The (pleasant) surprise of a lifetime

What’s on the mind of Dick Durbin, Senate insider and ace political mechanic? Preventing genocide in Darfur.

I’m still mulling over yesterday’s blogger breakfast with Sen. Dick Durbin. I can’t get used to the idea that meeting with eight mid-level bloggers is considered a good use of an hour of the Senate Majority Whip’s time, and too much was said too quickly for me to fully wrap my head around it by now.

But here’s my sharpest impression, one I expect to remember forever. There we are, sitting around a table, mostly talking Senate inside baseball, which Durbin talks very cogently and entertainingly indeed. A lull falls in the flow of questions, so Durbin is able to bring up a topic on his own initiative.

What he wants to talk about is &#8212 no, I wouldn’t have gotten it in three guesses, or thirty for that matter &#8212 Darfur.

Perhaps you’ve noticed the silence on Darfur in this space. What is there to say, except for howls of impotent rage? Yes, we ought to do something about it. So should the UN. So should the EU. So should the African Union. So should the Good Witch of the North, for that matter; she’s as likely to do something useful as any of the rest of the players, or all of them together. And I’ve been unable to imagine how it could get to be a sufficiently potent issue in U.S. politics to get the Bush Administration to take action.

Well, it turns out that Durbin still has Rwanda on his conscience. He was told that if we didn’t send 5000 troops, there would be genocide. He couldn’t persuade Bill Clinton (fresh off his humiliation in Mogadishu and its shameless exploitation by the Republicans, including John McCain) to send the 5000 troops. As a result, 800,000 people died.

Now Durbin has the idea &#8212 I’m utterly incompetent to judge its validity &#8212 that financial sanctions can be made to work. Apparently all the Darfurian oil contracts, which provide the bulk of the Sudanese government’s budget, and all of the other contracts in the world oil market, are dollar-denominated, which means the money eventually comes under the regulatory authority of the Treasury. (Why it would take more than a day to rewrite the Darfurian contracts in Euros or sterling or yen I’m not sure, but apparently all the downstream contracts are in dollars, too, so changing currencies wouldn’t be a trivial exercise.) Durbin proposes to tighten the screws, on the North Korean model.

I hope it works. But even if it doesn’t work, the thought that the #2 guy in the Senate, unprompted, sitting around with a bunch of political junkies, wants to talk about how to save the lives of people who aren’t going to vote for him or contribute to his campaign is enough to make me teary-eyed with gratitude for the results last November. It sure wouldn’t have occurred to Trent Lott.

Update Another participant in the breakfast, who was cheating by taking notes (What does he think he is? a journalist?) recalls that Durbin gave his mentor Sen. Paul Simon credit for the demarche to Clinton on Rwanda. I stand corrected.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: