a blockade. I mean, that would be military action.

QUESTIONER: Two questions. One, has the administration given up on a U.N. component to this force?

GERSON: No, we talked with people at NSC and State; they have not. I think their preferred option here right now is a force that has both an AU—well, their preferred option is just—

QUESTIONER: There’s always going—it was always going to be part of the U.N.-led force. So are they giving up on the U.N.-led part? What are they giving up—I mean—

GERSON: Well, the question is whether—which I think they’re debating—is whether it’s a—whether you can have a kind of joint command, where you would have both with significant elements, you know, recognizing a common commander, but they’re having an—essentially an AU-U.N. force. I don’t know how that works. I’m not sure anybody does, but that’s, you know, one possibility. But I think there’s a very strong belief in the administration that a U.N. component is important because it brings a kind of ability to, you know, to increase these force multipliers that make it credible.

When you’re—I think to affect the psychology of the situation, you have to have a quickly and significantly more capable force that’s showing a difference because the AMIS force, for all the good it’s done, is discredited in the eyes of the people. And it has to look like there’s been a change, and the only way to really do that is to have a change.

QUESTIONER: Another question if it’s okay—as a White House insider, about the election in Iraq. Are you open to that?


QUESTIONER: How do you think the White House is going to read the election results? You said it’s not clear. But do you think that a Democratic victory in the House and/or the Senate will put added pressure on them to do something else?

GERSON: Let me put it this way—I don’t think it will necessarily put added pressure on the president to do a shift in military strategy he doesn’t believe in. That’s not my experience of it. So I don’t think that that’s what’s at stake. I mean, he’s not going to do things that he thinks are counterproductive because the Democrats win the House, and I think as president you’re not forced to do that. But particularly if the Democrats win the House, I think that there’s going to be—have to be a significant relaunch of the Iraq effort to win public support for the last two years of the presidency, to pursue the strategies the president feels like are necessary to pursue.

And I don’t know what all the elements of that might involve, but it’s going to have to be, you know, a major effort to relaunch the message. And I do think that the administration is genuinely open to the Baker commission recommendations. I mean, I think they’re looking to that as a way to—not to fundamentally change, but to refine their approach in ways that will build bipartisan support. And so I think that’s significant.

QUESTIONER: Mike, how ironclad did you think Bush’s statement on Rumsfeld was?

GERSON: Well, that puts me in an awkward position. (Laughs.) You know, uniformly my experience with the president is that he has great regard for Rumsfeld, believes that his transformation efforts at the Department of Defense have been important in the long term. And so—I mean, that’s the reality.

QUESTIONER: But when he’s asked, “Would you expect Rumsfeld and Cheney”—the question was compound—“to be there till the end of your administration?” and he says, “Yes, I would,” that was read and the headlines were, you know, “Bush says Rumsfeld’s going to be there till the end.” I mean, it wasn’t—I mean, I’m just wondering how you read that. Was that just the obvious answer that you have to give a week out from an election, or do you think that was a signal that he really does intend to keep him around till the end?

GERSON: I think it signals a genuine confidence in Rumsfeld. You know, circumstances can change, but I think that that basic confidence of the president is very real, in my own experience.

QUESTIONER: He still thinks he’s gotten transformation rather than the breaking of the Army. (Inaudible)—transformation.

MR. FEINSTEIN : That was a question and—(inaudible). (Laughter).

QUESTIONER: Back to the idea of carrots. And you said that you thought that the carrots had to be real. I mean, what kind of message is it sending to other would-be genocidiares in both Africa and to other leaders—you know, Putin as he cracks down? I mean, on one hand, this administration keeps saying that it is interested in promoting democracy. But if you need to pay off some of these people to stop killing their own people and they see that there’s a benefit to that—I mean, already people are talking, and it’s totally apples and oranges, but on issues of proliferation, that Iran can be rewarded, North Korea can be rewarded. And to offer this guy sticks to stop the genocide, I mean—

MR. : (Off mike.)

QUESTIONER: Sorry.—just speaks to me of hypocrisy that could get us in trouble down the line. So at what point do you say, I mean, “No, we’re not going to pay you off to stop killing your people,” you know, that the stick approach is—

GERSON: It’s one of the most—for me it was one of the most difficult elements of all this, was that sometimes there’s a real-world conflict between justice and the protection of human life. And that is the difficult world of diplomacy. I don’t believe that sending an ambassador to Khartoum is the type of concession that’s going to call into question our belief in justice for genocidiares.

