Obama’s New Sudan Policy: Sounds Good, But Implementation is Key

Our guest blogger is Laura Heaton, Writer-editor for the Enough Project.

rice gration clintonIn a press conference this morning, choreographed to show a unified front after months of internal bickering, Secretary of State Clinton, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, and Sudan special envoy Scott Gration released the official U.S. policy on Sudan.

For the past seven months, President Obama’s special envoy to Sudan, Maj. General Scott Gration, has led the U.S. response to Sudan’s multiple challenges –- ongoing humanitarian crisis and political deadlock in Darfur, growing tension between North and South over a 2005 peace deal that is largely unimplemented, and increasing violence in the South in which Khartoum seemingly has a hand. Absent an official policy line, General Gration has had the leeway to implement an approach that many longtime Sudan watchers feel is inappropriately soft on Khartoum. (He even described his strategy as one in which he would hand out “cookies and gold stars” to encourage Khartoum to abide by its commitments.)

Fortunately, the policy paper released today demands accountability and verifiable progress on a wide range of issues before incentives would be deployed — although these benchmarks are not spelled out in detail.

Now is when things get tricky.

The evidence from Gration’s tenure so far — and even more importantly, the heinous 20-year track-record of Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party, or NCP — is unambiguous: Khartoum is not a partner that can be cajoled into behaving in the interests of its people. U.S. diplomacy toward Sudan has tilted dangerously in the direction of appeasement of the NCP headed by a man wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court.

The policy on paper looks solid and seems to take into consideration recent lessons learned. Significantly, it states that “assessments of progress and decisions regarding incentives and disincentives must not be based on process-related accomplishments (i.e. the signing of a MOU or the issuance of a set of visas), but rather based on verifiable changes in conditions on the ground.” The policy on paper also blatantly shifts away from earlier indications that the U.S. approach would quietly ignore past state-sponsored atrocities in the interest of moving forward. For the millions of victims in Darfur and for the leaders who believed their culpability for past crimes could negotiated away in exchange for cooperation on counter-terrorism efforts, the acknowledgment that “accountability for genocide and atrocities is necessary for reconciliation and lasting peace” is critically important.

The new policy also calls for more formalized involvement of senior level administration officials, a welcome shift that will ensure that the day-to-day diplomacy on Sudan matches what senior administration officials have agreed to on paper.

Indeed, today’s policy roll out is a first step in changing the tenor of U.S. diplomacy toward Sudan. The de-facto strategy up until now has been deeply problematic, giving President Bashir and his close-knit circle of advisers (many of whom rose to power alongside Bashir after the 1989 coup) the chance to stall and make excuses, while fomenting violence and undermining peace efforts behind-the-scenes.

Allowing the status quo in Sudan to continue is a recipe for a return to war between the North and the South. If the Obama administration doesn’t build an international coalition around this policy, doesn’t recognize the dangers of the increasing attacks in the South and the ruling party’s efforts to stir up violence ahead of the South’s self-determination vote in 2011, and is not willing to use multilateral and unilateral pressures (which have a history of working) early enough to make a difference, Sudan will descend into war, with disastrous consequences for broader stability in the Horn of Africa. U.S. policy objectives, so sensible on paper, will go up in smoke as Sudan burns again.