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U.S. Leaders Take Sudan Peace Efforts Abroad As Frustration Grows At Home

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U.S. Leaders Take Sudan Peace Efforts Abroad As Frustration Grows At Home

Posted by Laura Heaton on May 28, 2009

U.S. leaders took their efforts to promote peace in Sudan on the road this week, with the new U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan Scott Gration heading off to visit key player China over the weekend, and a small delegation from the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Africa conducting meeting with officials in Sudan this week. Senators Bob Corker (R-TN) and Johnny Isakson (R-GA) met with officials in Khartoum on Monday, including Vice President Ali Osman Taha, and visited North Darfur on Tuesday. Reporting on the purpose of their visit, Senator Isakson wrote in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

We emphasized that improved relations will be built on progress toward the comprehensive peace agreement, which requires legislation pending in the parliament on freedom of the press; reconciliation with the south; future agreements between the north and the south on sharing oil revenues; and full cooperation with aid workers delivering humanitarian assistance to the people of Darfur.

A State Department spokesperson in Washington said today that Gration’s talks with the Chinese special representative for Darfur were “very positive,” noting that the pair discussed “deepening U.S.-China cooperation over shared concerns in Sudan,” according to AFP.

These visits come amid growing concern about the Obama administration’s seeming inaction, or at least very stealth action, to address the ongoing crisis in Sudan. A series of articles in recent days highlight this no-longer-pent-up frustration over the administration’s handling of the increasingly precarious humanitarian and political situation in Darfur and between Sudan’s northern and southern regions.

In an article in yesterday’s Sudan Tribune, former Special Representative on Sudan Roger Winter asks, “Is the U.S. selling southern Sudanese down the river?” While he noted that the answer is not yet a decisive ‘yes’, he cautioned that U.S. policy seems to be headed in that direction. Winter pointed out that there are some valid reasons for the U.S. to engage Khartoum, but he was very cautious, noting that the regime has a long history of duping international negotiators:

Ever since [President Bashir] came to power in 1989, the leadership group in Khartoum has largely remained intact. That leadership element is very able and also very committed to their divisive vision for Sudan and the region. They have seen scores of American diplomats come and go and have outfoxed and outlasted them all. They are masters at creating a crisis and then, at American insistence, partially ‘resolving’ that crisis and thereby creating amongst those Americans an image of being ‘someone we can work with.’

In a well-reasoned piece by The National Review’s editorial board, the authors voiced the sentiment opined more and more from Darfur watchers: that President Obama is alarmingly missing the mark when it comes to implementing his resolute election promises on Darfur. Here is a valuable clip:

Since Obama is a pragmatist–and pragmatism is, by definition, what works–we should judge his policies in this area by a single standard: Are they accomplishing the goal of ending Darfur’s suffering? We are sad to say that the initial signs have not been encouraging. (…)

The challenges are twofold. How to get the aid groups back in? And how to push toward a settlement that allows Darfuris to begin returning home–and insulates them from the whims of Khartoum by granting them physical security and some measure of political autonomy? These are urgent matters. Yet Darfur has not seemed to be a priority for the new administration. Even though the situation has grown more dire with the expulsion of the aid groups, Obama has expended few public words on the subject.

Writing in the U.S. News and World Report, scholar William Dobson argued that, contrary to popular belief, the Somali pirates are not President Obama’s biggest foe in Africa. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has claimed this grotty distinction through his deliberate recklessness with the lives of people living in Darfur.

Like it or not, the Obama administration now faces an important test. Foreign policy challenges are typically of the thorniest variety, and in many cases, decisive action is precisely the wrong choice. That isn’t the case here. It is vital that the administration recognize the danger of muddling along. More than two months since Bashir decided to victimize his people once again, the administration has yet to respond and the clock is ticking for Darfur.

Dobson continued later in the article:

Although the administration has been almost silent on Darfur, what noises are being heard are not encouraging. Maj. Gen. Scott Gration, the president’s special envoy to Sudan, has reportedly floated the idea of easing sanctions on Sudan and removing it from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. It is hard to fathom what Khartoum has done or could credibly promise to do that would justify this level of accommodation. And, if the administration plans to negotiate with Bashir through incentives, it will seem every bit as naive as its critics have claimed.

Finally, an article from ABC News provided an overview of some of the noise high-profile activists are making to express their frustration with the administration’s silence on Darfur, making note of the activists and leaders fasting for Darfur, the arrest of activists in front of the Sudanese Embassy in Washington, and a protest last Friday led by Sudanese from around the United States. The article quoted one protester, William Deng of the Southern Sudan Project, who said of President Obama:

"I voted for him. And I did it because I knew he was going to do something about Darfur. But now he’s silent, he’s never done anything. And I feel, I regret that he doesn’t do anything about our issues."

Clearly, as far as U.S. public opinion is concerned, the administration has its work cut out for itself during Special Envoy Gration’s next week on the road. We – and it seems everyone else – will be watching, and we’ll keep you posted.