At places like Davos and Harvard, the world’s sages rarely stop fretting about the dangers of a too powerful America. Well, if you want to know what the world looks like without U.S. leadership, Exhibit A is Darfur in Sudan.

Today’s leading authority on Darfur is the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who prophesied a world “nasty, brutish and short.” At least 200,000 civilians have been killed in the past three years and two million more have become refugees. The source of the problem is the Arab rulers in Khartoum, who have pursued an ethnic cleansing campaign against black Muslims in western Sudan. They’ve equipped the Janjaweed Arab tribesmen to do the dirty work, and that militia is now attacking civilians across the border in Chad, creating 20,000 more refugees.

To his credit, Kofi Annan started shouting about the problem two years ago, and former Secretary of State Colin Powell labeled it “genocide” not long after that. The U.N.’s mighty peace-making machinery then started to roll and… nothing.

The Chinese (who have close commercial ties to Khartoum) and Russians have blocked any serious intervention. Arab members of the Security Council have also opposed any attempt to single out Khartoum. The Arab League—so quick to denounce Danish cartoons—has also stymied any global intervention to stop the murder of their fellow Muslims.

Here’s League Secretary General Amr Musa earlier this month: “In Sudan, there is a problem related to Darfur. We will listen to the Sudanese state minister to explain to us the developments in the issue of Darfur…” The League plans to hold its meeting next week—in Khartoum. The African Union has at least sent 7,000 troops to the region, but they are under-funded and under-equipped to enforce a truce that Sudan blatantly flouts. But the African failure is also political. In January the Union held its own summit in Khartoum, and next year it plans to award Sudan its presidency. The rule seems to be never to say a discouraging word about other African leaders, no matter how murderous.

As for Europe, France would be ideal to lead an intervention force. The French have military bases in neighboring Chad and could establish a no-fly zone to stop Janjaweed bombing. However, Paris is already occupied with another intervention in the Ivory Coast, and with its own business interests in Sudan isn’t volunteering in any case.

Amid this global abdication, Mr. Annan finally decided last month to call in the American cavalry. He visited the White House and, with media fanfare, all but begged President Bush to do something. Despite U.S. obligations in Afghanistan, Iraq and many other places, Mr. Bush responded by proposing an expanded U.N. peacekeeping force under “NATO stewardship.”

But Sudan President Omar al-Beshir quickly played to type and withdrew support for a U.N. force. He also threatened that “Darfur will become the graveyard for the United Nations and foreign intervention.” And rather than stand up to such threats, U.N. envoy to Sudan Jan Pronk has wilted. He’s now talking up intelligence about al Qaeda terrorists in Khartoum who could retaliate against U.N. peacekeepers. And he’s warning against any NATO intervention without Security Council approval—as if that would be forthcoming. All of this is a repeat of the same feckless U.N. pattern we’ve seen in Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq.

So that leaves… guess who? The cowboy President, the American unilateralists, the Yankee imperialists—or, to put it another way, the only nation with the will and wallet to provide order in an otherwise Hobbesian world. However, that will and wallet are being stretched today in Iraq and elsewhere, and Mr. Bush is rightly wary of committing more American blood and treasure to a conflict in Sudan that the rest of the world doesn’t seem serious about ending in any event. One lesson of Darfur is that there really are limits to American power, and in its absence the world’s savages have freer reign.