Argument

How Obama Betrayed Sudan

The former Sudan envoy on how U.S. government policy could push the country back into civil war.

ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images

It’s a looming tragedy inside a failure wrapped in betrayal.

Time is short. The dangers are rising. The cost in human suffering will be unbearable.

Sudan’s civil war, which raged for more years than not over the last six decades, claimed more than 2 million lives and displaced at least 4 million innocent people. In the south, civilians were targeted, villages were burned to the ground, rape was a weapon of war, and crimes against humanity were government policy. It was horrific.

In large part thanks to U.S. leadership, the war ended with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that was signed on Jan. 9, 2005. This complex deal addressed a myriad of thorny issues and set a road map to a 2011 referendum in which the south will vote to determine whether it will remain part of Sudan or become an independent country. But now, through a combination of northern belligerence and the naiveté of U.S. President Barack Obama and his advisors, we are once again staring into the abyss — as the administration’s desperate appeal to Khartoum for forbearance in exchange for its removal from the state sponsors of terrorism list makes clear.

While the 2005 agreement ended the worst violence, lingering hostility and flashes of fighting have continued. As the scheduled referendum approaches, the drum beats of war grow louder. Both sides are girding themselves for renewed conflict.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The six-year cooling-off period between the CPA and the referendum was intended to give the north the opportunity to make unity an attractive alternative to southern independence in 2011. Instead, the North continues to marginalize the south, denying full political participation and perpetuating economic and other forms of discrimination.

The north also failed to live up to many of its other CPA commitments. It did not disarm and demobilize the Arab militias it used as proxy warriors against the south. It did not create the fully integrated north/south army and police units. It did not hold national and local elections on time or in a free and fair manner. It has not provided transparent accounting of oil revenue. It did not live up to commitments to accept agreed-upon procedures to demarcate contested border areas. And the north has provided arms to Arab tribes and incited violence that last year claimed more than 1,000 more south Sudanese lives. The list goes on.

Furthermore, the north has failed repeatedly to meet deadlines to arbitrate issues related to the referendum such as citizenship, freedom of movement, and treaties. It was slow to form the referendum commission and failed to set up the machinery to hold the referendum on time. Many observers believe current talks on these issues are part of a well-established pattern by northern leaders of setting up elaborate and complicated forums for discussing, deliberating, and eventually denying commitments they never intended to honor in the first place. Meanwhile, their leverage grows.

In 2007 and 2008, then Sen. Barack Obama, along with his colleagues Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton, harshly criticized George W. Bush’s administration for engaging with Khartoum. They advocated a no-fly zone for Darfur and called for using sticks against the government. Susan Rice, now his U.N. ambassador, even advocated boots on the ground. Those bold proclamations — untethered to responsibility — were a promise and commitment to the Sudanese and to the millions of American activists who have made Sudan’s quest for peace their own.

In May 2008, candidate Obama joined in a statement in which he demanded "that the genocide and violence in Darfur be brought to an end and that the CPA be fully implemented." He went further to "condemn the Sudanese government’s consistent efforts to undermine peace and security, including its repeated attacks against its own people." He pledged to "pursue these goals with unstinting resolve."

I am not so cynical as to believe this tough language was just "politics as usual" without any conviction. I am sure they were sincere in their prescriptions and promises at the time. But those have not been pledges redeemed. They have been betrayed.

On March 4, 2009, after the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Omar Hassan al-Bashir, Sudan’s president, for war crimes and crimes against humanity, Obama did not even go before the cameras to applaud this step to end impunity. Instead, the White House made only a perfunctory statement. Just under a month later, the president’s special envoy to Sudan, J. Scott Gration, got off a plane in Khartoum and said, "I love Sudan." He returned from his first trip to Darfur and proclaimed that it wasn’t as bad as he had expected.

I have visited refugee and internally displaced persons camps throughout Africa and Asia. And while serving as Bush’s special envoy to Sudan I often traveled to camps in Darfur and visited with scores of men, women, and children who had been driven from their homes by Khartoum-backed militias. I have seen the horrific overcrowded conditions where, for as far as you can see, people live under torn plastic sheets; where from time to time the government turns off the electricity so wells do not work and people go without clean water; where there is disease and hunger; and where women are beaten and raped when they go out to gather firewood. It’s a living hell where suffering Sudanese survive in desperate conditions and have no hope of ever returning home. I know the Sudanese government took comfort in Gration’s words and was emboldened to continue its genocide in slow motion.

