Global Policy Forum

Obama's Failure in Sudan

Nicholas Kristof accuses the Obama Administration of poor strategic and policy planning with respect to the conflict in Sudan. The Department of State, under the leadership of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and the US Mission to the UN, headed by Ambassador Susan Rice, are proposing vastly different strategies to the Oval Office. Fearing that the January referendum for South Sudanese independence will lead to renewed violence in various regions throughout Sudan, Kristof argues that the US should be more proactively engaged as Sudan prepares for the elections. But is it the responsibility of the US to resolve Sudan's conflict, or should the Sudanese be trusted to handle their own affairs?




By Nicholas D. Kristof

August 28, 2010
New York Times


When President Obama was seeking the White House, he criticized Republicans for not doing enough on Darfur and insisted that he would make Sudan a priority.

"What we have done has not been enough," he told me in a 2006 interview when I was guest host for a "Charlie Rose" segment on Sudan. He added that Washington needed "a sustained diplomatic effort to put pressure on Sudan."

Yet these days, Mr. Obama is presiding over an incoherent, contradictory and apparently failing Sudan policy. There is a growing risk that Sudan will be the site of the world's bloodiest war in 2011, and perhaps a new round of genocide as well. This isn't America's fault, but neither are we using all of our leverage to avert it.

Granted, Mr. Obama has a multitude of other priorities. Granted, Sudan is a mess with no perfect solutions. Nobody expects Mr. Obama to devote much time to Sudan. But the problem isn't that the administration is too busy to devise a policy toward Sudan but that it has a half-dozen policies, mostly at cross-purposes.

As first reported by Foreign Policy, competing recommendations on Sudan are on Mr. Obama's desk, reflecting dissent within the administration. One recommendation, from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Mr. Obama's envoy for Sudan, Maj. Gen. Scott Gration, apparently focuses on continued carrots and engagement. The other, calling for a tougher approach, comes from the American ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, who has by far the longest experience dealing with Sudan.

Some 68 organizations have sent a joint letter to Mr. Obama, calling on him to work more energetically to prevent another round of war in Sudan. But so far he has been unengaged, and his administration has been less successful than the last Bush administration in getting Sudan to alter its behavior.

The upshot: Sudan's on-and-off north-south civil war could resume soon. How bad could it be? Well, the last iteration of that war lasted about 20 years and killed some two million people. Mr. Obama's former head of national intelligence, Dennis Blair, warned this year that the place facing the greatest risk of genocide or mass killing is southern Sudan.

Regular readers know I was not a fan of President George W. Bush. But one of his signal accomplishments, against all odds, was a 2005 peace agreement that ended the last round of that war. That agreement provided for a referendum next January in which southern Sudan can choose secession.

Southern Sudanese are expected to vote overwhelmingly to secede. But the region has most of the nation's oil, and the north is determined not to lose the oil wells driving the nation's economy.

The Obama administration has tried a carrots-rather-than-sticks approach to Sudan, and it has been right to engage Khartoum. It restored the issuance of American visas in Sudan, and at first this engagement led to some successes. For example, some aid groups that had been expelled from Darfur were allowed to return in a different form. And for a time, Darfur became calmer.

But in recent months Sudan has been hardening its positions, perhaps because it sees that it pays no price for misbehavior (and also because it sees that there are limits to the rewards it will receive for improved behavior). Sudan has cracked down on dissidents and journalists, steamrolled over an election, and for the last few weeks has restricted humanitarian access to Kalma, a huge camp of Darfuris. It has also curbed the ability of United Nations peacekeepers to protect themselves or others.

Most ominously, Sudan's government has been stalling in preparations for the referendum in the south, and it may have been channeling weapons to disgruntled factions there. No one expects restraint from President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who is facing charges of genocide from the International Criminal Court.

For all his faults, President Bush inherited a war in Sudan and managed to turn it into peace. Mr. Obama inherited a peace that could turn into the world's bloodiest war next year.

The Obama administration has just dispatched a talented former ambassador, Princeton Lyman, to lead a team on the ground in Sudan. That's useful, but Washington could do much more. It could support United Nations peacekeepers, and it could work at the highest level with China, Britain, Egypt and others to avoid a new war. A useful step would be to put Vice President Joseph Biden in charge for at least the next six months.

The United Nations General Assembly also needs to take up Sudan when it meets next month. That will be the last chance for high-level involvement before the referendum.

There are plenty of bogus reasons for criticizing Mr. Obama's foreign policy, but this is a legitimate one. And in a place like Sudan, American diplomatic malpractice could lead to hundreds of thousands of deaths.



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