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Honey for Sudan’s President?

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Honey for Sudan’s President?

Posted by John Norris on September 22, 2009

Honey for Sudan's President?

This post has been revised from an earlier version, based on additional conversations with the source familiar with the Sudan special envoy’s Radio Dabanga interview.

Special Envoy for Sudan Major General Scott Gration recently did an interview with Radio Dabanga, located in Holland. We have been slow to post on the interview, in part because we have been in a back-and-forth with both General Gration’s office and the radio station to make sure there were no errors in the transcript, and we have not had luck in getting the actual audio clip in English from either the Special Envoy’s office or the station.

The radio station stands by the transcript, but the special envoy’s office indicated it had some concerns. The General’s staff wouldn’t speak for the record. However, an individual close to the special envoy noted that the entire interview as printed seemed awkward and speculated that the Sudanese journalists had recorded the interview in English, translated it into Arabic for the radio, and then someone translated the Arabic back into English. Some additional comments from this individual, who declined to be identified, are also highlighted below. Yet, by any measure, some of the comments which the envoy’s office does not dispute are quite provocative.

The most provocative: “You catch more bears with honey,” as the special envoy said in explaining his approach to diplomacy and the Government of Sudan. As others have noted, including our friends over at’s Stop Genocide blog, that is a perfectly pleasant world view in the abstract, but let’s not forget that we are talking about a government headed by an indicted war criminal. While the envoy does not dismiss the need to keep pressures on the table, is the administration’s long-awaited policy review really going to produce a diplomatic approach that depends heavily on incentives for President Bashir and his cronies in the National Congress Party?

To quote from the transcript:

“There’s an expression that we heard when we were young: ‘You catch more bears with honey than with vinegar.’ In other words, we see things that need to be punished, or we see the requirement for additional pressure. We should exert the effort whether you are an individual or whether you are an organization. I think that we all respond better with incentives. And I believe that we have made a significant difference using some of the incentives.  Obviously the pressures are still there. We are not taking the pressures of the table. They are still available to us. The bottom line is we believe that the current course of action, where we work together with the government and work together with the people of Darfur, is a formula that is currently working…”

I think the refugees and displaced of Darfur would sharply question whether the current formula is working, as would those communities in South Sudan that have been attacked in recent weeks by reinvigorated militias. As General Gration makes his rounds, he has heard sharper and sharper concerns from a wide range of Sudanese voices.

The individual we spoke to who is close to General Gration insists that that while the General did make the “more bears with honey” statement, it was taken out of context. This individual also notes that General Gration made lengthy comments in the interview about an approach with incentives and disincentives – sticks and carrots – but these were omitted from the printed Q & A.  Even if that is the case, (and one senses a hard-working aide trying to do some damage control here) it is still bewildering that General Gration would ever use such a formulation of bears and honey when discussing President Bashir. Again and again in public statements the special envoy seems to gravitate toward highlighting his preference for incentives over pressures, and every single time there seems to be a follow-up statement insisting that the envoy is relying equally on the two. It is hard not to discern some patterns here.

The interview also highlights another reason why many Sudanese and independent analysts are questioning whether General Gration genuinely understands the fundamental patterns beneath Sudan’s violence. Questioned in the interview about some earlier comments he had made on Darfur, General Gration maintained:

We want the government to take responsibility for the security situation, the security forces, the police forces, for improving the situation. So that people in Darfur can live a life that includes justice, where people that perpetrated crimes are caught, where they get punished, where people can’t get away with terrorizing the Darfuri people.” [Emphasis mine.]

The disconnect is striking. General Gration conveniently ignores the fact that the government was firmly in control of the security apparatus when it employed the janjaweed militias as a proxy to drive millions of people from their homes in a savage campaign orchestrated and assisted by the Sudanese military and intelligence services — thus the war crimes charges against President Bashir, and thus the very tough comments on Sudan by President Obama when he was a candidate. Giving the Sudanese government more control of the security situation is hardly a recipe for making the almost three million internally displaced people and refugees feel like it is safe to go home. And this is certainly a formulation that General Gration has used in more than one appearance, so I don’t think there is any question related to the transcript.

So while the policy review on Sudan has yet to be finalized, General Gration appears more than content to move forward with his own strategy and approach. It can only be hoped that the policy review gets the U.S. approach back on track. All the more reason to weigh in with your member of Congress now and share your concerns. General Gration is also in New York today and appearing at a Save Darfur rally, where I hope he gets some tough questions about his approach. Violence in South Sudan is mounting, and time is running short.

Photo: Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir