WASHINGTON -- The greeting given to visitors at the presidential palace in Khartoum, Sudan, is an exercise in intimidation. You pass guards in white uniforms with AK-47s, walk under a pair of enormous elephant tusks, then file past a machine gun emplacement. Guests are reminded that they have entered the rebuilt palace where Gen. Charles Gordon - the British father of humanitarian interventionism - was killed in a 19th-century Islamist uprising. The message of warning to a new generation of Western idealists is given and taken.
Immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, the regime in Khartoum, which once sheltered Osama bin Laden, was suddenly cooperative - fearful of being visited by the fate of Afghanistan. By the time I met President Omar al-Bashir in 2005, the fright had worn off. The regime felt shielded from pressure by close relations with China - its main market for oil - and by solidarity with Arab governments. Mr. al-Bashir dismissed accusations of genocide in the western province of Darfur as "legitimate defense operations" and boldly pushed for an end to American sanctions on his country.
Traveling in Darfur a few days later, I got a whirlwind tour of hell.
These "defense operations" involve the use of local militias to destroy village after village, sending millions into densely populated camps. The outskirts of those camps are ruled by brutal mounted militias that use rape and murder as tools of intimidation.
During that visit, it was clear that 15,000 to 20,000 U.N. peacekeepers, armed with attack helicopters and a mandate to protect civilians, could make a difference. That mission was eventually approved by the U.N. Security Council. But leaders of the regime have obstructed the deployment of that force at every turn, fearful it might eventually be used to arrest them on charges of genocide.
The welcome announcement Tuesday by President Bush of stronger American sanctions against Sudan, and new efforts in the Security Council to internationalize those sanctions, is an attempt to break this resistance.
Within the administration, most concede that these actions by themselves will not be enough. But the effective use of this stick - banks expelling Sudanese accounts worth hundreds of millions of dollars - might make the threat of other, heftier sticks more credible.
The new sanctions were opposed by the U.N. secretary-general, the Chinese, the Saudis and the Egyptians, all of whom want "just a few more weeks" to perform diplomatic miracles. But there is also a gathering coalition for stronger action that includes the United States, Britain, Denmark, some African countries - and now France. The new government of Nicolas Sarkozy is reviewing its Darfur policy and has signaled a willingness to join the U.N. peacekeeping force and perhaps to establish humanitarian corridors in eastern Chad.
Past the current round of sanctions, the choices become more difficult. One option is to keep sanctions in place, re-engage the government and the rebels in negotiations, and wait until the conditions for a genuine peace ripen. In this view, the cost of patience is relatively low - humanitarian conditions in the Darfur camps have improved recently by most measures. The cost of military confrontation could be high, if it causes the regime to expel the thousands of humanitarian aid workers who keep millions from starvation.
The problem with waiting for peace, as one administration official put it to me, is that "the regime only responds to pressure. It has no record of responding to positive moves." So the other option is to set out on a ladder of escalation that will compel acceptance of the U.N. force and the disarmament of the militias. This approach would eventually involve the threat of force by a coalition of the willing - not invasion and occupation, but a no-fly zone and perhaps a blockade. It would also require a clear message to the regime that menacing the refugees would bring terrible consequences. The more credible this threat of force, the more likely that the regime would comply without the use of force.
Given other commitments, the U.S. military has been reluctant to even plan for these contingencies. But this leads to the strangest of situations: The French may now be more willing than the Pentagon to act against genocide in Darfur.
The choice here is far from obvious. Escalation has risks; if not done in earnest, it is better not to begin at all. America is understandably weary and distracted. But a question hangs over the history of our time: Are we too tired to oppose genocide?
Michael Gerson is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. His e-mail is email@example.com.
Kathleen Parker's column will return next week.