Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

Obama’s “Goldilocks strategy” on Sudan

By Will Inboden Seven months ago, when President Obama announced the appointment of retired Maj. Gen. Scott Gration as special envoy on Sudan, I offered some cautious words of praise and a few constructive suggestions. As the White House prepares for Monday’s roll-out of the administration’s new Darfur strategy, it is a good time to ...

By Will Inboden

Seven months ago, when President Obama announced the appointment of retired Maj. Gen. Scott Gration as special envoy on Sudan, I offered some cautious words of praise and a few constructive suggestions. As the White House prepares for Monday’s roll-out of the administration’s new Darfur strategy, it is a good time to make a mid-course assessment. It is not positive.

According to weekend news reports prompted by administration officials previewing the strategy, in a head-snapping departure from Obama's own campaign promises, the new approach will be a combination of "pressure and incentives" that privileges positive engagement. But no new measures of "pressure" are mentioned, and the administration's own descriptions place all of the emphasis on incentives and dialogue: "to get to the best-case scenario -- which is to change the behavior of the Khartoum government -- we are going to have to work with a government responsible for so many atrocities."

By Will Inboden

Seven months ago, when President Obama announced the appointment of retired Maj. Gen. Scott Gration as special envoy on Sudan, I offered some cautious words of praise and a few constructive suggestions. As the White House prepares for Monday’s roll-out of the administration’s new Darfur strategy, it is a good time to make a mid-course assessment. It is not positive.

According to weekend news reports prompted by administration officials previewing the strategy, in a head-snapping departure from Obama’s own campaign promises, the new approach will be a combination of "pressure and incentives" that privileges positive engagement. But no new measures of "pressure" are mentioned, and the administration’s own descriptions place all of the emphasis on incentives and dialogue: "to get to the best-case scenario — which is to change the behavior of the Khartoum government — we are going to have to work with a government responsible for so many atrocities."

But what if that government doesn’t want to work with you? And what if it continues to refuse to change its behavior? Recent events and policy trends do not lend a favorable interpretation to the administration’s line. Consider:

  • Gration’s first few months on the job have included losing the confidence of important stakeholders in Sudan such as displaced Darfurians and rebel groups, antagonizing key members of Congress and Darfur activists, and even (in a "life imitates the Onion" moment) offering "cookies" and "gold stars" to an indicted war criminal and perpetrator of genocide (and Sudanese president), Omar Hassan al-Bashir. The collective effect has been to erode Gration’s credibility as an honest broker, and to unilaterally diminish the administration’s leverage with the Bashir regime.
  • The Obama administration self-consciously frames its Sudan policy in the context of its overall approach of unconditionally engaging with pariah states. "Unconditionally" is the operative word, since while it can well be useful and effective at times to negotiate with bad guys, in places from Burma to Iran to Sudan the administration is on a troubling course of offering outstretched hands full of carrots, yet no new sticks. This reflects a false dichotomy posited between sanctions and diplomacy, when in fact the imposition and tightening of sanctions can help strengthen the hand of diplomacy.
  • It ignores history. For a White House that prides itself on its ostensible intellectual sophistication, the Obama administration seems rather obtuse about the lessons of history, even the recent past. Such as remembering that Bashir, besides presiding over the serial murder of his own people, is also a serial violator of negotiated agreements. Or that it was only under the pain of sanctions (and a poignant awareness of American military might in the wake of 9/11) that Khartoum came to the negotiating table with then-Special Envoy John Danforth to eventually end the North-South war and forge the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in early 2005. Or that the Bush administration’s efforts in its latter years to end the Darfur genocide included a series of positive inducements offered to Bashir by numerous presidential envoys — such as upgraded diplomatic relations, removal from the terrorism sponsor list, cessation of sanctions, etc. — that ultimately did not avail in changing Bashir’s behavior.
  • It ignores China. As Sudan’s largest investor and most consistent "heat shield" against meaningful international pressure, any robust solution to Khartoum’s depredations runs through Beijing. Yet the Obama administration’s posture toward China appears to be a one-dimensional "China-as-our-central-banker" strategy run out of the Treasury Department, and there are no signs of significant efforts to enlist China in pressing Sudan.
  • It ignores international law. For an administration supposedly committed to a new multilateral posture and cooperation with international institutions, the Obama White House is displaying a stunning — dare we say, "unilateral" — disregard for international law and the international community. Bashir, after all, has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. Yet the Obama administration directly undermines the ICC through go-it-alone efforts to engage Bashir and cooperate with him as a purportedly legitimate partner in peace efforts.
  • It could be worse. In what seems to be an emerging "Goldilocks approach" of defaulting to the via media policy option, Obama appears to have rejected the most conciliatory posture by continuing with some of the current sanctions and not handing Bashir all of the inducements he would like up front (such as eschewing the term "genocide," or allowing Khartoum to register a Washington lobbyist, or removing it from the terrorism list, or extending full diplomatic relations). Whether this approach represents a coherent strategy or just a split-the-difference compromise between Gration and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice (said to favor a harder line) remains to be seen.

All of the above is not meant to diminish the very real complexities in Sudan, the manifest faults on many sides, or the failures of past efforts. But campaign rhetoric notwithstanding, the prospects for real progress in ending the suffering and bringing justice to Sudan are not promising under the new strategy.

Will Inboden is the executive director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and as a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.

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