In the fourth Democratic presidential debate (July 23), the candidates were united on the need for the United States to withdraw from Iraq.  But most of them (with the notable exception of Bill Richardson) were equally convinced of the need to intervene in Darfur.  Sen. Joe Biden was out front on that issue, arguing that the United States should take action whenever it can make a difference in humanitarian crises.  We should intervene in Darfur, Biden intoned, “because we can.”  He proposed sending 2,500 American ground troops as part of a NATO mission.  Although most of the other Democrats on the stage have not yet gone that far, they are on record as favoring at least U.S. logistical support and the establishment of a no-fly zone.

Such enthusiasm for intervention in Darfur suggests that the Democratic presidential candidates have learned little from the Iraq debacle.  They are not against elective wars—interventions that have little or no connection to the security and well-being of the United States—as a matter of principle.  Instead, they appear merely to be against Republican elective wars—especially those that go badly.

No one disputes that the situation in Darfur is an humanitarian tragedy.  By most estimates, more than 200,000 civilians have perished in nearly a decade of civil strife.  There is also little doubt that the Sudanese government and its janjaweed-militia allies are responsible for the bulk of the atrocities.

Nevertheless, it is not clear that outside military action is the solution to this horrid situation, much less that the United States should lead such an effort.  It is dangerous folly to assume, as Biden does, that a U.S.-led intervention would be quick and easy.  No one can predict whether an intervention in any country will be easy or difficult, relatively bloodless or extremely bloody.  Let’s remember that most supporters of the Iraq war in 2003 believed that the invasion and occupation would be, in the words of former Reagan administration official Kenneth Adelman, “a cakewalk.”  It has proved to be anything but that.  More than 3,700 Americans have perished in the mission, and the financial costs to American taxpayers already exceed $450 billion.

True, some military ventures prove to be easier than anticipated.  The 1991 Persian Gulf War claimed far fewer American lives than most experts had predicted.  The United States and her NATO allies were able to conduct the Kosovo war entirely with airpower–bombing from 30,000 feet—and did not suffer a single fatality (although many Serb civilians were not so fortunate).

There are many more cases, though, in which the interventions turn out to be longer, bloodier, and more frustrating than anticipated.  The Iraq mission certainly merits that label, as did the Vietnam War four decades earlier.  In the latter case, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s prediction that all U.S. troops would be home by Christmas 1965 became a grim joke as the war dragged on for seven more years.

The interventions in Lebanon (1982-83) and Somalia (1992-93) also were cases in which rosy predictions turned to ashes.  The Lebanon venture began as a limited mission to evacuate Palestinian fighters and end the brutal Israeli siege and bombardment of West Beirut.  Soon, however, it escalated into an effort to pacify the ongoing Lebanese civil war–a campaign that put the United States on the side of the Christian-dominated government against various Muslim factions.  That intervention culminated in the bombing of the Marine barracks and the deaths of 241 Marines.

The Somalia mission began even more innocently, as a purely humanitarian relief effort to prevent mass starvation in that country.  However, it rapidly morphed into a nation-building crusade in the midst of a multisided civil war.  The campaign collapsed after a firefight in Mogadishu between U.S. forces and the militia of warlord Mohammed Farah Aideed left 18 Army Rangers dead.

As in the cases of Lebanon, Somalia, and Iraq, Darfur might appear to be an easy intervention.  Appearances, however, can be deceiving.  America could find herself wandering into yet another Third World quagmire.  Sending in ground forces is especially dangerous, but even establishing a no-fly zone and providing logistical support is not without risk.  What might happen, for example, if a C-130 transport flying in equipment for international peacekeepers were shot down?  One could readily anticipate that there would be calls to escalate Washington’s commitment to teach the terrorists that they cannot attack U.S. forces with impunity.

Moreover, we have to consider the wider political and diplomatic ramifications of intervening in Darfur.  If the United States leads a military venture there, it will be another case of a largely Christian nation invading and occupying part of a Muslim country.  That would be the third such action in less than six years—following the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.  Americans might well have unassailably humanitarian motives for undertaking a Darfur mission, but that is not necessarily how it will be viewed in the Muslim world.  The United States already has a bad reputation among Muslims; we ought to be very careful about doing something that might make matters even worse.

It is hard to stand by and watch the suffering in Darfur.  But the United States should not be expected to be the world’s rescue squad.  There are more than 190 other countries in the international system, many of whom have far greater tangible interests at stake in Darfur than does America.  Those countries include the nations in both northern and sub-Saharan Africa, the various Arab states outside North Africa, and even the countries of the European Union.  If there is a serious military intervention, they should be expected to step forward long before the United States is called upon.

The U.S. government’s primary fiduciary responsibility is to its own citizens.  It is morally irresponsible to sacrifice American blood and treasure unless the security and well-being of the American people is directly at risk.  We have needlessly wasted blood and treasure in Iraq for an elective war, and we should not make the same mistake in Darfur.  Unfortunately, the foreign-policy slogan of the Democrats in the 2008 election seems to be “Out of Iraq, Into Darfur.”