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Think Tanks, Democracy and Public Policy: The Case of Darfur
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Think Tanks, Democracy and Public Policy: The Case of Darfur

Remarks of John D. Podesta

Remarks of John D. Podesta

Thank you.

I appreciate the opportunity Scripps College Humanities Institute has offered me this evening.

Let me start on the role of think tanks in Washington today.

In an earlier life, when I was an undergrad, I remember being told that old observation by Otto Von Bismarck that: “the less people know about how sausages and laws are made, the better they’ll sleep at night.”

At the time I thought Bismarck was probably being just a tad too hard on lawmakers.

Now, after having had the benefit of working on Capitol Hill and in the White House, I think he may have been unfair to sausage makers.

Growing up, I think most Americans think of policy making – to the extent they think about it all – as a fairly tidy, rational enterprise.

I’m reminded of those old illustrations showing how a bill becomes a law where stick figures hand legislation back and forth, hold hearings, vote and then send their proposal on to the president.

If only it were that simple.

Because whether it’s the quality of the water we drink, the schools we send our kids to – or whether someone’s able to walk into a gun shop in L.A. and walk out with an Uzi – or whether the president has the authority to take the country to war without much thought about the consequences of that decision – there is a whole universe of players who impact public policy making – and most of them have never had their name on a ballot.

Many of them, of course, are lobbyists: the herds of interest groups whose mission isn’t only to influence legislation, but how laws are implemented once they’re passed.

Now, there’s nothing wrong about lobbying. After all, having a voice in the process is really what democracy is all about.

That means everyone from timber companies who want to exploit national forests, to environmentalists who want to preserve them, ought to have their shot at influencing policy debates – and their outcome.

But beyond the lobbyists, there’s a cluster of other people who have a profound impact on policy – often to a far greater degree than even the most effective lobbyists.

And those are people who populate our nation’s so-called “think tanks.”

Now, most Americans really aren’t terribly conscious of what think tanks are or what they do.

I think the ones who are aware tend to be watching C-SPAN at three o’clock in the morning.

Maybe you know some of them – or you’re one yourself: one of those people who sits in their living room with the channel changer and, despite the pleading of your housemates or family, insists on watching one of those panel discussions about whether China should let its currency float against the dollar.

Well chances are that panel discussion was organized by a think tank.

And the fact that having it on the TV may drive everyone in your house bonkers is really beside the point.

Because the constituency most think tanks are trying to influence isn’t the public at large, but rather a very small elite: the news media, academia, interest groups and policymakers.

They do it by filling a vacuum: a lack of new ideas to solve old problems, backed up by sound research.

Now some of you may have thought that is a role for academic institutions and perhaps in the Q & A we can explore why increasingly academic institutions aren’t bigger players.

But trust me the vacuum exists and this is the breach the think tanks have walked into.

Traditionally, that’s meant underwriting policy research.

And disseminating the findings of that research to that small elite I mentioned a moment ago.

And even organizing those boring panel discussions on C-SPAN.

Now, that’s the traditional role of think tanks.

Some, like the Brookings Institution which are old, well-established, and moderately liberal.

And others, like the Center for Strategic and International Studies, that are newer, well-established, and moderately conservative.

But, regardless of their political orientation, they tend to follow the same script: reaching out to elites in Washington while ignoring the rest of America.

That’s the traditional role. And it’s served them reasonably well.

But over the past 30 years or so, we have also seen a new breed of think tank emerge—almost exclusively on the right.

Institutions like the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute and the American Enterprise Institute and its spin-off the Project for a New American Century that brought us the theory that we would create a democratic Middle East by invading Iraq.

They and their funders weren’t content to issue white papers and hold panel discussions. They wanted to frame and engage in the public debate and move the country radically to the right.

It was with these institutions in mind, and because we thought their ideas, which had come to dominate American political discourse were so wrong, that a little over a year ago my colleagues and I formed the Center for American Progress.

We start from a premise that facts matter and with a commitment to quality research and good ideas.

And we talk to elites but we also know that we have to reach out and begin a dialogue among the American people.

And that’s particularly urgent now.

We believe that it is high time progressives are heard.

