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Obama’s Sudan envoy: Bashir indictment makes my job harder

As Sudan speeds toward a January referendum that could lead the splitting of the country or, in the worst case, all-out war, President Obama‘s special envoy is complaining that his job has been made more difficult by new charges leveled against the Sudanese president. On Monday, the International Criminal Court issued a second arrest warrant ...

As Sudan speeds toward a January referendum that could lead the splitting of the country or, in the worst case, all-out war, President Obama's special envoy is complaining that his job has been made more difficult by new charges leveled against the Sudanese president.

On Monday, the International Criminal Court issued a second arrest warrant for Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, this time on three counts of genocide. In March 2009, the ICC had indicted Bashir for five counts of "crimes against humanity." The Obama administration has always said that war criminals should be brought to justice, but at the same time is pursuing a policy of engagement with Bashir's government while avoiding direct contact with the Sudanese leader himself. On Tuesday, Obama said he was "fully supportive of the ICC."

But the president's point man on Sudan, retired Maj. Gen. J. Scott Gration, said this week that the new charges will have a damaging effect on his ability to work with Bashir's government. Speaking at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom Tuesday, he expressed dissatisfaction with the ICC's latest move.

As Sudan speeds toward a January referendum that could lead the splitting of the country or, in the worst case, all-out war, President Obama‘s special envoy is complaining that his job has been made more difficult by new charges leveled against the Sudanese president.

On Monday, the International Criminal Court issued a second arrest warrant for Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, this time on three counts of genocide. In March 2009, the ICC had indicted Bashir for five counts of "crimes against humanity." The Obama administration has always said that war criminals should be brought to justice, but at the same time is pursuing a policy of engagement with Bashir’s government while avoiding direct contact with the Sudanese leader himself. On Tuesday, Obama said he was "fully supportive of the ICC."

But the president’s point man on Sudan, retired Maj. Gen. J. Scott Gration, said this week that the new charges will have a damaging effect on his ability to work with Bashir’s government. Speaking at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom Tuesday, he expressed dissatisfaction with the ICC’s latest move.

"The decision by the ICC to accuse Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir of genocide will make my mission more difficult and challenging especially if we realize that resolving the crisis in Darfur and South, issues of oil and combating terrorism at a 100 percent, we need Bashir," Gration was quoted as saying by Radio Sawa, an Arabic language radio station run by the U.S. government.

"Also [regarding] the issues of citizenship and referendum, the North holds a lot of influence, so this is really tough. How will I carry out my duties in this environment?" he reportedly asked.

This isn’t the first time Gration has gone off message since he became special envoy, beginning with the time he likened the administration’s engagement policy toward Khartoum to giving out cookies and gold stars to children.

Last June, ABC News reported that U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice was "furious" when Gration said that Darfur was experiencing only the "remnants of genocide." The State Department quickly confirmed that its official position is that genocide is ongoing.

White House officials, beginning with President Obama himself, have been trying to make it clear that they support the ICC’s action, notwithstanding Gration’s complaints.

"My view is that the ICC has put forward an arrest warrant. We think that it is important for the government of Sudan to cooperate with the ICC," Obama said in a Tuesday interview with the South African Broadcasting Corporation. "We think that it is also important that people are held accountable for the actions that took place in Darfur that resulted in, at minimum, hundreds of thousands of lives being lost … We want to move forward in a constructive fashion in Sudan, but we also think that there has to be accountability, and so we are fully supportive of the ICC."

Antony Blinken, Vice President Joe Biden‘s national security advisor, reiterated the administration’s support for the ICC ruling in remarks Thursday at conference at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Many in the Sudan advocacy community have been increasingly unhappy with Gration, based on what they see as his unwillingness to put real pressure on Bashir’s government and his penchant for making statements that seem to contradict those of his superiors.

"Setting aside issues of accountability and justice and debates about justice versus peace, the special envoy’s public statement was, simply put, alarmingly off-message," wrote Amanda Hsiao on the website of the Enough Project, an anti-genocide advocacy group. "This divergence of views, between the Obama administration and its appointed special envoy, has made depressingly clear-once again-the degree of divisiveness and lack of coordination among the actors entrusted with implementing U.S. policy on Sudan."

"It’s unfortunate on the day that president obama spoke so forcefully about the importance of peace with justice, his special envoy backtracked the president’s sentiment in the Sudan context and further undermined US credibility in the pursuit of peace in Sudan," Enough’s CEO John Prendergast told The Cable.

The State Department, meanwhile, has tripled its presence in Southern Sudan, bringing in former Ambassador to Gabon Barry Walkley to lead the effort to work with the Southern Sudanese ahead of a potential split.

"The issues that are most troubling right now are issues with carrying out the referendum," Gration said in a Wednesday speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, explaining that the logistics of organizing the event are enormously complicated. If the South does vote to secede, the new state will face huge challenges, such as establishing a currency, controlling its air space, restructuring its debts, and sharing oil and other resources.

Gration did admit one failure of the U.S. policy toward Sudan. "We haven’t made a difference in the lives of the Darfurian people," he said.

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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