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Sudan envoy wanders off the reservation

Ask anyone who watches Sudan policy in Washington about the Obama administratin’s special envoy to the country, J. Scott Gration, and one phrase will keep popping up: “He’s wandered way off the reservation.” A scathing profile of Gration in the Washington Post today makes all too clear why. What’s his strategy? “We’ve got to think ...

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Ask anyone who watches Sudan policy in Washington about the Obama administratin's special envoy to the country, J. Scott Gration, and one phrase will keep popping up: "He's wandered way off the reservation."

A scathing profile of Gration in the Washington Post today makes all too clear why. What's his strategy? "We've got to think about giving out cookies...Kids, countries -- they react to gold stars, smiley faces, handshakes, agreements, talk, engagement.

Ask anyone who watches Sudan policy in Washington about the Obama administratin’s special envoy to the country, J. Scott Gration, and one phrase will keep popping up: “He’s wandered way off the reservation.”

A scathing profile of Gration in the Washington Post today makes all too clear why. What’s his strategy? “We’ve got to think about giving out cookies…Kids, countries — they react to gold stars, smiley faces, handshakes, agreements, talk, engagement.

Gration, a former Air Force Major General, has angered just about everyone he could have — except the Sudanese government (their embassy raved about him when I visited earlier this year). Sudan watchers worry about Gration’s engaging approach to Khartoum, getting cozy with a government whose president is indicted for war crimes in the International Criminal Court. Human rights activists think that Gration risks not just overseeing inertia in Darfur but sparking another round of combat. In trying to “unite” the rebels, they note, he has favored certain factions over others — a dangerous recipe in a volatile cocktail of conflict. Aid workers on ground say he doesn’t understand what is going on. And colleagues at the State Department say his office doesn’t communicate with them, nor heed their  policy advice.

At best, he’s a headache, they say.

Now, even Congress is concerned. “[I]n recent weeks, the leadership of South Sudan and Darfur have expressed serious concerns about Special Envoy Scott Gration’s warm and incentive driven approach toward the ruling National Congress Part (NCP),” members of the House’s Sudan Caucus wrote in a letter to President Obama. They add at the end: “It is…important that the Special Envoy’s office coodinate and work closely with the State Department…”

Why is all this coming out now? This week will see a meeting among administration officials who will at last approve a long-awaited Sudan Policy Review. Gration’s critics are hoping other officials can reign him in. Gration’s team told a blogger round table that I attended earlier this month that everything had already been agreed upon, and this meeting was a mere formality. 

The Enough Project, Save Darfur Coalition, and Genocide Intervention Network offered a stark warning after the WaPo profile: “The quotes from Special Envoy Gration are deeply troubling. The time is well past for the President, Vice President and Secretary of State to exert much-needed leadership over U.S. diplomatic efforts with Sudan or face the prospect that Sudan will descend into much broader violence.”

Meanwhile, Gration is just back from Sudan, and off to Moscow soon.

Update: The White House says the Washington Post profile inaccurately reflects their policy toward Sudan. This post has also been updated to correctly reflect Gration’s travel schedule.

Photo: PETER MARTELL/AFP/Getty Images

Elizabeth Dickinson is a Gulf-based member of the journalism collective Deca.

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