Our New Man in Sudan

Can Washington's fourth envoy in five years finally get things right?

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Barack Obama’s got a new point man in Sudan. On March 31 the U.S. president announced that Princeton Lyman, a retired ambassador with a diplomatic pedigree as distinguished as his name, will replace J. Scott Gration as his special envoy to the war-torn country. Lyman’s credentials are strong. He has been working the Sudan file since last August, so he will hit the ground running. And unlike Gration, who had no diplomatic experience before Obama appointed him, Lyman’s tenure as the U.S. ambassador to South Africa during the transition from apartheid gives him keen insight into dealing with a delicate, complicated situation. There will be no more "cookies and gold stars" gaffes from here on out.

But none of that means Lyman will succeed in his mission. In theory, the appointment of yet another special envoy signals Obama’s commitment to prioritize Sudan among competing foreign-policy issues. At best, a special envoy should be able to coordinate Sudan policy across various agencies to avoid the stovepiping problem that so often plagues the U.S. government. But a review of the envoys to date suggests that theory is one thing, bureaucratic reality quite another.

George W. Bush appointed two envoys: Andrew Natsios and Richard Williamson. Both were thwarted by the part-time nature of their tenure. Neither was ever integrated into the Sudan Programs Group in the State Department, where the bulk of decision-making on Sudan took place. Turf warfare was all too common as the envoys and State Department officials never managed to read from the same playbook. The result was mixed signals sent to Khartoum, as when one top U.S. official told the Sudanese foreign minister she was convinced that Sudan was not a state sponsor of terrorism, while Natsios was saying publicly and privately that Sudan had to stay on the terrorism list until both Darfur was resolved and the north-south peace agreement was implemented.

When Obama appointed Gration on a full-time basis and moved to straighten out the overlapping lines of authority, Sudan watchers hoped the turf wars were over. Yet Gration was soon publicly at loggerheads with Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who advocated a tougher line on Sudanese leader Omar Hassan al-Bashir. Again, the result was a divided U.S. position that diminished Obama’s diplomatic leverage. The lesson is that Lyman may find his job is as much about skilled diplomacy with officials in Washington as with those in Khartoum.

Lyman may also soon find himself the sole focus — and inevitably, scapegoat — for all media and advocacy scrutiny of the U.S. government’s approach to Sudan. "Every word you say will be watched by the advocacy groups and instantly disseminated through the Internet," explained Natsios in 2007. This makes sensitive diplomacy all the more challenging. For now, advocacy groups have welcomed Lyman’s appointment. But this cannot give him too much comfort because they were equally hopeful about Gration at the start of his tenure; within a year, some were calling for his head.

The one envoy who managed to maintain a positive image in Washington was Williamson. But it is no coincidence that he is also the one envoy to date who consistently condemned Khartoum in public. Both Natsios and Gration kept whatever criticism they made private, and quickly fell afoul of U.S. public sentiment as a result.

Yet with Washington running out of sticks — the United States has thrown pretty much everything at Bashir, from sanctions to the International Criminal Court — the only real option for gaining leverage now is by offering carrots. In the short term, without the kind of coordinated international pressure that Libya has attracted, Lyman will have little choice but to follow the path toward offering Khartoum normalization of U.S.-Sudan relations and risk the wrath of some advocates as a result.

What leverage Lyman can develop has to be shared between different pressing concerns: revitalizing the Darfur peace process in Doha, and making progress on the issues still to be resolved before the formal independence of Southern Sudan, including questions of citizenship, oil-revenue sharing, and debt burdens, and the still unresolved questions of what the future will be for the areas of Abyei, the Blue Nile, and the Nuba Mountains in a two-state Sudan. Meanwhile, he’ll need to push the fledging government of Southern Sudan to implement its good-governance rhetoric, amid reports of its dictatorial response to a growing number of Southern rebellions.

Finally, as the fourth U.S. envoy to Sudan in just five years, Lyman must beware the tactics that stalwarts of Bashir’s regime, like the current head of the Darfur file, Ghazi Salahuddin Atabani, have developed over the past two dozen years as one U.S. diplomat after another has passed through Khartoum. Recognizing that the United States has a finite amount of leverage and that Sudan invariably has multiple crises or potential crises on the boil at any given time, Salahuddin and his colleagues have become adept at cornering U.S. officials into accepting poor outcomes in one part of Sudan in exchange for progress in another.

Gration was the latest to fall into this trap, allowing progress on Darfur, popular consultations in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile, and the Abyei referendum all to be held hostage to getting Southern Sudan’s referendum on independence to happen on time. But one reason he needed to scramble to salvage the southern referendum was that previous envoys had allowed that issue to fester while they focused on Darfur.

Lyman may find himself waging a similar diplomatic battle. With Abyei now at the point of imminent implosion as both northern and southern politicians refuse to cede any ground on which part of a two-state Sudan the border region should belong to, it seems likely he will have to expend what leverage he has to cajole the parties to a negotiated settlement before Sudan splits apart on July 9. Which leaves open the question of what hope there is for Darfur, which after years in the spotlight now risks becoming the world’s forgotten crisis once again.

Rebecca Hamilton, an Australian, is an assistant professor of law at American University, Washington College of Law. She previously worked at the International Criminal Court. Twitter: @bechamilton
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