10.19.09

A Middle Ground in Sudan

Obama's new policy seems carefully calibrated not to push the Khartoum regime too far—or inflame human-rights activists who worry the administration isn't doing enough.

After months of contentious deliberation over U.S. policy in Sudan, President Barack Obama has announced his administration’s long-awaited position on the largest country in Africa. In a statement released on Monday, Obama said…well, not very much, really. Carefully calibrated not to further enrage the Khartoum regime or the human-rights activists irate over the softening approach the Obama administration has appeared to be taking on Sudan, the president’s missive offered a nod to both.

The Obama administration calls Darfur a “genocide” while offering to engage with the regime that perpetrated it. Middle ground or no, that’s a difficult line for anyone—even Obama—to pursue.

In one breath, Obama called Darfur an unqualified “genocide” and announced that the U.S. would renew the sanctions, called the “national emergency,” now in place against Sudan. In the next, he talked about engaging Khartoum and even mentioned “incentives” if the Sudanese government cooperates with the U.S. (In an interview with The Washington Post last month, the U.S. special envoy to Sudan, retired Maj. Gen. Scott Gration, called such incentives “cookies” and “gold stars,” much to the chagrin of advocates who oppose such engagement.)

The double-edged nature of the administration’s Sudan policy symbolizes the style that is fast becoming classic Obama: the cautious stride down a thin, middle line. But this open-ended policy also represents competing voices within the administration over what America’s approach to Sudan should be.

On one side are the old-school activists and analysts, like Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Rice is one of a small handful of Obama appointees who has worked on Africa for more than a decade. A bystander to the Rwandan genocide during the Clinton administration, she has gone on the record several times to say she will not allow another genocide on her watch—no matter the political cost.

Her most vocal opponent in the Obama administration is Gration, the U.S. special envoy. Gration, who grew up in Africa and speaks Swahili, has argued that only a softer line on the political and legal future of Sudan’s president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, will allow for the U.S. to negotiate on matters of human rights, or anything else, in Sudan.

It is hard to believe that Bashir really cares what America thinks. After the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for his arrest in March on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, he took to the streets of Khartoum, singing and dancing.

Regardless, Gration and Rice have reportedly sparred for months over whether it is profitable, or even possible, to engage Sudan’s rogue regime on anything at all. The result of these two competing positions is that the Obama administration calls Darfur a “genocide” while offering to engage with the regime that perpetrated it. Middle ground or no, that’s a difficult line for anyone—even Obama—to pursue.

Beneath the din of these sound bites, however, the administration’s new policy does offer something more substantive and promising: a renewed commitment to the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which north and south Sudan both signed. Lest we forget, before 300,000 people were killed in Darfur beginning in 2003, at least 2 million lost their lives in decades of civil war between north and south Sudan.

And without U.S. pressure, the north would never have signed the 2005 peace deal, which, for all its flaws, did indeed bring an end to much of the fighting between north and south—for the time being, at least. Over the past four years, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement has largely been forgotten as the U.S. has turned its attention to the conflagration in Darfur. Now it’s time to return our attention to the whole of Sudan as the Khartoum-based cabal continues to wage attacks against its margins—west, east, south, and even north, in order to hold onto power.

Like it or not, the U.S. is going to be forced to pay more attention to Sudan. In 2010, Bashir is up for reelection. If the election happens, it is almost certain to be a sham—and a botched, mock contest, most of which the U.S. is supposed to pay for, could lead the country back to war.

Then, in 2011, south Sudan is scheduled to vote in a referendum to decide whether it wants to remain part of the north or gain its independence. That decision would effectively split Sudan’s million square miles in two and change the map of Africa. The potential of such a split is incomprehensible. These are the larger issues Sudan is facing, and the ones we surely hope the administration is already considering—whether or not they want to tell us about it.

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Eliza Griswold is a New America fellow and a recipient of the 2010 Rome Prize. Her book, The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line between Islam and Christianity, will by published by FSG this spring.