Tension between North and South Sudan could soon devolve into mass atrocities. But the same conditions that brought U.S. intervention to Libya are extremely unlikely to land us in Sudan.

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Pete Muller/AP

As South Sudan prepares to declare independence on July 9, the soon-to-be-state teeters on the brink of war. Northern Sudan's government raised tensions last week by seizing a key town in the disputed Abyei region, which straddles what will become the border between the two Sudans. The United Nations estimates that clashes between northern and southern forces have already displaced more than 30,000 civilians. Khartoum has also announced plans to occupy the disputed Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan provinces within days. These tensions are not the only cause of South Sudan's instability. Lacking basic infrastructure and a functional government, some aid workers are calling it a "pre-failed state". Its fragility has allowed opportunist militia leaders to stoke deadly inter-ethnic violence.

Many observers fear mass violence against civilians if Sudan slides back into full-scale war. In February 2010, former Director of National Intelligence Denis Blair testified before the Senate, "mass killing or genocide is most likely to occur in Southern Sudan." Atrocity watchdogs have also raised warning signals. Minority Rights Group International's annual list of "peoples under threat" ranks southern Sudanese second only to Somalis, and Genocide Watch reports that "current massacres" are taking place already.

If Sudan's atrocities escalate, will President Barack Obama intervene as he did in Libya? Or, will he avoid U.S. involvement as President Bill Clinton did in response to the Rwandan genocide? An analysis of when the U.S. intervenes, why, and to what end suggests that he will take the middle road between these two policies.

As with his two post-Cold War predecessors, Obama has taken what could be termed a "humanitarian realist" approach toward mass atrocities. That is to say, he intervenes only if he perceives that (1) U.S.-led military force can stop the bloodshed at an acceptable cost to the American public; (2) the atrocities threaten American interests; and (3), the public or administration officials have deep humanitarian concern about the situation. Obama judged that Libya met all three criteria. The Rwandan genocide, however, did not meet any in Clinton's view at the time that violence began there. Should widespread atrocities break out in South Sudan, the Obama administration would likely see it as meeting the latter two criteria: significant humanitarian concern and threats to U.S. national interest. As for the first criterion, however, Obama is not likely to see military action as viable given U.S. commitments elsewhere and the challenges posed by intervening in a potentially bloody, multi-faceted conflict. Thus, while the United States might attempt to mitigate the violence, it would probably not intervene.

In his March 28 speech at National Defense University, Obama laid out how the Libya intervention fit the humanitarian realist criteria. The United States, in his words, "had the ability to stop [Libya leader Muammar] Qaddafi's forces in their tracks." Arguing for the mission's viability, Obama emphasized that the U.S. military was operating as part of a "strong and growing coalition," reducing the "risk and cost of operation." Qaddafi threatened to national interests, according to the president, because the United States had to stand by its European allies and preserve the Arab Spring's momentum. Recognizing the humanitarian concern for Libyan civilians, Obama stated that he "refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves." Consequently, the U.S. has dedicated more than 8,000 personnel and flown more than 2,000 sorties as part of the international community's civilian protection mission in Libya.

In 1994, looking at the Rwandan genocide through this same lens of viability, national interest, and humanitarian concern, Clinton concluded that it did not meet the criteria for intervention. At the genocide's height, he released Presidential Decision Directive 25, which was, according to one administration official, "a kind of self-inflicted constraint against getting involved in too many places where we couldn't do what we set out to do." The small, central African country posed no discernible threat to American interests, unlike the crises in Bosnia and Haiti. Demonstrating the lack of perceived concern, Clinton remarked that few Americans cared about the bloodshed, because "CNN seldom showed pictures of the bodies on television." As a result, the administration refused to become involved militarily in Rwanda and even lobbied the UN Security Council to downsize the country's contingent of blue helmets from 2,500 to 270 personnel.

Unlike in Rwanda, widespread atrocities in South Sudan would bring public pressure to bear on the administration. The American evangelical community has longstanding connections with Sudan's Christian population, and Darfur advocacy groups have expanded their portfolios to include South Sudan. Key Obama administration officials have made clear they intend to take a harder line in support of intervention. Seven years after eschewing action in Rwanda, UN Ambassador Susan Rice vowed to "go down in flames" to stop future genocides. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has expressed regret for not speaking up to her husband during the Rwandan genocide. Obama's lead advisor for multilateral affairs Samantha Power -- recently dubbed "Interventionista" in a cover story for The National Interest -- chastised what she saw as U.S. inaction toward 20th century genocides in her seminal book, A Problem from Hell.

The Obama administration and most of Congress believe that mass atrocities, by their humanitarian toll alone, threaten American interests -- albeit, non-vital interests. The State Department's recent Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, a formal statement of the department's plans and posture, posits that these crises "[fuel] state and regional instability ... and [entrench] murderous regimes that perpetuate other threats." The Senate unanimously passed a concurrent resolution in December 2010 affirming that "it is in the national interest ... to prevent and mitigate future genocides and mass atrocities." Both George W. Bush and Obama have invested significant diplomatic and financial capital in Sudan's peace agreement. An imploded South Sudan could also have spillover effects on the conflicts in Congo-Kinshasa and northern Uganda.

But despite perceived threats national interests and humanitarian concern, Obama would probably not intervene because such a military mission would lack viability. The U.S. military is stretched thin with the engagements in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya.

Deploying troops to a fourth conflict would be a major political risk, especially as election season approaches. The risks aside, it is not clear that a U.S.-led force could in fact stop potential atrocities in South Sudan. A no-fly zone would have little effect on warring militias that typically use small arms. Putting boots on the ground is also problematic, given that perpetrators are hard to identify and that atrocities can metastasize without warning, potentially in very disparate locations. The International Crisis Group, which is not shy about calling for the use of force, warned that intervention in Abyei could be "both highly dangerous and uncertain to deliver results."

This lack of viability does not mean the United States would stand on the sidelines. In A Problem from Hell, Power argues that the Clinton administration could have stemmed the Rwandan genocide with a number of measures short of intervention. In her view, it should have made UN peacekeepers "a force to contend with", jammed belligerent radio broadcasts, and threatened to prosecute perpetrators. These suggestions may well serve as a blueprint for Obama's response if a similar scenario unfolds in South Sudan. Obama could push to extend the United Nation Mission in Sudan's mandate or create a follow-up mission with equally strong rules of engagement. He could also approve logistical support for the peacekeepers and implement non-lethal measures, such as communications jamming, if needed. Finally, as he did for Libya, Obama would likely seek International Criminal Court investigations for high-ranking perpetrators.

Would these measures be enough? They could reduce the killing but probably not stop it altogether. Even a major U.S.-led intervention might not succeed in quelling widespread atrocities. As the United States and its NATO partners are learning in Libya, military force is, after all, not a silver bullet for protecting civilians.

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