WASHINGTON, April 10 (Reuters) - President George W. Bush's decision to send the State Department's No. 2 official on a round of Sudan-related diplomacy this week has cheered many people who feared the country would be relegated to the U.S. policy back burner.
But many experts are waiting to see if the trip by Deputy Secretary Robert Zoellick, as well as the administration's rhetorical support for ending violence in Darfur and elsewhere, translates into the kind of action and leadership the crisis requires.
"Everywhere we look, our political discourse is dominated by a discussion of values," said John Podesta, former White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton.
"Yet, what becomes of our values if the United States does not act to protect the people of Darfur from the very real and growing threat of genocide," he said last week at a news conference organized by the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank that he heads.
Zoellick, Bush's former trade representative, will be in Oslo, Norway, on Monday and Tuesday for an international donor's conference that aims to raise $2.6 billion for Sudan and then visit Sudan, including Darfur, later in the week.
Senior State Department officials have said the United States and other countries will pledge significant new aid for rebuilding war-torn southern Sudan at the donors' conference but funds may be unable to flow unless Khartoum ends the violence in Darfur.
Tens of thousands of people have been killed in the fighting in Darfur and more than 2 million have fled their homes to makeshift camps in the remote, western desert region.
The crisis was triggered in February 2003 when pastoral rebel groups took up arms against the government in a struggle over power and scarce resources and Khartoum retaliated by arming a nomadic Arab militia known as the Janjaweed.
Over the past three years, the United States has committed over $1.6 billion to Sudan for humanitarian assistance and conflict resolution in Darfur, as well as reconstruction and development and support for a separate North-South peace deal ending 21 years of fighting between Khartoum and southern rebels.
SEEKING WORLD AID
Colin Powell, Bush's first secretary of state and an African-American, had made Africa, including Sudan, a priority. His successor, Condoleezza Rice, also an African-American, has signaled her intent to continue that commitment in Bush's second term.
Jim Bishop of InterAction, the umbrella group representing most of the key nongovernmental organizations, said there had been talk of Rice leading the U.S. delegation to the donor's conference but he was not concerned that Rice's deputy was being sent instead.
"The U.S. government has been quite generous in its financial support for relief and development activities in Sudan and certainly for the humanitarian operations in Darfur," he told Reuters.
However, "the response of the world community has not kept pace," he noted.
The U.N. World Food Program reported on Friday that because of a shortage of funds food rations would be cut for more than 1 million Darfuris who fled fighting to makeshift camps in the region.
The agency received only 41 percent of the required funds for the emergency in 2005, with Europe and Japan lagging far behind their pledges.
Ivo Daalder, a former Clinton foreign policy aide, said the international community was united in principle about the need to do more for Darfur "but no one is willing to take the lead in getting it done."
So the responsibility falls to the United States, the only superpower and the one country to label the atrocities in Darfur as genocide, he told Reuters.
Daalder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, has urged Bush to call the leaders of the United Nations, the African Union (which has peacekeepers in Sudan), NATO, the European Union, France and Britain to Washington; lock them in a room and "not let them out until they decide a course of action" to end the fighting.
That should include a clear mandate for African Union peacekeepers to protect civilians in Sudan; enlarging the AU force from 2,200 to 8,000 troops and NATO military support for the AU force, he said.