IF THE United States can help bring Sudan's civil war to an end, it should.
In 18 years, the rebellion in the south and suppression by the north have taken 2 million lives and uprooted 4 million people. No end is in sight.
The Clinton administration tried to isolate Sudan's Islamic regime for supporting international terrorism, which it may have stopped doing. The policy remains, with strong support, because the Khartoum government terrorizes people, oppresses Christians and allows bandits to kidnap children in the south for slavery and ransom.
U.S. "nonlethal" aid to the Sudan People's Liberation Army, such as radios and food, helps to keep the rebellion going, without hope of winning. Recent production of oil in the south, flowing north to market, enriches the government and adds an incentive to crush the rebellion. Egypt reportedly supports Sudan for fear of hostile control of the upper Nile, source of life for both.
A group of U.S. Catholic bishops -- headed by Bishop John H. Ricard, president of Catholic Relief Services and a former auxiliary bishop in Baltimore -- calls for drastic policy change. Along with Kenneth F. Hackett, executive director of Catholic Relief Services, they visited both sides of the war.
They want priority put on ending the war, not winning it. That would entail a negotiated settlement, and probably autonomy short of sovereignty for the peoples of the south. Practically speaking, any settlement would need to ensure the flow of oil and water an end to religious and ethnic oppression and slave raiding.
The bishops want Washington engaged through a special envoy who is able to bring pressure on governments and oil companies. The implication is that relations with Sudan would improve and sanctions would end, which many in Washington find hard to accept.
Such a policy is not guaranteed to succeed. The policy it would replace certainly has not.
U.S. leadership is essential. The administration should proceed with a sense of humanitarian urgency. The requisite for President Bush and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is that, first, they must care.