Then, when in violation of international humanitarian law Khartoum kicked out 13 international humanitarian NGOs from Darfur that were providing badly needed assistance, again the Obama team’s response was weak. Days later, the administration praised Khartoum for letting three of the NGOs back into Darfur. Meanwhile, for more than a year U.S. government reports of inadequate humanitarian aid to Darfur have been covered up in Washington, according to two people familiar with the documents.

When Khartoum has used its Sudanese Armed Forces aircraft to bomb villages and kill innocents in violation of various agreements, there has been no robust public rebuke.

When the presidential election stipulated in the CPA was far from credible, the Obama administration was quiet.

When earlier this year the ICC issued a further arrest warrant for Bashir, this time for genocide, the same word Obama repeatedly has used to describe the Sudanese government’s violence against its own people — again there was no cry for accountability. There have been no sticks.

Instead, Gration’s comment about the new arrest warrant was that it made his job harder. He has said in dealing with Khartoum that he must use "cookies" and "gold stars."

The regime in Khartoum is smart and it is ruthless. Bashir came to power in a coup d’état in 1989 and has now remained in power for 20 years in a very tough neighborhood. He has taken the measure of the Obama administration and the international community, and that measure tells him there is little to fear if yet again he breaks his word.

Only belatedly has the Obama administration shown renewed concerns about developments in Sudan. In September, on the margins of the U.N. General Assembly, Obama joined others in a meeting on Sudan convened by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and issued a positive statement insisting that the CPA "must be fully implemented" and the referendum held peaceably and on time.

Obama also sent an experienced diplomat, Ambassador Princeton Lyman, to Juba (Southern Sudan’s de facto capital) to help facilitate negotiations on the many unresolved issues leading up to the referendum. Additional U.S. diplomats and personnel from the U.S. Agency for International Development have been dispatched to Sudan to assist negotiations and help rapidly install the machinery to hold a credible vote. For these efforts, Obama and his team are to be applauded.

But other key issues have gone unaddressed. There is no evidence of any progress on the decisive issue of oil-revenue sharing, for instance. Without some acceptable resolution of this thorny issue, war cannot be ruled out.

When the regime came to power, Sudan’s total exports were about $500 million a year. Now, Sudan’s annual exports are about $9.5 billion — almost all due to increased oil revenues, which the north depends on for political stability. The south also increasingly relies on it: Through a revenue-sharing agreement required by the CPA, the government in Juba has been receiving about $2 billion in oil profits each year.

Approximately 70 percent of Sudan’s known oil is in the south or the contested border areas, however. Here is the dilemma: The Khartoum regime may not be able to survive on just 30 percent of the oil revenue. But land-locked South Sudan would have no way to get the oil to market except through the pipelines that run through the north to the Port of Sudan. Building an alternate pipeline through Kenya to international markets would take 3 years or longer, experts estimate.

War is not inevitable. In the end, the oil issue is about money, which makes it solvable. The South can agree to pay a "carrying fee" for oil to be transported over pipelines in the north and loaded onto oil tankers in Port Sudan. There should be room to work out a revenue-sharing deal acceptable (if not preferable) to both sides, with appropriate guarantees and an acceptable lifespan. Nor is the north hell bent on conflict. Some hard-liners and Islamists want war, but some moderates want to avoid it. As special envoy, I dealt with all these personalities. They could muddle through without large-scale violence. But the issue of oil revenue must be addressed to lessen the risk of renewed fighting.

Obama must make it crystal clear that if war reignites, there will be serious consequences. The United States must make a credible threat that it will employ retaliatory actions against those who ignite renewed war, perhaps even using missiles to take out strategic targets.

That may sound extreme, but consider the consequences of inaction. Both sides are engaged in dangerous brinkmanship, and the horrific consequences of renewed war would be a tragedy for innocent Sudanese. Ethnic strife would deepen divisions and dangerously fracture the fabric of Southern Sudan’s society. And it would further destabilize a fragile region of East Africa stretching in a belt from Somalia to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Unfortunately, the recent history of human tragedy, failure, and betrayal has left Sudan with an unresolved puzzle where war is all too likely.

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