FOR THE PAST 18 months, the Bush administration and its allies have clung to the fiction that they could stop the genocide in the Sudanese territory of Darfur by sending in African Union forces. On Thursday United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan spoke the truth about these troops: "They didn't have the large numbers that would have been required for a region the size of Darfur. They didn't have logistical support. They didn't have the mobility, either on the ground or in the air." Mr. Annan went on to say that the U.N. force that may replace the African Union had better be "a completely different force and have a completely different concept of operation." The issue is whether President Bush, who is due to meet Mr. Annan tomorrow, is willing to hear this message.
This shouldn't even be a question. In 2004 Mr. Bush's administration sent expert investigators to interview 1,136 victims of Darfur's violence; based on this careful assessment, the administration accused Sudan's government of genocide -- the first time a government has leveled such an accusation at a sitting counterpart since the U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide was adopted in 1948. Last summer Mr. Bush reaffirmed his belief that a genocide was occurring, and it's hard to see why his view would have altered. At least 2 million people -- a third of Darfur's population -- have been driven from their homes, and they could face starvation if international relief is interrupted. Assaults on civilians continue: A recent report describes government-backed ethnic cleansing in a town called Shaeria, coupled with the harassment and rape of nearby displaced people. To ensure that the displaced people have maximum prospects of dying, the government has asked foreign relief workers to get out of Shaeria.
This sickening violence was genocide when it began in 2003, and it remains so nearly three years later. The excuses for not confronting it with a serious Western troop deployment never looked good, but they are now thinner than ever. A series of alternative strategies has been tried: For much of 2004, the administration sought to put pressure on Sudan's government by means of U.N. resolutions; then in late 2004 it began to emphasize the stability that might flow from an African Union force; then in 2005 it set its sights on a negotiated settlement between Sudan's government and Darfur's hopelessly disunited rebels. None of this worked, and none of this is going to work in the near future. Indeed, Darfur's violence has recently grown worse and has spread into neighboring Chad, a country that plays host to French troops and American oilmen and seems on the verge of a civil war fomented by rebels apparently linked to Sudan's military.
Having passed through three stages of denial, will the administration accept Mr. Annan's appeal for an entirely more serious peacekeeping deployment? The administration is pushing for the creation of some kind of U.N. force but seems unsure whether it's willing to support a strong one. Meanwhile Jendayi Fraser, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, recently refused to describe Darfur's current violence as genocide.
The shaky consensus that exists in favor of creating a U.N. force for Darfur is a precious opportunity to intervene on a decisive scale; it must not be squandered. The U.N. deployment will probably need to be at least 20,000 strong, or bigger if Sudan's government offers overt resistance; it will need helicopters, skilled commanders and good communications equipment. A lesser force would set the United Nations up for failure, risking a repeat of the humiliations in Bosnia and Rwanda. A lesser force would also reveal that the United States and its allies do not want to end the genocide, preferring the pretense of doing so.
Mr. Annan was clear Thursday that he understands this choice. Tomorrow it will fall to Mr. Bush to say where he stands on genocide.