Calls for greater U.S. leadership in trying to end the humanitarian crisis in Darfur have gone unheeded because most members of the Bush administration and Congress do not believe their constituents care enough. To test that proposition, the International Crisis Group commissioned a Zogby poll of 1,000 Americans about the situation in Sudan and what they thought should be done. The results are illuminating.
While many Americans have only a loose grasp on the details of the Janjaweed militias and the Sudanese government that effectively controls them, the message has sunk in that horrible things are happening in Darfur. About 80 percent of respondents agreed that Janjaweed attacks on civilians in Darfur constitute either genocide or crimes against humanity, with this response even higher among Republicans (82 percent) than Democrats (79 percent).
Only one in six, a mere 17 percent of those polled, thought that Darfur should be treated as an internal Sudanese affair. After being provided with limited information on the situation, nearly 80 percent of the respondents supported an international intervention to stop the Janjaweed attacks; only 15 percent disagreed. Strong majorities of the respondents supported tough sanctions on those Sudanese leaders who control the militias (81 percent) and the establishment of a no-fly zone over Darfur (80 percent).
When asked about the best policy responses to the situation, 84 percent agreed that the United States should not tolerate an extremist government allegedly committing genocide or crimes against humanity and should use its military assets - short of putting U.S. troops on the ground - to help stop the tragedy. This suggests that the United States could, and should, be far more aggressive in mobilizing a NATO-led effort to deploy international peacekeepers to serve as a bridge until an AU force already in place can be expanded and made effective.
Understandably, there was decidedly less support for putting U.S. combat troops on the ground. But that 38 percent of respondents favored this option at a time when the war in Iraq is ongoing and no U.S. officials have advocated such an option suggests a widespread belief among Americans that the United States has a fundamental responsibility to help directly protect civilian populations.
The poll had some important findings for politicians in Washington eager to cater to key constituencies. Those most likely to support robust international action included such key voter demographics as Hispanics, Jews, 18- to 29-year-olds, married adults, college graduates, residents of the East and West, men and people with household incomes of $75,000 or more. On question after question posed, Republicans and Democrats were remarkably similar.
The bottom line was that a compelling majority of Americans do not think the government of Sudan and the Janjaweed militias should continue to be allowed to act with impunity. Those supporting this position included 83 percent of Republicans, 85 percent of Democrats, and more than 82 percent of Catholics, Protestants, Jews, born-again Christians and Muslims
Most importantly, it argues that U.S. officials will need to find a different excuse than public apathy if they are going to keep twiddling their thumbs over Darfur
Americans always have believed that moral leadership should be a core element of U.S. international engagement, and few find it defensible for a nation with remarkable influence and power to do so little in the face of such horrors
John Norris is chief of staff and special adviser to the president of the International Crisis Group.