Obama Is Still AWOL on Sudan
The country may soon return to war, and the perception of U.S. indifference isn’t helping.
Wall Street Journal Op-ed By JOHN PRENDERGAST
For a second-tier foreign policy issue, Sudan has seen its share of first-tier finger-pointing over the last decade. Congress has blamed the White House, administrations have blamed activists and Congress, and everyone has condemned the Chinese whose multibillion dollar oil investment underwrites the Khartoum regime’s war policies in Darfur and the South.
But if the current U.S. policy gridlock remains, the next round of Sudanese bloodletting could be the worst yet. The country is 128 days away from a contentious referendum to split it in two, and a return to war between the North and the South seems evermore likely.
Beginning in 1983, Southern-based insurgents rebelled in response to racial, religious and resource discrimination perpetrated by the government in Khartoum. The North-South war, which ended in 2005, left over two million Sudanese dead. Since 2003, another 350,000 lives have been lost in the separate genocide and war in Darfur, a region in the country’s west.
If this death and destruction has proven anything, it’s that the regime in Khartoum knows how to maintain power by any means necessary. Its use of ethnic-based militias has been chillingly effective.
In a spasm of effective diplomacy, the Bush administration helped broker the 2005 North-South peace deal. The administration committed a full-time team, led by presidential envoy and former Sen. John Danforth, to support negotiations and unite the international community around the effort.
Much has changed in five years. Perceptions of diminished U.S. influence in the world have not escaped this corner of Africa. Analysts and diplomats contend that the U.S. is no longer affecting the calculations of the jockeying Sudanese parties.
At its moments of greatest influence in Sudan, the U.S. has had clear policy objectives, worked closely with allies to achieve results and effectively leveraged incentives and pressures. The successes have been significant: the removal of Osama bin Laden from Khartoum; the dismantling of al Qaeda’s infrastructure in the mid-1990s; the end of Khartoum’s support of the slave-raiding militias; the end of aerial bombing in southern Sudan early in the previous decade; and, finally, the end of the North-South war.
At one point during the North-South talks in 2004, a Sudanese government official signed a logjam-breaking protocol. At the dinner table that evening, his furious colleagues grilled him about the concessions he made. The official pointed to a table full of American diplomats across the room and told his colleagues, “If we don’t sign, we have to deal with them.”
This all makes the Obama administration’s efforts in Sudan nothing short of head-scratching. Without clear direction from the president, internal policy battles among officials at the State Department, the White House, and the U.S. mission to the U.N. have spilled out into public view, exposing disunity and a lack of top-level direction. Disputes have usually centered around the public comments of President Obama’s Special Envoy, Scott Gration, who has favored a more conciliatory approach towards the regime.
These disagreements have severely undercut diplomatic efforts. When a high-level U.N. and African Union delegation visited the White House and State Department last month, their message was unambiguous: The divided U.S. policy is harming international efforts to achieve peace in Sudan.
It’s true that internecine battles are par for the course in the shaping of foreign policy. The real problem here is that the decider hasn’t decided. The absence of presidential clarity has left allies confused and the Sudanese regime gleeful.
At last, a decision memo is winding its way through the system to President Obama’s desk. The hope is that in the very near future he will make some clear decisions about U.S. policy. The most pressing question is how the U.S. and the international community can convince the various parties in Khartoum, the South and Darfur to abandon violence.
A deft combination of carrots and sticks—backed by unified international support for African-led peace processes on the ground in Sudan—will make the critical difference. But the carrots and sticks have to be big enough to get the attention of the Sudanese.
On the incentives side, benefits for actually making peace—not simply taking incremental steps toward it—could involve full normalization of relations, debt relief, and a coveted one-year suspension of the International Criminal Court arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. On the pressures side, consequences for pursuing war could involve the expansion of travel restrictions and asset freezes for key war-mongers, and new efforts to enforce arms embargoes.
With Sudan about to split and Darfur volatile, time is running out. The moment has come for President Obama to lay out a clear policy, ending the conflict inside his administration and potentially preventing a real war in Sudan.
Mr. Prendergast, the co-founder of the Enough Project, is the co-author with Don Cheadle of the forthcoming “The Enough Moment: Fighting to End Africa’s Worst Human Rights Crimes,” (Random House).
This article was posted on September 3, 2010 by the Wall Street Journal.