Obama goes wobbly on Sudan

Obama goes wobbly on Sudan

By Peter Feaver

One of the many perils of blogging is that it encourages you to make your hunches in public, which allows for easy assessment later. I tell my students that political scientists are much better at predicting the past (call it retrodiction) than we are at predicting the future. A squib in today’s Washington Post brought that to mind.

A while back, I predicted on the now defunct Planet War discussion group (another story about another peril of blogging) that President Obama’s team, which had been so derisively hawkish on Darfur, would come into government and maintain hawkish rhetoric but not ramp up hawkish policy with military operations. I say “derisively hawkish” because one of the biggest Darfur hawks, Susan Rice, had repeatedly bashed the Bush administration for not doing enough on Africa. I always found that criticism a bit odd, since President Bush did more for Africa than any previous president, easily eclipsing the last best president for Africa, Bill Clinton. Still, she had a point on Darfur since there was a pronounced gap between Bush’ hawkish rhetoric on Darfur and the less-hawkish policies and actions the administration pursued; it was an improvement over what Clinton did on Rwanda, but it was far less than what Bush wanted.

Well, today a Washington Post story shows that I was wrong to predict a “hawkish rhetoric, dovish action” Darfur policy from the Obama team. Instead, it appears that what we might end up getting is a “dovish rhetoric, dovish action” Darfur policy. Obama’s Darfur czar, Scott Gration, has claimed that the Khartoum regime is no longer perpetrating “coordinated” mass murder. Having declared mission accomplished insofar as stopping the Darfur genocide goes, he further calls for a basket of carrots to get the Khartoum regime to cooperate even more. 

To be fair to my prediction, Susan Rice did accuse Khartoum of genocide two days ago. And, in the full spirit of self-criticism, team Obama has supported the ICC indictments against the Darfur genocide leaders, a step the Bush administration resisted for some time. So perhaps the most precise coding right now would be “confused rhetoric, confused action,” since there is contradictory hawkishness and dovishness on both the rhetoric and action side.

I am sympathetic to Obama’s Darfur problem. I believe that he and some of his advisors, like Bush and some of his advisors, sincerely want to step up pressure on Darfur.  But Obama’s plate is full (as his predecessor’s was), and he is discovering (as we discovered) that if the United States does not lead by example on a global issue, then very little will get done on it. International institutions and foreign allies will talk a good game, and are absolutely vital for building broader legitimacy for whatever action is ultimately taken, but they will not act decisively on their own. Without lead-from-the-front U.S. action, few global problems receive sustained attention or decisive efforts from outsiders. 

Given all that, I am willing to make public one more hunch: that when all is said and done, the doves will win the internal debate over Obama’s Darfur policy. I may be wrong on that hunch — I have been wrong many times before — and if so, we will soon know it.