But there are real questions there about, you know, how far you go in a circumstance where—and it raises one of the most difficult ones, which is the role of, like, the ICC in all this. You know, I’ve been very attracted to the idea of America playing a more active role in cooperation with the ICC. It does provide pressure. I think the members of the regime are truly frightened of individual sanctions in that way. But it can also have the perverse effect of once you’ve identified people, they have very little to lose, and cooperation becomes impossible.

You know, this is being played out right now with the LRA and, you know, and it’s—you know, Kony is one of the most deranged, vicious madman in the world. And, you know, in Uganda I met people, you know, young kids that had their eyes taken out because they looked at him. And, you know, people are forced into cannibalism and, you know, it’s the face of evil in our time.

But it does seem to me that the ICC is going to have to be a more flexible mechanism in a certain way. If you could actually end the civil war—and, you know, Museveni seems to want to withdraw this, you know, as an inducement, that, you know, there’s a moral argument for that too. And, you know, that’s a difficult—it’s a difficult set of issues.

And I do think on the terror cooperation that—I mean, I think they did do some real terror cooperation—that wouldn’t be false, okay?—after 9/11. So my concern—I think that a capable force in Darfur is, you know, worth a lot of compromise.

QUESTIONER: Do you think he’s holding out for the best possible deal that he can, or—

GERSON: I think that he’s actually—in my own view, that he’s playing a delaying game because he’s at the same time trying to change the military situation on the ground in north Darfur, you know. I mean—so, you know, I think he feels like he benefits from delay. I don’t know if that means he’ll eventually accept it or not, but that he’s—you know, they’ve got a serious effort to try to change the situation on the ground.

QUESTIONER: But it’s really interesting to hear you talk about realism, though. I mean, it seems as if we’re picking and choosing like a smorgasbord as we go around the world: Okay, realism here, and ideology here. How long can we continue to do this without losing all of our credibility?

GERSON: Well, you know, I don’t want to be glib, but that is kind of diplomacy. I mean, you have to decide where you have—you know, where you push, under what circumstances. You know, I’m a foreign policy idealist, but I don’t think that you should pursue a self-destructive kind of course, particularly when other people’s lives are at stake. And, you know, I think that’s a misunderstanding of Bush foreign policy more broadly, is that because you accept this—kind of the goals of idealism, that somehow you have to believe, for example, that you have to push for elections tomorrow in Saudi Arabia, you know. I think that would be a disaster. I think that it means that you have to push every day, every week, every year on reforms that will eventually lead to good outcomes to move towards representative governments in these circumstances. But, you know, you have to deal with the world as you find it, and sometimes, you know, the lives of a lot of innocent people are at stake at the same time.

QUESTIONER: You talked earlier—it was really early when you started talking about the difference between the religious right and the evangelical movement, particularly as it plays out here. Could you define that a bit more?

GERSON: Sure. Yeah, I mean, historically the evangelical movement came out of a series of revivals that, you know, First Great Awakening, Second Great Awakening, and revivals throughout American history. The religious right, you know, was created in the 1970s, you know, around a set of issues, you know, reacting to court decisions and a variety of things.

You know, I went to a college that was founded by an evangelical who was an abolitionist, who was a woman’s suffrage supporter, you know, who also was against the trains running on Sunday. But, you know, it was—evangelicalism in America tended to be a reformist, social justice-oriented movement, and one of the main, you know, motivations for abolition. And so that’s—I mean, that’s the history to some extent. So what we’re seeing in a broadening of social concern to issues—moral issues beyond sexual morality is not a huge departure from that history. I think it’s in some ways a return to that history.

QUESTIONER: So do you think they’re sort of—because for a while they really looked like they got subsumed in the very narrow political objectives of the religious right, and they sort of became the ground force. Do you think that that’s now—

GERSON: You know, I think that there was some fault in the religious right in that, so I don’t disagree. I think there was a very active effort by the Democratic Party to do everything they possibly could to alienate them. You know, the—you know, just to give my own example, Jimmy Carter in 1976 was deeply respected in my home as someone who had a strong faith, witness kind of experience and talked about it in public and other things. But it—you know, the leaders that followed made a big difference, particularly for pro-life people; when somebody like Governor Casey, you know, of Pennsylvania was prevented from speaking at the Democratic Convention—governor of a—sitting governor of Pennsylvania—because he was pro-life. And there are plenty of evangelicals that are open to that perspective, the Casey perspective. I would work for Casey, you know, for president; I would have no problem with it at all.

And—but they were actively alienated and—now, I hope that’s changing. I think, you know, Obama’s doing smart things. (Laughs.) And you know, he’s one of the few who’s doing intellectually interesting kind of groundwork in preparation for a possible run both on genocide and on—which is a moral issue a lot of evangelicals are concerned about and the role of religion in both domestic and foreign policy. And you know, it’s—that’s not impossible, it just hasn’t been done very well.

