Here's your multilateralism at work: Susan Rice, our UN ambassador and other members of the United NationsSecurity Council went to Africa to celebrate the coming peaceful independence of southern Sudan.
Oops. Just as the ambassadors arrived, Gen. Omar al-Bashir decided to invade Abyei -- an oil-rich, disputed city on the north-south border. The invasion may renew the war and turn into yet another Sudanese genocide.
Did Bashir -- the president who reluctantly let the south secede -- deliberately time the invasion to coincide with the visit?
"There's no cause and effect," a Western European diplomat on the Security Council told me.
Huh? The most prominent international institution didn't even enter Bashir's calculations as he planned this land grab?
Then again, maybe Bashir calculated his move specifically to thumb his nose at the Security Council.
After all, why should he fear the vaunted "international community"? So far, the only significant Security Council punishment for his genocidal deeds has been to refer his case to the ineffectiveInternational Criminal Court -- which has issued a warrant for his arrest that nobody will ever act on.
Here's a recap of how we got here, with the Security Council trapped like a deer in Bashir's headlights:
For decades, troops under the command of the northern, Islamic Sudanese government fought southern, mainly non-Arab, Christians and animists seeking independence from Khartoum. The war ended in January 2005, after the Bush administration hashed out a peace agreement.
That accord dictated a referendum in the south, which duly took place last winter. As expected, southerners voted in droves to break away from the north. Their state is scheduled to become independent in July.
The Security Council and the Obama administration declared it all a huge success for multilateralism as Bashir, under much pressure, said he'd let the south go.
But international diplomacy left one detail unresolved: Who gets Abyei? For centuries, local southern farmers have battled northern nomadic herders in that area, so the sides couldn't agree on who resides there and thus could vote on independence. So Abyei's separate referendum got delayed, and the area remains disputed.
Now add oil to the mix. As it becomes independent, South Sudan stands to control 75 percent of Sudan's petroleum production of nearly half a million barrels a day. And the Abyei area is home to several more lucrative fields.
All this was a perfect recipe for the Bashir Special. Just as his government did last decade in Darfur, it's now sending nomadic tribes into Abyei -- bent on ethnically cleansing to create facts on the ground that will assure northern control.
And what are we doing? Nothing.
Oh, we did issue tough statements: Khartoum's withdrawal from Abyei "ought to be immediate, unconditional and complete," Rice announced on Twitter yesterday.
The South Sudanese president, Salva Kiir, said the north's latest invasion shouldn't renew war. Instead, he asked international troops to prevent bloodshed in Abyei. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon obliged by proposing to reshuffle the 10,000 peacekeepers now stationed in southern Sudan.
But while UN troops perform heroically at times, they also lack the training, discipline, hardware or even legal mandate to match determined foes like Bashir. And the recruitment of troops from around the world has reached a ceiling.
Let's face it: The UN is unequipped to stop genocide in Africa or anywhere else.
Nor is any Western country prepared to add Sudan to its military to-do list. (Uncle Sam is already quite busy with Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Libya and whatever crisis the Arab Spring springs on us next.)
So we pretend we're doing something -- that is, we talk up the supposedly miraculous powers of multilateralism. But this week's Security Council fiasco shows how ineffective that is.
And here's a question for those who claim we have a "responsibility to protect" against war atrocities and genocide: Would world powers be more responsive and effective in confronting tyranny if they didn't have institutions like the UN to hide behind?
Of course, with a White House enamored with multilateralism, we're unlikely to find out anytime soon. As Rice proudly tweeted from Africa this week, "New poll: Americans (85 percent) understand sharing burden of global challenges."