Terms of Engagement

Bashir Insanity

Team Obama has just offered Sudan's genocidal tyrant one last olive branch. A hickory switch might work better.


This past Tuesday, when the punditocracy was raptly focused on the electoral results in Delaware and New Hampshire, the U.S. State Department quietly issued a policy statement on Sudan that offered the government of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir a path to escape sanctions and restore normal relations with the United States.

Why no fanfare? Perhaps an administration highly sensitive to accusations of equivocation in the face of evil was reluctant to call attention to a policy that emphasized carrots rather than sticks — or rather, to use the splendidly mangled metaphor of one administration official, offered to the regime in Khartoum "a carrot painted with a finer degree of granularity." Bashir, who has been indicted on genocide charges by the International Criminal Court, doesn’t deserve a carrot. But the Obama administration has rightly concluded that absent strong inducements, deserved or not, from the United States and other key actors, the regime in Khartoum could well plunge Sudan back into a horrendous civil war.

In January 2005, the regime and the breakaway government of the south put an end to almost 40 years of war by signing the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. The CPA gave southerners the right to choose independence or greater autonomy within Sudan. The referendum in which they will make that choice is scheduled for Jan. 10, 2011, and no one doubts that voters will overwhelmingly choose the former — if the referendum is held, and conducted honestly. But Khartoum appears to have no intention of permitting that. Oil has turned Sudan into a boom economy, and 80 percent of the country’s oil is located in the south. Moreover, the regime fears — with good reason — that granting independence to the South would embolden other regional insurgencies.

Suliman Baldo, a Sudanese scholar with the International Center on Transitional Justice, says that the Bashir government has been orchestrating a domestic media campaign to promote the fiction that all Sudanese seek national unity — and thus that a vote for independence is intrinsically illegitimate. Baldo and others fear that if Khartoum blocks or refuses to recognize the election, provoking the government of the South to unilaterally declare independence, the decades-long civil war that led to the deaths of two million people will resume.

The Obama administration has responded to this apocalyptic prospect with a belated, but very concentrated, diplomatic surge. Both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and National Security Advisor James Jones have spoken with Salva Kiir, the southern leader, and Ali Osman Taha, Sudan’s vice president, urging them to make progress on the terms laid out in the CPA, which they have so far failed to do. President Obama announced last week that he would personally attend a U.N. Security Council session on Sudan chaired by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon during the upcoming General Assembly meeting; that in turn has persuaded other heads of state, as well as Kiir and Taha, to attend. The administration has beefed up its diplomatic representation in Sudan, in part by naming Princeton Lyman, a veteran diplomat with long experience in Africa, to work with the two sides. And last weekend Scott Gration, Obama’s special envoy to Sudan, went to Khartoum to deliver the administration’s new offer.

That offer is at the heart of the strategy document released earlier this week. Gration presented the regime with four ascending "stages" of granularized carrot. The administration will immediately change the rules governing the export of agricultural equipment to Sudan, now tightly controlled by sanctions. "Previously there had been an assumption of no," a White House official explained to me. "Now we’re going to shift to an assumption of yes." This is, in effect, a gift for showing up — no strings attached. If the regime permits the referendum to proceed and respects the outcome, the White House will lift further trade restrictions (though not on the all-important oil sector). If Khartoum also reaches agreement on key North-South issues, including the drawing of boundaries and sharing of oil revenue, Washington will appoint an ambassador (the last ambassador, Timothy Michael Carney, was withdrawn in 1996 after Sudan was declared a state sponsor of terrorism). Only, however, if Khartoum also resolves the Darfur conflict does the administration promise to seek full normalization and the lifting of sanctions.

Administration officials present the package as an "intensification" of existing diplomacy, but that is slightly disingenuous. After long, and reportedly heated, arguments inside the White House over the proper balance between carrot and stick, officials have produced a document that is highly specific about inducements and carefully vague about threats. Despite veiled references to "accountability," the statement is silent on the ICC indictments. And after much discussion over whether it’s acceptable, or effective, to address the North-South conflict separately from Darfur, the administration plan will allow Khartoum to profit from compliance on North-South issues, though Bashir wins the jackpot only for restoring peace to Darfur.

Some, though not all, members of the advocacy community are appalled at the decision to, quite literally, let the regime get away with murder. John Norris, a Sudan expert at the Center for American Progress and former head of the Enough Project, calls the package "unseemly." Norris points out that in 2005 Western diplomats made a calculated decision to bless the North-South peace agreement even as the regime perpetrated mass slaughter in Darfur. Indeed, from the very beginnings of the killings in Darfur, in 2003, Bashir responded to pressure from the West by threatening to scuttle negotiations over ending the civil war. "Once again," Norris says, "you’ve got a bunch of diplomats saying that this current situation is so serious that we need to ignore all this other stuff."

So there is both a moral case and a strategic case against offering Khartoum goodies in exchange for behaving itself on the referendum. But if the derailing of the referendum really would lead to mass killing (and some experts I spoke to are skeptical on this score), then it’s patent that the moral imperative is to give Bashir incentives to behave himself, and to leave the issue of just deserts to a future date. The only real question is effectiveness. A number of studies (pdf) have concluded that marginalizing Darfur to get the CPA signed was a disastrous mistake that sent Bashir a signal that he could do as he wished with the people of Darfur. Why is it correct now?

Gration was foolish enough to say earlier this year that what remained in Darfur, seven years after the killing broke out, was only "the remnants of genocide." He was quickly forced to retract the comment in the face of outrage from activists. But he was right. Civilians in Darfur still live in a state of terror, and millions remain displaced; but much of the killing now pits rebel groups, or Arab tribesmen, against one another. On the other hand, the steadily rising levels of violence in the South, much of it probably instigated by Bashir and his colleagues, could explode into the kind of mass ethnic reprisals provoked by the partition of India and Pakistan in 1948. As a State Department official puts it delicately, "There is a sense of urgency on both Darfur and the CPA, but there is a growing sense of immediacy on North-South issues." The situation in 2005 was the exact opposite.

That said, Bashir must
be made to feel that there is a powerful, and imminent, "or else." So far, the Obama team has hesitated to make threats. Gration in particular has been far too willing in the past to accept the regime’s bona fides, as if unaware of the bland reassurances and bald-faced lies that frustrated his predecessors. Even now, he and his team may be putting too much stock in the influence of "moderates" inside the ruling National Congress Party, whom Western officials have been banking on — fruitlessly — for years. Bashir is likely to "accept" the State Department’s proposal, and then add onerous conditions of his own. A White House official insists that the administration is prepared for that eventuality, and adds that the ability to marshal an international response in case of rejection is "a very important part of the thinking" that went into the new offer. As with Iran, that is, the regime’s rebuff of what is seen as a fair offer will help the United States build the case for tougher sanctions than those Sudan now faces.

Will Bashir be suitably impressed by that prospect? Over the years, he has blithely ignored Security Council resolutions, sanctions, threats of prosecution, and global public opprobrium. He has learned all too well how to exploit the weakness of international diplomacy. Now he holds a lit match over a vast bonfire. Perhaps he fears the consequences of flicking it on to the pyre, but the irresolute response of years past have ensured it’s his choice — and his alone.

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