On January 18, Ambassador Donald Booth took the stage at the United States Institute of Peace to reflect on his tenure as U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan and South Sudan. During this discussion, Booth’s mention of the missed opportunities for meaningful action early in South Sudan’s civil war was noticeably absent. While lamenting miscalculations regarding the selfish ways of the country’s political leaders and wondering how the new administration could “incentivize” peace, he failed to reflect on what might have been the administration’s most consequential decision . . . or lack thereof.
While many advocates and organizations pushed for strong action and accountability at the outset of conflict, these calls reached a new height by the end of 2014. Just eight months after the outbreak of hostilities in December 2013, President Kiir found himself making the first of two trips to the United States, one for the African Leaders Summit and the other to attend the United Nations General Assembly. Many advocates hoped that these two trips would provide the United States and the international community the right venue to convince the warring parties to pursue peace and end the conflict. When that outcome failed to materialize, there was a noticeable shift among many South Sudan watchers. A consensus position emerged after these two visits that now was the time to impose whatever leverage and pressure the U.S. and international community could muster. The writing was on the wall: the longer the conflict dragged on the harder it would be to stop and the less of the country’s institutions there would be to preserve.
Despite pleas from many within the human rights and policy communities, the Obama administration believed that the threat of punitive action would be more consequential than the imposition of these measures. Unfortunately, these threats did not work as the conflict escalated eventually leading to a peace deal that came far too late and and has not resolved the conflict.
When the administration changed tactics two and a half years later and pushed for targeted sanctions and an arms embargo at the United Nations Security Council it found an international community that had largely lost interest. Even with this setback, the U.S. could have shown leadership by acting unilaterally and then worked with other like-minded countries to follow suit. Instead, it declined to take significant action related to targeted sanctions without Security Council backing.
A more expansive reflection on U.S.-South Sudan policy would address and evaluate strategic decisions early in the conflict, particularly those taken at the end of 2014. Taking bold action was not a fringe position, but had coalesced into the consensus viewpoint among many human rights practitioners and policy experts working on South Sudan. The administration took a different view and followed a different strategy that failed to stop the conflict.
Moving forward, we have seen the results of a strategy in South Sudan that was constructed without building meaningful leverage to support peace. Without that leverage, there is little chance of changing the equation for those orchestrating the war.