QUESTIONER: Can I ask you just quickly about climate change, which is, obviously, something that evangelicals are also talking about more and more, and yet they say the White House doesn’t have any—or hasn’t shown the sort of enthusiasm like they are showing about the issue or Tony Blair’s shown about the issue.

GERSON: I actually think that that’s a—not speaking for the White House—I think that that’s a right issue for a major outreach from Republicans to do something significant on production, technology and consumption in the form autos. And the reason I think it’s right is because there’s a huge foreign policy impotence to that that’s shared by a lot of Republican foreign policy types, which is how oil acts as this enabler of—you know, of tyranny and of some of the most difficult and destructive foreign policy trends in the world.

And so I think you could make a national interest argument. I think you could make a green kind of environmental argument, and I think you can have the elements of a genuine compromise on that issue. Now, I mean, I don’t know how that’s going to come together because the administration for a variety of reasons has put a lot more emphasis on the promotion of technology in the third world, which I think is promising, the developing world. I think that’s a good thing to—you know, India, China and all these agreements that they want to do.

But if you’re talking about oil consumption, you’re talking about cars, and, you know, that means that you’re going to have to get—I think there are market-oriented ways to get a handle on that issue. That’s my view.

QUESTIONER: So you’re for the gas tax.

GERSON: No—(laughter)—let me tell you what I’m for. I’m for the Gregg Easterbrook approach. I think that you could actually set within categories of cars, you know, mile-per-gallon averages, and then have people pay additional for cars that go above the average and get a rebate for cars below the average. Okay? And that would actually move the average down over time, you know, because of the way the market would work.

You know, I think that’s a fascinating idea, and it wouldn’t raise the thing that you’re punishing, you know—you’re punishing a certain kind of car, because you can do it within the categories, okay, you know, within light trucks, you know. And you know, that seems to me a market-oriented way to get at these kind of issues. So—

QUESTIONER: I’d just ask you again—


QUESTIONER:—my second question. And I’m not sure—I think you talked about U.S. trends, but sort of globally how you see—maybe since the Balkans conflict but the idea of right of intervention, where you see—has it strengthened or—

GERSON: Well, a least a year ago we passed the responsibility to protect, right? I mean, that was—for the first time that you had a—with the support and agreement of the United States, a—you know, a principle of international law that there is a responsibility to protect. That has to be progress, right? And you know, we’ll see what the real-world consequences, you know, of that type of statement are. But I think it helps build an infrastructure to encourage and shame and, you know—so I—now, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. It doesn’t mean that America has a unilateral, you know, responsibility to send in the Marines. You know, I don’t think that’s what responsibility to protect means. It’s actually a collective responsibility, isn’t it, the way they define it. And—but it’s something.

FEINSTEIN: Did Elise want to follow up on that?

QUESTIONER: Yes. Well, I mean, in the instance of Darfur—and Lee’s written, I see, a little bit about this—I mean, how do you apply—and I’m sorry; I came in a few minutes late, so if you went over this in the beginning—but how do you apply the responsibility to protect to the situation in Darfur? And at what point—you know, what is the cutoff point at which you say this responsibility kicks in; we’re not—diplomacy is not working, and we have the quote-unquote “responsibility” to make sure that more people—I mean—

GERSON: I think there is that point. The question is whether the U.N. is an institution, in the way that it views itself, that invades other countries that don’t want them there. Yeah. And I mean, is that the instrument?

QUESTIONER: I don’t know.

GERSON: (Chuckles.)

QUESTIONER: I mean, but when—but the—maybe the responsibility to protect isn’t actually physically invading the country, but at what point do you agree we’re going to use every lever that you have to make sure that he agrees? I can’t—I couldn’t in good conscience say that that’s been done yet.

GERSON: I think we were at that—I think we’ve been at that point for a while and—you know, and I think that the United States has been much more willing to go further down that road than some of our allies—the Europeans and Chinese and others. And I—you know, the goal here is try to persuade them to take the next stage, to take the next step. It’s just hard to do alone.

I mean, you know, from a former Bush administration official, that’s a hard argument, you know. (Chuckles.) But it’s true in this circumstance. It’s a very difficult thing to do unilaterally.

QUESTIONER: Thank you.

FEINSTEIN: All right. Well, Michael, thank you very much. Thanks to all of you for coming to listen to Michael and to talk about Darfur on the eve of the midterm elections.







More on This Topic


A Killer Forces A Choice in Darfur

Author: Michael J. Gerson
Washington Post

Michael Gerson argues that in light of the humanitarian crisis in Darfur's refugee camps, the international community faces  a difficult...