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Obama and the Mess in Sudan

Obama and the Mess in Sudan

Obama and the Mess in Sudan

August 28, 2010, 6:13 PM
By NICHOLAS KRISTOF

My Sunday column is about President Obama's failure to follow his own campaign rhetoric about paying attention to genocide and Sudan. As a senator, Obama was one of the leaders in calling on the Bush administration to do more about Darfur -- and yet he has been disengaged in Sudan issues and his administration hasn't been as successful as the Bush administration in getting Sudan to behave a bit better.

There are, of course, a thousand caveats. Genocide in southern Sudan, if it happens, won't be Obama's fault but that of Bashir and a thousand other local players. And while I focus on Bashir's shortcomings, it's also worth pointing out that southern Sudanese officials have shown poor leadership and often more penchant for corruption than building a state. The Darfur rebels enjoy nice hotel rooms but for the most part haven't tried hard to negotiate a serious peace. There's plenty of blame to go around. But it's also a false moral equivalence to say that because all of the actors are flawed, they are all equally bad. There is a big difference between an official in the south with a secret bank account and an official in the north who orders villagers massacred.

In my judgment, the Obama administration's first mistake was to take forever reviewing its policy to Sudan. When it took office in January 2009, it had some momentum on its side, and Sudan was truly nervous -- especially of Susan Rice, who had famously flown into the Nuba Mountains as assistant secretary for African affairs even after Sudan threatened to shoot her plane down. The Bush administration envoy for Sudan, Rich Williamson, had proposed a series of tough measures, including taking out electricity and radio in Khartoum for a couple of days as a warning, and that too had Sudan on edge. All that momentum was lost by an endless Obama review, and then the policy in practice ended up all carrots and no sticks. Critics also say that the policy hasn't been implemented and that quarterly reviews have not occurred as mandated; I hear different versions about that and am not sure where the truth lies.

In fairness, sticks haven't worked terribly well against Sudan, and I happen to agree with the special envoy, Scott Gration, on the need for both engagement and carrots. The Bush administration managed to win the CPA treaty in 2005, ending the north-south war, in part because it seriously engaged with Khartoum and listened to Bashir -- so engagement isn't a bad thing. But sticks are necessary as well as carrots, and sticks are what has been absent from the administration policy. In addition, there was a sense that George W. Bush was personally pushing Sudan policy when he was in the White House, and he would periodically talk about it publicly. Obama has barely mentioned the word Sudan, and this lack of leadership is one reason for the incoherence in his administration's policy.

What leverage do we have? For starters, Bashir cares a great deal about his image. That's why Sudan has hired public relations agencies and bought an advertising special section in my newspaper. Bashir fulminates about the Save Darfur meeting. He wants to get off the terror list. He wanted to be chair of the A.U. And he knows that the U.S. can very much help determine what that global image is. In addition, Bashir wants debt relief, which the U.S. can help with in the I.M.F., and he wants to be able to interfere in the south without American objection.

One of the things that worries me most is the signs that Bashir is funneling arms to disgruntled factions in the south, to foment civil war there. Indeed, I'm told that the south just captured a helicopter crew of Western mercenaries carrying arms and is interrogating them. Bashir has done something similar vis-a-vis both Uganda and Chad (supporting rebels in each case, who in turn committed frightful atrocities), and he may well do the same in the south. It's a worrying sign that the architect of the Janjaweed strategy in Darfur, Ahmed Haroun, has been reposted as governor of South Kordofan, on the southern Sudan border. The fear (for which there's no evidence so far) is that he'll oversee a similar strategy there and recruit a militia to attack the border areas so that the north can control the oil.

Pulling off a referendum in a place like southern Sudan will be enormously difficult in any case, but it'll be 1,000 times harder with the north dragging its feet. Among the issues that have to be decided are the division of oil revenues, the division of debt, the division of water rights, the demarcation of the border -- and the nettlesome question of Abyei, the oil-producing area on the border that both claim. There has been negligible progress on these issues, and all that makes conflict more likely. And of course mutual trust is nonexistent.

It's a good sign that the U.S. has sent Princeton Lyman, a veteran diplomat, to take charge of a team on the ground in Sudan. In the CPA negotiations, the Bush administration had senior people intimately involved in negotiations and on the ground, and until now the Obama administration hasn't done the same. This is a big step forward, albeit a belated one. I'd also like to see the U.S. make clear to Kenya that it has no objection to the onpassing of the Ukrainian tanks that southern Sudan ordered but that have been frozen because of the publicity after they were seized by Somali pirates.
The U.S. could also signal that it has no objection if a third party provides the south with anti-aircraft systems. The north can't depend on its ground forces to destroy the south (partly because much of its infantry was traditionally from Darfur), and so it will depend on its air superiority. If it is denied control over the skies, because of the south's anti-aircraft ability, it may be less likely to launch a new civil war. The U.S. also needs to work much more with Egypt, China and other countries to get them all engaged in spotlighting the Sudan negotiations and the referendum process. Egypt and China are both against southern Sudanese independence but are waking up to the fact that it may happen any way and in that case their interests may be harmed. The UN General Assembly is a crucial opportunity to internationalize the issue, and it's less than a month away.
Look, Sudan is diplomacy at its toughest. I don't mean to be glib about the challenges that the world faces there. But Obama declared that this was a priority for him, and he blasted Bush for Sudan mishandling -- even though Bush overall did a better job on Sudan than Obama has, particularly when the CPA is figured in.

One of the lessons we should have learned from the last few decades is that when wars start, they are very difficult and expensive to end. The World Bank estimates that the average African civil war imposes costs of about $100 billion on the country and its neighbors. Everybody agrees in theory that it is better to try to avert wars ahead of time than try to extinguish them once they have started. Yet the Obama administration, the U.N. and world leaders are manifestly not doing all they can to avoid another war in Sudan. I'd welcome your comments.