Washington’s Sudan policy will face several tests in the next two years, as Sudan prepares for national elections in 2010 and a referendum on Southern independence in 2011. Yet even before these key moments arrive, President Obama’s stance is drawing fire.
Andrew Natsios, former administrator of USAID and special envoy to Sudan under President Bush, wrote Tuesday in the Washington Post criticizing the Obama administration’s policy toward Sudan:
Thirty Sudanese political leaders will meet in Washington today with 170 observers from 32 countries and international organizations, as well as four African former prime ministers, to confront the issues that are slowly pushing Sudan over a cliff. The United States ought to be in a commanding position to mediate in these negotiations, as it did in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended 22 years of civil war between Sudan’s North and South. But disputes within the Obama administration are inhibiting U.S. efforts to stop Sudan’s slide toward civil war at a time when unified American leadership is essential.
The administration is focused more on a dated view of Darfur than on the risks of future atrocities that are likely to come from a new war between the North and South. Two events required under the 2005 peace agreement — national multiparty elections to be held in February 2010 and a referendum the following year on the secession of southern Sudan — will determine whether Sudan constructively addresses its internal political problems or descends into Somalia-like anarchy or Rwanda-scale atrocities. The risk of war rises exponentially without resolution of these issues: the status of oil-rich Abyei, preparation for the referendum on southern secession, and, after the referendum, the disposition of revenue from oil production (most of which is in southern Sudan, while the pipelines go through the North) between the North and South.
Using the term “genocide” feeds the International Criminal Court’s indictment of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir — which has made meeting with him politically explosive. Some advocates insist that no American diplomat talk with him. How do you mediate a peace agreement if you can’t speak to one side’s leader? At this crucial moment, the long-suffering Sudanese people need unified American leadership behind a pragmatic policy of engagement. Instead, they have campaign rhetoric and diplomatic paralysis. We, and they, are headed toward disaster if we do not change course.
A key part of Natsios’ argument is that policymakers should no longer classify violence in Darfur as genocide, but rather as a “low-level insurgency.” Violence has declined drastically from its 2003-2004 levels, Natsios says, while estimates of the total death toll are inflated. Regarding current levels of violence, Alex de Waal offers some support to Natsios’ numbers:
Arab militia attacks on civilians have not been a feature of the war in Darfur for the last fourteen months, and the fighting and burning in the northern parts of west Darfur, during the JEM offensives of February 2008, were in fact the only occasions in which the militia have been active against non-Arab civilians on a significant scale since 2006.
The monthly fatality tallies for 2009 thus far are:
It is also striking that in meetings with representatives of almost all communities across Darfur, including the vast majority of IDP camps, over the last two months, very few representatives have raised recent incidents of lethal violence. For Darfurians, it is fair to say, the issue today is not killing.
Treating the conflict simply in terms of how many casualties occur minimizes its scope (not that de Waal is guilty of this, but perhaps Natsios is). As many as several million people in the region may have been displaced by the fighting, producing a humanitarian disaster that intersects in a deadly fashion with environmental strain and other political crises, such as hostilities between Chad and Sudan.
But even if one agreed with Natsios that the administration should avoid language about genocide – which would be a politically and emotionally charged decision – does Natsios’ criticism that the administration isn’t providing “unified leadership” hold up?
One wonders what Natsios would say now that Tuesday’s summit has taken place. This week, Washington weighed in on several political situations in Sudan (including issuing a warning on terrorism) with a committed if cautious tone. In advance of Tuesday’s meeting, current Special Envoy to Sudan Scott Gration met with Sudanese leaders for four days, and Tuesday Gration indicated the administration’s strong desire to see next year’s elections and 2011′s referendum proceed smoothly. If nothing else, the administration appears engaged and eager to see progress.
Words, of course, must be followed by action, and next month will begin to test the sincerity of the warm words uttered in Washington this week. After The Hague rules in an arbitration case regarding oil in Abyei, in the center of the country, leaders from North and Sudan Sudan will meet Gration in Abyei itself because “it is hoped Mr Gration’s presence will be able to stifle anger from any dissenters that could trigger a return to widespread violence.”
As with Israel and Iran, the Obama administration appears to be taking the pulse of the situation in Sudan before taking major action. Natsios’ criticisms and suggestions merit reflection, but for me the jury is still out. Much seems to hinge on one’s estimation of the chances that civil war in Sudan could be imminent – if the answer is yes, then decisive action is certainly needed. But some signs point to the conclusion that civil war can be averted through successful arbitration of the oil dispute and vigilance by Washington, steps the administration is already moving forward on. I honestly don’t know the dynamics well enough to predict the chances of war, so I’ll leave that to the experts.
All I can conclude is that the situation will likely be clearer in July…though perhaps Natsios would warn us that the time to craft an effective policy is already running out.