Donald Rumsfeld, our misguided defense secretary, told the Council on Foreign Relations the other day that the United States is deficient in its public relations. He proposed a number of remedies, such as the rapid deployment of “the best military communications capabilities to new theaters of operation” and the development and execution of “multifaceted media campaigns.”
I humbly propose one additional remedy: Tell President Bush to keep his mouth closed.
I am not referring here to the endless stream of presidential malapropisms. These, as they circulate on the Internet, provide comic relief in an otherwise typically barren barrage of e-mails. No, I refer instead to the president’s all too frequent displays of either bad taste or ignorance, or both.
Take two statements the president made February 17.
In the same week in which The New York Times carried an extensive front-page report on the growing divisions between Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq, and the difficulties that those division were creating for the formation of a new government there, Bush had this to say in Orlando, Fla.: “Isn’t it fun to watch a government formed by some of the same people who have just been living under the thumb” of Saddam Hussein?
Clearly it would be disrespectful to take the president at his word, to think that he really finds it “fun” to watch this terribly complicated process that’s still nowhere near its conclusion; this simply cannot be his idea of “fun.” But it is not so easy to figure out exactly what — or, for that matter, even approximately what — the president meant to say.
Earlier on the same day, in Tampa, the president addressed the continuing tragedy in Darfur, where 200,000 — and some say closer to 400,000 — people have been murdered and 2 million have been forced to flee their homes. In this example of presidential overspeak, there’s no uncertainty regarding what Bush meant to say. “Our country was the first country to call what was taking place [in Darfur] a genocide, which matters — words matter.”
While there is in fact some controversy over whether what’s happening in Darfur qualifies as a genocide — as defined in the United Nations’ Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide — Congress unanimously said it does, and so did the president himself in September 2004. On that score, the president was quite right: Our country was the first to call it that.
But in saying “words matter,” Bush was only a little bit right and very much wrong. Yes, words matter, existentially. But do words matter to Bush? Specifically, does the word “genocide” matter to him? Even more specifically, do the words “genocide in Darfur” matter to him?
There is some reason to think they once did. But whatever the affirmative obligations that follow from using the term “genocide,” neither Congress nor the president has acted accordingly.
This year, for example, Congress rejected the $50 million that the State Department had requested for support of the African Union troops — 7,000 of them, brought in to bring safety to humanitarian workers in Darfur, an area roughly the size of France. The African Union troops are the only international presence in the region.
And the president? Well, in his remarks the other day, he indicated that it is time to talk about a role for NATO, since the African Union troops are plainly inadequate to the task. Yet almost immediately, Bush administration officials seemed to be backing away from the idea of NATO’s involvement on the ground in Darfur. If anything, they have appeared to be saying, NATO should offer more logistical support.
The president, in his remarks, spoke favorably of doubling the number of peacekeepers on the ground; the U.N.’s Security Council just last month spoke of bringing the number of peacekeepers to 20,000, triple the current number. But as the president surely knows, whether the goal be doubling or tripling, finding and equipping and deploying such troops — and the United States has been very clear that it will contribute none — is a process that may well take up to a year. Better late than never, to be sure, but in the next year there will certainly be more rape and pillage, more murder and expulsion.
Writing in Dissent magazine in its fall 2004 issue, Eric Reeves quotes from a U.N. account: “In an attack on 27 February  in the Tawilah area of northern Darfur, 30 villages were burned to the ground, over 200 people killed and over 200 girls and women raped — some by up to 14 assailants and in front of their fathers, who were later killed. A further 150 women and 200 children were abducted.”
In 2004, Bush sent expert investigators to interview 1,136 victims of Darfur’s violence. Based on their assessment, the administration accused Sudan’s government of genocide, the first time any government has leveled such an accusation at another.
It has been 18 months since the president used the word “genocide” to describe what is happening. In the meantime, delegation after delegation has visited Darfur or neighboring Chad, to which many people from Darfur have been driven. Endless representations have been made to the government of Sudan. From all reports, however, the situation in Sudan is getting worse, not better. By now, at least 2 million people — a third of Darfur’s population — have been driven from their homes and now face starvation.
There are and have been very specific recommendations regarding what needs to be done — ranging from a no-fly zone to prevent government helicopter gunships from providing support for the murderous Janjaweed militias, to recruiting more peacekeeping troops specifically from Muslim countries.
Yes, Mr. President, words matter. They always have, and they still do.