That’s why the Center for American Progress isn’t only composed of scholars and academics; we’re also guided by political veterans and communications professionals who understand how to translate ideas into action.

We not only conduct research and draft policy alternatives, we craft our ideas into messages that the public responds to.

We don’t wait for the media to contact us; we’re proactive and promote our ideas to journalists seven days a week.

We concentrate most of our resources on some big ticket issues, national security, Iraq, terrorism, the economy, taxes and health care.

But we don’t only address the issues that are on the front page, we make it our business to help see to it that important – but neglected – issues get to the front page.

I’m talking about issues which go to the heart of what it means to be a progressive in America – and what it means for America to be a progressive force in the world.

And, that’s what I want to discuss, tonight, because speaking as a progressive, I can’t think of many issues that are more underreported, yet more deserving of our attention than the genocide occurring in Sudan.

I’m sure that many of you have read accounts of the crisis in Sudan’s western Darfur region.

Now, I know there are some people who might ask why our think tank decided to dedicate time and energy and financial resources to an issue like Sudan.

After all, the tragedy there is seen by most people as a humanitarian emergency.

Well, it is. But we think it’s much more than that.

In case you haven’t followed the story, I’m going to play a short presentation behind me. I know college students today are particularly skilled at multitasking, so I’m going to continue talking while the presentation is playing.

At the Center, we believe that America’s response to the crisis in Sudan is fundamental to restoring our nation’s commitment to progressive values abroad and at home.

Why is that?

First, America’s historic commitment to ethnic, religious and racial equality compels us to stand up for Sudan.

Consider the history.

As many of you know, like many African countries, Sudan was dealt a weak hand by the departing colonial powers, who cemented rather than resolved ethnic, tribal and racial differences. 

The U.S. Army’s remarkably politically incorrect Handbook for Sudan released in 1960 reflects the sharp distinctions that still divide Sudan: “The ideal Arab,” says the handbook, “is a man with an undisputed claim to direct descent from the Prophet; he is light-skinned and does no manual labor; is familiar with the Koran and the law and eloquent in classical Arabic; has married at least once and has several sons; wears ample white robes, and keeps his women in seclusion. The typical Negro, as seen by the Arab, shows none of these characteristics and is accordingly condemned to a physical, moral and economic inferiority which fits him for the position of slave to the Arab.”

Sudan won its independence in 1956 after having been ruled for years as an Anglo-Egyptian Condominium, an arrangement that allowed London to make all the decisions and Cairo to implement the colonial order. In its wisdom, the British colonial power decided that the best way to prevent the spread of Islam from the north into the predominantly Christian south was to leave the two regions separate. In a country one-third the size of the United States, no roads linked the north and south, and a vast swamp known as the Sudd precluded regular barge traffic.

While the absence of physical infrastructure did prevent the expansion of Islam into central Africa, it also paved the way for a national incoherence that led to almost 40 years of a north-south conflict and a 20-year war that killed over 2 million people.

Like its predecessors, the government that took power in 1989 in a military coup was determined that power should rest in the hands of those at the center of this vast state, and that the north should control the south, the east and the west. What was new was the vehicle – an Islamic state structured to reflect the hard-line, ideological bent of a handful of elites, and buttressed by alliances with other radical Islamist forces.

Within months of coming to power, Sudan’s current government rigorously enforced Islamic law in a move that was opposed by the country’s non-Muslims and even by a majority of secular Sudanese Muslims who had traditionally favored Islam as a religious way of life, but not as an instrument of dominance. 

The government fiercely prosecuted the war in the south, and reached out to radical Islamist networks around the world – including those led by Osama bin Laden, who moved into Sudan in the early 1990s and remained there until he shifted his base to Afghanistan. 

Systematically, a handful of elites imposed its will, by force of arms, intimidation and repression, on all they viewed as “the other.” And the African Muslims of Darfur are only their latest victims.

Second, America’s tradition as a compassionate nation requires us to stand up for Sudan.

One-third of Darfur’s people have been chased from their homes by marauding militia unleashed by the central government. Over 1.2 million people.

