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“We Can’t Get Fooled Again”

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“We Can’t Get Fooled Again”

Posted by Laura Heaton on July 31, 2009

The phrase sums up the sentiment expressed by leading Sudan experts this week on Capitol Hill when they testified for a House subcommittee chaired by Congressman Donald Payne (D-NJ).  This moment in Sudan is far too important to the future stability of the country and broader region to let U.S. diplomats fall into the same old trap set by Khartoum.

As the panelists – John Prendergast of Enough, former U.S. Envoy to Sudan Richard Williamson, and Roger Winter, former special representative for Sudan to the deputy secretary of State – each described, President Bashir and his regime have a well-documented history of negotiating agreements and then engineer violence to create distractions and stall the forward movement. “If there are no sticks, there will be no successful peace process,” Winter frankly stated.

As Winter explained, the leaders of Bashir’s National Congress Party, who are behind the genocidal violence in Darfur and for years masterminded campaigns against Sudanese in the South, have been in power for 20 years. The advisors surrounding Sudanese President Bashir largely rose to power in 1989 alongside Bashir. By contrast, the United States has appointed numerous special envoys and special representatives to negotiate with Khartoum, each of whom seem to fall into the same trap.

(The regime in Khartoum) knows us very well,” said Roger Winter, “They are used to getting away with murder because they have been able to do it with us for a long period of time.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration is, at best, putting forth a policy that is disjointed and slow on the uptake. Key U.S. leaders have been rhetorically resolute about devoting the necessary and appropriate strategies to a comprehensive peace process in Sudan, but an internal policy review is ongoing (‘in the next few weeks’ has been the oft cited timeframe by administration officials) and in the meantime, even one-time champions of the Darfur cause have been noticeably silent at key moments when they could have made an impression on international and Sudanese actors.

Now, despite the encouraging move by President Obama to appoint a special envoy to Sudan early in his term, the administration, through Envoy Gration’s actions, is pursuing a strategy that inappropriately favors incentives over pressure, a point that both the panelists at Wednesday’s hearing and long-time Sudan advocates on the subcommittee drove home.

So what’s to be done? Williamson, Prendergast, and Winter emphasized the critical window of opportunity Congress has currently to influence the administration’s Sudan policy, which is under review at the deputies- level of the National Security Council before it will be kicked up to the top decision makers. Congress must ensure that U.S. policy for engaging Sudan in a comprehensive process – one that centers on implementation of the fragile but pivotal CPA and on meaningfully restarting a peace process for Darfur that includes the voices of civil society and women in particular — makes clear to Khartoum that there are consequences for failing to meet its commitments and orchestrating efforts to destabilize the South as the 2011 self-determination referendum approaches. Prendergast underscored the role for Congress:

What the Congress urgently can do now…is weigh in very constructively with the principals in the administration who will sit around the table at a National Security Council meeting to arbitrate and deliberate about what U.S. policy should be…  We need the people who have been champions on Sudan, champions of Darfur throughout their Senate or private sector careers… to be front and center in that meeting.

The subcommittee members seemed quite captivated by the witnesses’ testimony, as well as by a briefing and Q&A with Secretary General of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement Pagan Amum that opened the session. Ranking member of the subcommittee Chris Smith (R-NJ) expressed concern, — evoking Bosnia and Rwanda – that U.S. policy makers may overlook past tragedies where the U.S. regretfully reacted too slowly or did nothing:

I’ve been in Congress for 29 years, and I’m shocked that so many bright people are missing these warning signs…. I’m concerned that if war breaks out again, the best and brightest among us will ask, ‘how did that happen?’ This panel has given us the early warning.

As the panelists noted and a new video (discovered by a couple of my colleagues) below conveys, congressional leaders, concerned citizens, and activists must also avoid being fooled into thinking that U.S. leaders will necessarily get Sudan right this time.

Many Sudan watchers hoped that the new administration would usher in much-needed resolve to lead an international coalition engaged in working toward a comprehensive solution for Sudan. So far, despite the positioning of leading voices for actions in ultimate decision-making posts – namely, the offices of President, Vice President, and Secretary of State – we’re seeing a U.S. policy that by many accounts, certainly those on Wednesday’s panel, will result in the same cycle of broken commitments from Khartoum, delays in delivering the promised ‘peace dividends’ intended to come from the CPA, and, most tragically, the needless deaths of countless more Sudanese who are treated as pawns.

It is crucial that Congress stay engaged and activists keep beating the drum. 

Darfur: We Won’t Get Fooled Again from Darfur on Vimeo.