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Will He or Won’t He?

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Will He or Won’t He?

Posted by Maggie Fick on April 1, 2009

Yesterday’s State Department briefing contained a hint of a debate over whether or not President Obama’s special envoy to Sudan, General Scott Gration, will meet with Sudanese President Bashir on his first trip to Sudan as envoy.

An excerpt from the briefing:

QUESTION: Has General Gration left for Sudan yet?

MR. DUGUID: I do not believe he has left yet. He is leaving today. But I don’t have the exact time of when his departure is for you. […]

QUESTION: Do you know how high up he’s going?

MR. DUGUID: I do not know how high. He will meet with a wide range of interlocutors, particularly those who are empowered to make policy decisions that can try and put Sudan on the path to peace […]

QUESTION: Gordon, you said that he’s going to be meeting with officials who actually have a – have the power to make decisions that can improve conditions?

MR. DUGUID: Correct.

QUESTION: Well, since this Administration has laid the blame for all of this squarely at the feet of President Bashir, it would seem that he’s the one who would make – could make the decision. Will the general be meeting with the president?

MR. DUGUID: There are no plans to meet with President Bashir.

QUESTION: Well, then who’s he going to meet with?

MR. DUGUID: When he gets on the ground and has further discussions with our Embassy and tries to find who is implementing the aid – […]

QUESTION: Has the Embassy put in the request for him to meet with President Bashir?

MR. DUGUID: There are no plans to meet with President Bashir at this time.

QUESTION: Yeah, but you didn’t request him?

MR. DUGUID: There are no plans to meet with President Bashir at this time.

Two things come to mind from this exchange. First, the Obama administration may be hedging their bets in not denying outright the possiblity that Gration could meet with Bashir, because it is possible that the envoy will meet him during the course of his 11-day “listening tour” of Sudan, which began today. Second, it is not uncommon in U.S. diplomacy for skilled negotiators—think Richard Holbrooke—to meet with war criminals to negotiate resolutions to pressing humanitarian emergencies, like the one President Bashir has instigated with his order to expel sixteen international and Sudanese aid agencies from Darfur.

This type of high-level diplomatic engagement is much needed, and it should not be interpreted as the U.S. pandering to Bashir or granting him undue legitimacy. While pressing for the resolution of the Darfur conflict and working toward a peaceful Sudan, special envoy Gration needs to work hard and fast to get the Sudanese government to reverse the NGO expulsion decision. But as President Obama himself said on Tuesday after a meeting with Gration and key Darfur advocates, the special envoy will be working “on a whole host of issues,” with the humanitarian expulsion being an immediate priority but not the sole issue on Gration’s agenda.

We wish special envoy Gration all the best in his first trip as envoy to Sudan, and we will keep you posted here at Enough Said throughout his trip.