Washington After four years of brutal raids, ethnic cleansing and systematic rape in Darfur, Sudan - and nearly three years after the Bush administration declared this a genocide - the U.N. Security Council has finally approved a credible peacekeeping force. For 2 million displaced people in the camps, this is a wisp of hope on the horizon. For 200,000 of the dead, it comes too late.
The most disturbing part of the latest U.N. negotiations was the continued leverage exercised by the regime in Khartoum, which has a long history of mass killing. In the polished manners of the United Nations, blood on your hands is not a disqualification for a seat at the diplomatic table.
With the expected help of China, and the disappointing support of France and Britain, the Sudanese envoy weakened the mandate of the peacekeeping force - no weapons are to be seized from the militias - and removed the threat of sanctions if Khartoum fails to cooperate. The regime protested that its "sovereignty" over the people of Darfur must be respected - which is really the sovereignty of lions over the herds they hunt.
But even this diluted resolution is useful. It authorizes what will be the largest peacekeeping operation in the world - upward of 25,000 soldiers and police under joint U.N. and African Union control. It sets specific dates for the transition to that force. And it mandates the protection of both aid workers and civilians.
Khartoum's grudging acceptance of U.N. peacekeepers is the result of global pressure. For all its tactical confusions, Sarkozy's France is tougher on the regime than was Chirac's France. China can no longer be too obvious in its support of Khartoum, or it would risk the boycott of its Olympics next year. And a new round of American sanctions on Sudan has begun to bite, pressuring international banks to stop accepting Khartoum's billions in oil money. The Sudanese, one U.S. official told me, "are feeling financial pressures across the board, really flailing on the financial side."
Is this momentum real? There are two benchmarks that will help answer this question, one way or the other.
In October, the United Nations must have its headquarters - its command and control structure - operational in Darfur, and take over financing African troops already on the ground.
By December at the latest, the U.N. will need to have in place what is called the "heavy support package" - hospitals, attack helicopters, 2,000 new African troops, and 3,000 police. It will also need to know which countries will contribute the rest of the troops to the peacekeeping force.
If the United Nations has met these realistic goals by New Year's Eve, it will be a good beginning, a sign of seriousness.
But the signals out of Khartoum are mixed. The United Nations has informed U.S. officials that it is already getting resistance from the regime on logistical issues. If the Sudanese continue to play these games, as they have done before, there will need to be penalties.
The United States has immediate responsibilities as well - to provide airlift support through NATO, training for command staff, communications and computer equipment, and generators. America is obligated to pay for 27 percent of the cost of the peacekeeping force, which will probably require a supplemental funding bill from Congress in 2008.
But the implementation of this resolution is, above all, a test for the United Nations. In dealing with Darfur, U.N. officials are determined to learn from their historical mistakes. The problem is choosing which mistake to learn from.
U.N. military planners want to avoid the debacle of Somalia which began in 1992, when peacekeepers entered a chaotic situation piecemeal and eventually left in defeat and failure. So in Darfur they want the U.N. intervention to be large and decisive - a "big bang" - even if that means the timeline is delayed. During a genocide, however, patience and delay have casualties.
Another U.N. failure is worth recalling and avoiding: Rwanda in 1994. While waiting for perfect circumstances to intervene, the world did little, and now lives haunted by a million ghosts.
No historical analogy is exact. But the Darfur genocide is closer to Rwanda than Somalia. It requires the urgent establishment of security first.
For all the Americans who have worked and prayed for Sudan over the years, for all the churches and synagogues with banners that call us to conscience, the time to push has arrived. There are many complex steps of negotiation and reconciliation between government and rebels down the road. But we should begin with one step: 5,000 new police and troops in Darfur by the end of this year.