Sudan Score Card

The Obama administration's policy review on Sudan is now complete. Is it any good?


Over the last nine months, the Sudan policy review has taken on something of a mythical air. Activists and others lost count of the number of times they were told the review would be completed "in weeks, not months" — even as months stretched on. Tales of sharp-elbowed infighting between the U.S. special envoy for Sudan, retired Maj. Gen. Scott Gration, and the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, dominated the narrative. So did a series of high-profile gaffes, ranging from the absurd — with the special envoy talking of handing out "cookies" and "gold stars" to Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party — to the just plain bizarre, as former National Security Advisor Bud McFarlane was found to be lobbying the administration to normalize relations with Sudan, after receiving $1.3 million from Khartoum passed through Qatar.

The Barack Obama administration was clearly eager to use the policy review as a chance to hit the much-needed reset button. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was joined by Rice and Gration in a carefully choreographed show of internal unity at Monday’s rollout event, and everyone dutifully sang from the same song sheet. The public version of the policy is a modest five pages in length and says many of the right things. But it also reflects the bipolar views of an administration that, after nearly a year in office, still seems divided on Sudan.

Kicking off to a good start, the policy calls for a comprehensive approach to Sudan’s interlinked crises and notes the genuine risk of a return to wholesale warfare in the run-up to a 2011 independence referendum for South Sudan.

The document also goes to some lengths to dispel the notion that U.S. policy toward Khartoum has become too accommodating. It insists that incentives be offered not for gestures of goodwill, such as "the signing of a MOU [memorandum of understanding] or the issuance of a set of visas," but "rather based on verifiable changes in conditions on the ground." The policy review also institutes a quarterly, senior interagency review of "indicators of progress or of deepening crisis" as a means to calibrate incentives and pressures, with an admonition that "[f]ailure to improve conditions will trigger increased pressure on recalcitrant actors." The administration also offers an overdue acknowledgment that "accountability for genocide and atrocities is necessary for reconciliation and lasting peace."

Yet in many ways, the policy feels like an uncomfortable compromise between feuding internal approaches, producing something that is neither fish nor foul. Those in the administration arguing a tough line gained some important concessions. The situation in Darfur is still viewed as an ongoing genocide rather than the "remnants of genocide" typology used repeatedly by the special envoy. Incentives are said to be conditioned on genuine progress rather than rhetoric. There is a fairly stark recognition that the South will opt for independence in 2011 and that the United States and the international community will need to deal with a new state.

Yet, those advocating a softer line are given a good deal of love as well. In interview after interview over the weekend, senior administration officials echoed the line of the policy review: "We have to engage with those with whom we disagree," meaning they have to deal with Khartoum despite its involvement in atrocities. The idea of engagement with Sudan’s government is in itself not controversial, but there is a clear sense that the administration sees incentives as a powerful tool to deal with Khartoum — perhaps even more powerful than pressure. The benchmarks established for grading Sudan’s progress are left deliberately gauzy, making it more likely that Khartoum will benefit from the soft bigotry of low expectations.

Along these lines, there is also considerable emphasis placed on the importance of counterterrorism cooperation as a key pillar of the U.S. relationship with Sudan. In a July hearing, Sen. Russ Feingold argued strongly to Gration that he thought Sudan’s cooperation in this regard was being overhyped. His reservations may well be well-founded.

The mix of soft and hard policies in the new document is awkward. The United States has again declared that genocide is taking place in Darfur, yet wants to constructively engage the perpetrators of that genocide. If the administration truly sees genocide taking place on the ground, it should do everything in its power to stop it. If it doesn’t see a genocide taking place and thinks a path toward normalization makes more sense, it should have the courage to say so.

Much of this might simply be realpolitik, an administration feeling overstretched in Afghanistan, Iraq, and beyond acknowledging that the lofty human rights standards that then-Senators Obama, Joe Biden, and Clinton expressed on the campaign trail need to be put on a back burner. At the end of the day, as much as President Obama may be interested in solving Sudan’s multiple crises, he might settle for containing them.

Still, as a paper exercise, the policy review was oddly silent on perhaps the most important issue: the conduct of day-to-day diplomacy. Given the multiple missteps in recent months, the relative estrangement between Gration and the State Department hierarchy, and the sense among key allies that the United States is simply not paying attention to Sudan, there were no practical steps announced to better manage the portfolio. Unless Sudan policy actually begins to be owned by the upper reaches of the National Security Council and State Department, everyone involved will look at the policy review as a nicely crafted set of words that can gently be ignored.

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