They now live in camps, inside Sudan and across the border in Chad, that rise out of a thick dust that turns to impassable mud at the first sign of rain. There are few animals and even fewer trees. Their “homes” are erected from whatever is available – sticks, the odd bit of thatch, plastic bags, and the woven plastic from food aid bags. There is no land to plant, and there is nowhere for animals to graze. There are no jobs to be had, and no schools.

The stories told by the residents of these camps are repetitive – they tell of the Janjaweed militia attacking at night, of their animals being slaughtered, of the men, women and children beheaded, stabbed or beaten and left for dead; of the wells poisoned by rotting corpses and of the torches that were used to set their homes on fire. The reports of the systematic rape of women and girls are well documented, and increasing.

The camps they live in now provide temporary refuge, but not security. The government’s military and police forces have access, and camp residents are fearful of renewed attack. When girls or women leave the camps to gather firewood, they are attacked and raped.

More than 80,000 Darfuris have been killed or died from disease and hunger since this spring.

And the U.N.’s World Health Organization just reported that that number is going up by at least 10,000 a month. Think about it, every week in Darfur, nearly as many people are being killed as died in the World Trade Center.

Third, America’s belief in justice demands that we stand up for Sudan.

Earlier this month, Secretary of State Colin Powell testified before members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the crisis in Darfur constitutes genocide, something our scholars at the Center and our ally the U.S. Committee on Conscience, a project of the United States Holocaust Museum, have been urging him to do since June. It was the right thing to do, even if his confirmation of the obvious was a bit late in coming.

As Secretary Powell pointed out in his testimony, the government of Sudan is a signatory to the 1948 Convention on Genocide, and is thus obliged to act to both prevent acts of genocide and punish the perpetrators. It is obvious that the Sudanese government at this stage has no intention of preventing further acts of genocide – and even more apparent that its willingness to punish the perpetrators is minimal, at best.

But what Secretary Powell did not say is that the United States also signed the 1948 Convention on Gencoide and that, therefore, we must assume these same obligations – to prevent and to punish. This takes me to my last point.

Fourth and finally, we will not be living up to our responsibilities as a world leader unless we stand up for Sudan.

It is easy to respond if responding means only expressing outrage. For months and months, the Secretary-General of the U.N., the U.N. Security Council, President Bush and other world leaders have decried the killings in Sudan, and called upon the government to stop. 

But nothing changed.

It is also relatively easy to respond to the humanitarian imperative that is so evident in Sudan. Thanks in large measure to the world’s non-government organizations and the Sudanese and international relief workers on the ground, aid is now getting to more of the victims of the crisis in Darfur. 

And the United States has been the most generous of all the world’s donors. But while more aid is now moving into Darfur, it has not brought the crisis to an end.

Responding to the crisis in Darfur means – and must mean to all of us – stopping it. And that is where progressive ideals and the hard realities of policy converge.

Over time, the conventional wisdom has had it that the United States should intervene only when and where our strategic and vital national interests are at stake.

This has meant, for example, that we did intervene in Kosovo – but did not intervene in Rwanda.

This means, for example, that the Bush Administration chose to intervene in Iraq – but has chosen not to intervene in Sudan.

Among the many challenges we face at a time of rapid globalization and sharp division in this world, the issue of humanitarian intervention may be one of the most difficult but also one of the most compelling.

On the one hand, there is merit in arguing that the United States cannot do everything, and must, therefore, precisely define the criteria under which we will deploy our military or take any of the other risks that come with intervening in complex political crises.

As we are seeing today with major troop deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq, our forces can be overstretched – to the point where we are unable to act when our own national security demands that we do so.

As we saw in Somalia, where 18 U.S. Marines were killed and their bodies dragged through the streets, the risks are high.

And as we also know from Somalia, intervention does not always work.

But the flip side of the coin is equally, if not more compelling.

By not intervening in Rwanda, the United States, the United Nations, the developed world and indeed the developing world – all of us – stood by while close to 1 million people were slaughtered.

Our national security was not in any traditional sense jeopardized by the deaths of so many men, women and children, and our strategic interests were not impaired.

But our fundamental values were compromised.

It is for this reason – the need to reflect our common values in the pursuit of our strategic interests – that U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2000 called upon the world to grapple with the tough issue of humanitarian intervention. An eminent panel led by Gareth Evans, the former foreign minister of Australia and now the head of the International Crisis Group, responded by coining a phrase and an idea that captures the progressive ideal, and answers the Secretary-General’s call – they spoke of the “responsibility to protect.”

