By Sebastian Mallaby
Monday, January 31, 2005; Page A21
I once wrote a column about the epic struggle between Eric Reeves and Madeleine Albright. Albright was the secretary of state at the time; Reeves was practically unheard of. He was a lover of Milton and Shakespeare who taught at Smith College in Massachusetts. He was also a private citizen so incensed about the long war in Sudan that he had taken a leave from his job to do something about it.
Reeves had the two weapons that modern agitators need: intellect and Internet. He mined the Web for Sudanese info, then e-mailed policymakers, church groups and members of the press, denouncing America's indifference to the conflict. Albright, who had made the mistake of saying that "the human rights situation in Sudan is not marketable to the American people," did not come off too well. Reeves hammered home the northern government's appalling tactics against the people of the south -- the condoning of slavery, the helicopter attacks on schools and hospitals, the ethnic cleansing of tribes that inconveniently inhabited oil fields. The Reeves e-mails were too authoritative to ignore. I first came across Reeves when a State Department official couldn't answer my questions and referred me to him.
It's worth recalling the Reeves-Albright battle because we seem likely to forget its lesson. President Bush's inflated rhetoric, together with Iraq's turmoil, may discredit the idea that foreign policy should be rooted in unabashedly moral claims: that the United States should spread freedom, right human wrongs, aspire to plant democracy. But the Eric Reeves story shows why U.S. foreign policy not only shouldn't lose its moral compass; in all likelihood it can't. For if America's leaders lapse into amoral word-mincing, ordinary citizens will rise up, and their protests will spread at broadband speed to every corner of the nation.
Reeves's campaign five years ago had a clear effect. His writings encouraged more and harsher press attention to Sudan; activists and church groups were energized; Western oil companies cut off their links with the country, and Albright's tone toughened. When the Bush administration took office the next year, evangelicals persuaded it to make Sudan a top Africa priority. Four years of high-level U.S. attention have driven Sudan's government to sign a peace deal with the south, signaling a victory for the moralist view of foreign policy. The United States has successfully exerted influence out of concern for human rights, and never mind that Sudan is supposedly not marketable.
But Reeves now fights another battle, and this is the second reason to recall his clash with Albright. The new battle is Darfur, the western province of Sudan where the government is recycling the barbarous techniques that it once used on southerners. As in the last battle, Reeves is calling upon U.S. policymakers to do more. And as in the last battle, his e-mails are too authoritative to ignore. "I read Eric Reeves religiously," Charles R. Snyder, the senior State Department official on Sudan, said at the end of a recent conference call. "Even if he gives me heartburn."
Again, Reeves has made some progress. Last February, before journalists had woken up to the slaughter in Darfur, Reeves wrote an op-ed in The Post titled "Unnoticed Genocide." At the time, talk of "genocide" was frowned upon as loose, but Reeves knew the language of the U.N. genocide convention as well as he knew what was happening on the ground, and by the summer Congress and then later the Bush administration and the European Union parliament had adopted his terminology.
Reeves has also been correct earlier than anyone about the extent of Darfur's death toll. The most commonly cited number, used by newspapers, U.N. officials and most everybody else, is a World Health Organization estimate of 70,000 deaths; but Reeves has repeatedly explained why this number is preposterous. It excludes deaths before last March. It excludes most violent deaths. It excludes deaths in camps to which relief workers lack access. It excludes deaths in Darfur's three main towns, in camps across the Chad border and in the remote countryside. In October, using data on family death rates reported by displaced people, Reeves put the total death toll at 300,000. A new analysis for a British publication, Parliamentary Brief, has roughly corroborated Reeves's analysis.
The question now is whether Reeves's prescriptions will be heard, too: that a far more determined effort must be made to get food and protection to Darfur's people, who have been driven from their fields by the army and its militia allies. For now, the signs aren't good. After a spike of energy last year, Darfur diplomacy has been sidetracked into a dispute about which sort of international court should be empowered to try its war criminals. But the moral power of Reeves's message cannot be counted out. Without tougher action, Darfur's death toll may be even worse this year than it was last year. Is the Bush administration going to claim that 300,000 more deaths are somehow not "marketable"?
© 2005 The Washington Post Company