Terms of Engagement

How’s That Appeasement Working Out?

Barack Obama's Sudan strategy is more sophisticated than his detractors will admit. But that doesn't mean it is working.


The international community has rendered its judgment on the elections just completed in Sudan — and it’s painstakingly mild and conscientiously balanced. The European Union noted "important deficiencies against international standards," but nevertheless deemed them a "crucial" step toward national reconciliation. Major donors Britain, Norway, and the United States, known as the Sudan Troika, likewise took "note" of "initial assessments … including the judgment that the elections failed to meet international standards." The Carter Center commended the "increased political and civic participation" surrounding the ballot.

The election was, in fact, transparently rigged, if not literally at the ballot box then effectively in the weeks and months beforehand. As the International Crisis Group put it succinctly in a report last month, the ruling National Congress Party "has manipulated the census results and voter registration, drafted the election law in its favor, gerrymandered electoral districts, co-opted traditional leaders and bought tribal loyalties."

Why, then, are these international observers, who after all represent Sudan’s chief donors, so exquisitely minding their language? Last October, when the State Department promulgated its new Sudan policy, Obama administration officials told me that if they could not induce Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir to hold a reasonably free and fair election, they would at the very least "tell it like it is." So why are they pulling their punches?

The advocacy community sees in the administration’s soft line on Sudan an act of consummate cynicism, and perhaps the most vivid proof to date that "engagement" is English for realpolitik. John Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough Project, recently accused L. Scott Gration, the administration’s envoy on Sudan, of seeking to "whitewash" the outcome of Sudan’s recent national elections "for the sake of expediency." Sean Brooks of the Save Darfur Coalition, wrote that the United States and other international actors apparently prefer "stability" to "safeguarding and promoting human rights and democracy in Sudan."

But the Cold War is over, and Scott Gration is no Henry Kissinger. The Obama administration is not "supporting" Bashir, an indicted war criminal, as a counterweight to international communism, or global terrorism. Gration has called for the indictment, issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC), to be served, though it’s true that he hasn’t been very ardent about it. What, then, explains the policy? A White House spokesman told me that relevant officials are too "swamped" to comment, so I’ll have to speculate about what’s in their heads — and in the heads of the other internationals tangled in the briar patch that is Sudan.

There’s no secret about the end game. In January 2005, the regime in Khartoum and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, which between them had waged a monstrous civil war over control of the southern half of the country for two decades, signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement ending the fighting. The CPA mandated a referendum in which southerners would decide whether to secede or to join a new unity government. That referendum is to be held next January, and there is no question that voters will choose secession — at least absent massive electoral fraud. Partition is a process that invites bloodshed on a massive scale even in places without Sudan’s scarred history (think India-Pakistan). The international community, including the Obama administration, has thus made a strategic choice to give Bashir an election he was bound to rig in any case in order to increase the likelihood that he will accept a secession vote. That is the "stability" they are seeking.

The goal is worthwhile; the question is whether the concessions are both necessary and likely to be effective. We have a relevant precedent here — and it’s a very dismaying one. One of the chief reasons why the troika, as well as others, refused to acknowledge the gravity of the massacres the regime began perpetrating in the western region of Darfur in 2003 was the fear that doing so would make Bashir walk away from discussions leading to the CPA. Unwilling to threaten any kind of punishment, diplomats resorted to anguished rhetoric, even appeasement. By the time the horror had become too great to ignore, Bashir had reduced Darfur to a smoldering ruin. But the logic continued: When the CPA was signed, George W. Bush’s administration kept a discreet silence on Darfur. The violence continued, if at a less torrid pace, and Bashir proceeded to ignore the terms of the agreement he had signed.

The sacrifice is smaller this time around. According to the terms of the CPA, the national election was intended to open up a political process that had been ruthlessly dominated by Bashir’s National Congress Party. Opposition political parties were to be permitted to campaign. Votes were to be apportioned based on the first census in half a century. All voters were to be registered. But none of these things happened. The opposition withdrew in the face of harassment; the census was transparently cooked; voters in Darfur couldn’t register. Democratic failure is, of course, a long way from genocide. Still, Bashir dearly wanted the legitimacy that he felt the election would bring, and thus might have succumbed had more pressure been applied.

That said, was the price worth paying? Put otherwise, will engagement prove more effective this time than it did in the past? Here, it must be said, the balance sheet is much more complicated than most advocates let on. With much prodding from Gration and his team, senior officials in Khartoum and the government of Southern Sudan began talking late last year, and have begun to work on critical questions of border demarcation. All the major issues remain outstanding, and both sides have been all too willing to ignore provisions of the CPA requiring democratic reform; but there is a sense of forward motion, albeit halting and eminently reversible. Nikki Smith, the former Sudan country director for the International Rescue Committee, and now the group’s head of government relations and advocacy, says, "There has been meaningful progress, and I do think the Obama administration deserves some credit."

Engagement is a currency that can buy some things and not others. Engagement does not work because dictators want to be treated respectfully, or respond more readily to the carrot than the stick. Petty tyrants like Bashir treat concessions as a sign of weakness. This is why the Obama administration’s besetting problem has not been "expediency," but naivete. Engagement only works when it helps bring dictators to do what is in their own interest. That’s why all Obama’s fine words were wasted on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: nothing the United States was prepared to offer was ever going to equal the value of Iran’s nuclear program, at least in his mind. Likewise, Bashir saw the revolt in Darfur as a threat to his very existence. He was going to burn the entire region to the ground unless he was forced to stop — and the world wasn’t prepared to compel him, whether through sanctions of the threat of force.

Things could be different this time around. Just as pushing the "reset button" with Russia might have produced an atmosphere more conducive to arm-control talks that the Russians already saw as in their own interest, so the soft line on Sudan may make it easier for Bashir to accept what he already recognizes is inevitable. Does that mean the international community had to let him manipulate the election as he saw fit? No; I think the world could have, and should have, pushed him harder. And Bashir must always be aware that the ICC indictment is a very real Sword of Damocles hanging over his head. But he needs to feel that he can survive partition in order to accept it. Bashir does not deserve to survive, of course; he deserves to spend the rest of his life behind bars. But we will not help Sudan if we insist on treating him and his regime as they deserve.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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