At the Center, we strongly believe that it is this concept – the responsibility to protect – that must define the international community’s response to crises like the one unfolding in Darfur.

The responsibility to protect underscores a fundamental truth – that in a world where the citizens of some nations benefit from great wealth and power while others go without – we on the strong side have a responsibility.

And it also speaks to what that responsibility entails – that we protect innocent civilians from wanton death, destruction and, without question, from the specter of genocide.

You find in all the world’s great religions the notion that societies should be judged by the way they treat their weakest members. Based on this framework, the most powerful among us do not fare as well as we should, or might.

By invoking the responsibility to protect, we can act upon the progressive ideals I have outlined – the right to racial, ethnic and religious equality; the need for justice; and the power of our compassion.

Acting on this responsibility does not mean that in each case the United States, or the European Union, must put “boots on the ground,” though in some cases that will prove the right thing to do. It does mean that we must act to ensure that civilians, like those in Darfur, are protected.

In the case of Darfur, this means – at least in the short term – supporting the African Union, which has acted while the rest of the world has watched. A new organization that speaks to Africa’s growing commitment to assume its rightful place in the international community, the AU negotiated a tentative ceasefire in Sudan in April; and deployed the first of its observers in June. That deployment remains woefully inadequate: 90 observers and 300 troops in an area the size of France.

But there is now an opportunity to expand that observer force, and in so doing to provide a deterrent while also monitoring ongoing abuses so that accountability can be pursued.

Prior to Secretary Powell’s testimony two weeks ago, the U.S. had provided $3.2 million to support the AU mission – that’s what we spend every 30 minutes in Iraq. Even with the Secretary’s announcement of an additional $20 million, we are spending just over 10 percent of what we spend in Iraq every day to protect the people of Darfur.

This is obviously not enough. This paltry contribution undercuts our rhetoric, and contradicts our fundamental values.

If we mean what we say, we will make a serious commitment – to provide aircraft, helicopters, trucks, fuel and cash – to expanding the AU force, and expanding the protection of Darfur’s people.

And if we’re serious about assuming our responsibility to protect, we will stay engaged. Darfur may come across as an emergency on our television screens – but it is a crisis of long-term proportions, and one that demands that we act now, stay involved through what promises to be an arduous and difficult process of peace negotiations, and support the long process of rebuilding Darfur once and if peace comes.

Make no mistake – left untended, the crisis in Darfur will directly threaten our national security. An ongoing war in Darfur could unravel a fragile peace agreement in the south, and light a match to a simmering conflict in the east. Africa’s largest country would then be in flames. The conflict could easily spill over its borders, threatening the stability of all of East Africa and spawning new tensions to the west. And we would be left with a fragile and failing state straddling the Arab and African worlds.

As President Bush himself has said – and as Afghanistan has shown us – weak and failing states provide safe haven for the terrorists and criminals who wish to do us harm. And they offer no hope to their citizens.

But while our national security must be paramount, so must our commitment to the common values that – if acted upon – can lead to a world more united than divided. 

That’s the issue in Sudan.

So that brings me back to think tanks. How can a think tank like ours respond? What should we be doing about it?

Well, let me start by telling you what we’ve done and what we’re doing at the Center for American Progress.

First, we’ve mapped out our policy recommendations.

We believe that the United States must provide the African Union with the financial and logistical support they need to expand their mission to Darfur now, and should also set aside the funding that will likely be needed for another expansion – so while an increase to 3,000 troops is a step forward, it is only the first step towards the creation of a much larger mission.

We’re also advocating that U.S. support for the AU be offered as part of a structured assistance package aimed at building the organization’s capacity to respond to other crises in Africa. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, chaos still rules in the eastern part of the country, and conflict has killed 3 million people there over the last decade. And there are other crises – in northern Uganda, in Sierra Leone, in Liberia and elsewhere, that may require the AU’s involvement.

Conflict – and even genocide – has consumed African countries before, and will again. So we’re recommending that the United States develop an assistance package that can be provided promptly when and if the AU deploys anywhere in Africa.

We’re also advocating that the resolution just passed by the U.N. Security Council which threatens sanctions be amended to include a specific date by which sanctions will be imposed if the government fails to act to stop the genocide. 

And finally, we are calling for much more active U.S. diplomatic action in support of a comprehensive peace settlement that would entail final agreement between the Sudanese government and the southern rebels; a new agreement between Khartoum and the rebels in Darfur; and a proactive agreement aimed at resolving the political crisis in the east before it erupts into war.

We have made those ideas known to our allies on Capitol Hill where they are being pursued. We are also working with our partners in Europe, Brazil and South Africa.

But consistent with our commitment to move outside the beltway to enlist the support and action of progressive Americans all around the country, we are also reaching out.

We began with an op-ed in the Washington Post by Senior Fellow Gayle Smith and her colleague, former Assistant Secretary for Africa Susan Rice last May. In July, we played a central role in organizing an event at the U.S. Holocaust Museum, where Senators Corzine and Brownback joined with holocaust survivors to provide witness to the genocide unfolding in Sudan. In a moving moment – and a first for the Holocaust museum – all activity in the museum was halted while the senators, survivors and members of the Darfuri community in the United States spoke.

We have tracked events in Sudan in our daily publication, the Progress Report, which has approximately 70,000 subscribers. Earlier this month, Senior Fellow Gayle Smith accompanied Senator Jon Corzine on an official visit to Darfur, and we are publishing a 5-part series and an op-ed on what she found there.

This week, we convened a policy forum with the U.S. Holocaust Museum, the International Crisis Group and the American Enterprise Institute aimed at forging practical policy solutions to the crisis. We also participated in a major forum convened by the American Society for International Law on the legal obligation to act in Sudan, and will this week present our policy recommendations at a conference at American University. 

This summer, the American Progress Action Fund, our lobbying arm, joined with other organizations to endorse a “die-in” in front of the White House – along with other demonstrators, members of our staff stretched out on the ground in Lafayette Park to symbolize the deaths in Darfur, and to call on the White House to call the crisis what it is – genocide. Since May, experts from the Center have done 15 media appearances on Sudan – ranging from CNN and Fox to local radio talk shows across the country. Just this morning Gayle appeared on BBC and NPR.

The presentation I have just shown you is aimed at a different audience outside the beltway – to college campuses, religious networks, the constituencies of non-governmental organizations, and individuals who want to know more about Sudan and who – importantly – want to do something about it.

It is aimed at all of you.

We’ve also developed and distributed an organizing kit with the tools people need to write to their members of Congress, urge the editors of their local papers to keep up the coverage, invite their religious leaders to speak to the issue, provide sample sermons for Christian, Jewish and Islamic services, and instruct activists on how to organize an event in their local community. 

We’re getting it out through our partner organizations in the religious community including Jim Wallis at Sojourners and Bob Edgar the former dean of the Claremont School of Theology, who now heads the National Council of Churches and Faithnet, which has 120,000 Internet subscribers. We are working on college campuses, and with NGOs with constituencies all across America. We are sending it to Capitol Hill, to the media, and will also share it with True Majority, started by Ben Cohen, to pass on to their 500,000 members and supporters.

Finally, we are now launching a campaign on Capitol Hill aimed at securing the funds needed by the African Union and to increase our funding of humanitarian efforts and at passing a new version of the Sudan Peace Act.

For us, it is not enough that our reports are read by members of Congress or that our op-eds are placed or that our experts participate in prestigious panels held in Washington, D.C. For us, success means that our ideas prevail, and take shape as policy. That we move the country and the world in a more progressive direction. And at doesn’t happen without the engagement of American citizens, inside and outside of Washington—without the engagement of all of you in this audience here tonight.

Secretary Powell used the word “genocide” because it was the right thing to do. But he also did it because public pressure demanded it. And if we want to get Sudan or any other policy right, it’s not enough to simply have good ideas – we must also show that the people of this country believe in them.

I now want to close with a continuation of the presentation I showed you at the beginning of this lecture.  I hope you will take these final images and words to heart—and then take them to your friends, to your classes and to your communities. 

Thank you.