The ideals spelled out in the Obama administration’s new paper on U.S. policy to Sudan are worthy of considerable support. The policy review represents a great deal of work inside the administration to learn lessons from past policy, to correct missteps of the administration over the past seven months, and to find a balanced approach that integrates peace, protection and accountability.
Recent public statements by administration officials have created justifiable concerns among members of Congress, activists, and a range of experts that the policy might rely on providing incentives as the primary means for encouraging behavioral change on the ground in Sudan. Instead, the policy as articulated today demands accountability and verifiable progress on a wide range of issues before incentives would be deployed – although these benchmarks are not spelled out in detail.
As difficult as the process has been to achieve a potentially effective policy on paper, the hard part is now only beginning. Implementing this policy will require clear-headed assessment and courageous action. At key junctures, success will require the direct involvement of President Obama, Vice President Biden, Secretary Clinton, and Ambassador Rice, all of whom have important and valuable history on dealing with the multiple challenges of Sudan policy. The U.S. must lead internationally in developing a coalition of countries that can help the people of Sudan find a just and sustainable peace, and the administration will be rightly evaluated by whether it meets the goals and terms it has set for its own diplomatic efforts.
Important Shifts in U.S. Policy
The policy paper, if translated into reality, suggests a series of subtle shifts in U.S. policy that will be crucial to supporting peace, human rights and justice in Sudan.
First, for the past seven months, U.S. diplomacy toward Sudan has tilted dangerously in the direction of appeasement of Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party, or NCP. Repeated public and private rhetoric favoring incentives over pressures, the lightly conditioned removal of sanctions, the disconcerting lack of emphasis on the need for justice and accountability, and the language of “gold stars” and “cookies” have emboldened the NCP to harden its positions at the negotiating table, continue military operations in Darfur, crack down on independent voices throughout the country, and shut down efforts by international entities to independently monitor key developments on the ground in Darfur and the South. Engagement by the Obama administration with groups either lobbying, or seeking to lobby, on Sudan’s behalf also furthered the impression that Khartoum was on a fast track to normalization. In contrast, the new policy outlines benchmarks and conditions before incentives would be delivered. This is a triumph of substance over process. Critically, the new policy on paper states that “assessments of progress and decisions regarding incentives and disincentives must not be based on process-related accomplishments (i.e. the signing of a MOU or the issuance of a set of visas), but rather based on verifiable changes in conditions on the ground.” This is a welcome dose of reality.
Second, there have been repeated indications over the past several months that U.S. policy was increasingly focused on future action with little regard for the momentous crimes that have occurred in the recent past, particularly in Darfur. The new policy paper rebukes that view with a strong statement of the priority of justice: “Accountability for genocide and atrocities is necessary for reconciliation and lasting peace.” This emphasis on accountability for genocide is another positive and fundamental shift, although it continues to be downplayed in public remarks. Crucially, the policy recognizes that counter-terrorism cooperation should not trump other U.S. policy priorities: “Sudanese support for counterterrorism objectives is valued, but cannot be used as a bargaining chip to evade responsibilities in Darfur or in implementing the CPA,” It would be a grave error if the administration allowed the NCP to evade culpability for conducting a genocide by supporting critical U.S. counterterrorism objectives. Cooperation on counterterrorism is an international responsibility, not a bargaining chip.
Third, for years U.S. policy has been murky with respect to support for the results of the planned 2011 self-determination referendum. Rhetorical nods are routinely given to respecting the will of the people, but most efforts are expended in attempting to support a future unified Sudan. The new policy appears to be more honest about the overwhelming likelihood that southern Sudanese will opt for independence, and that U.S. efforts should be designed to support a soft and peaceful landing for the new state that would be created in the aftermath of the referendum.
Fourth, there has been no systematic high-level process for overseeing the implementation of fundamental U.S. policy objectives in Sudan. The new policy signals an intention to establish a quarterly check-up at senior levels of the administration to assess which incentives and pressures should be applied to further the policy. That provides some direct accountability for the president, the vice president, the secretary of state, and the permanent representative to the UN, as there should be. This high-level review must be rigorous and demanding – not just a pro forma checking of the box.
Immediate Implementation Imperatives
As stated, the policy as written is solid, but success requires a fierce urgency regarding implementation at the highest levels of the U.S. government, with the close involvement of Congress and civil society organizations. Given the tough line that President Obama, Vice President Biden, and Secretary Clinton took on Sudan during the Presidential campaign, they have not been particularly engaged in the day-to-day conduct of U.S. diplomacy toward Sudan, and that absence of attention has often showed.
The following are some of the crucial implementation priorities moving forward:
- Immediately, the United States should focus on building a coalition of countries that supports this balanced policy and is willing to utilize the multilateral incentives and pressures when needed. This requires the issuing of demarches, the deployment of senior diplomats to capitals and to the UN, and telephone calls and meetings by the president and other senior administration officials in the construction of such a multilateral coalition. The president and other cabinet officials need to be seen to be doing this right away, or other countries will dismiss this strong policy statement as largely rhetorical.
- U.S. officials must recognize that the status quo in Darfur, the South, and the transitional areas (Abyei, Nuba Mountains and Southern Blue Nile) is unacceptable and progress must be seen soon to avoid the triggering of the use of additional pressures. It is disturbing that some administration officials speak of the situation is Darfur as greatly improved. Yes, the number of clashes has been reduced, in no small part because the Government of Sudan is increasingly focused on the situation in the South and U.S. diplomacy has helped ease some Chad-Sudan cross border adventurism. But the underlying status quo in Darfur is appalling. Close to three million people remain displaced from their homes and living in camps suffering difficult conditions. No efforts have been made to disarm the janjaweed militias, and no single Sudanese official has been held accountable for orchestrating what the administration itself terms genocide. The UN force on the ground remains largely ineffectual. The current government offensive in Darfur and the increasingly deadly attacks by militias in the South, including some by militias that were previously supported by the ruling National Congress Party, are unacceptable obstacles to peace and the achievement of U.S. policy objectives.
- More high-level administration support must be given to supporting the implementation of key benchmarks related to the referendum. If they remain unimplemented, the return to North-South war is inevitable. An interesting element of the new policy is the following: "The United States will work with international partners to support the parties in developing a post-2011 wealth-sharing agreement and resolve other post-2011 political and economic issues." Unless arrangements are made on this, the National Congress Party will not allow the referendum to occur. So while pressure must be placed on the ruling party to implement provisions of the peace agreement leading to the referendum, the United States can help broker understandings about how the oil sector will be handled post-referendum. The paper itself also dedicates the United States to offering material support for the 2010 national election in Sudan, although it is already clear that the NCP has obstructed many of the key reforms in the CPA that would have created a conducive election environment. Without freedom of assembly or greater media rights for the media and individuals, it is difficult to see how the national elections in 2010 could be free and fair. It was also disconcerting that no mention was made of the fact that it is almost impossible to imagine a free and fair contest in Darfur given the huge percentage of the population that remains forcibly displaced. In fact, a rushed election could undermine peacemaking efforts and stoke further conflict. The 2010 national election, and the degree to which the United States supports it, may offer the most immediate test of whether the administration is actually taking the concept of benchmarks seriously.
The Principal Danger
Crafting a sensible policy approach on paper is a necessary but insufficient step. The conduct of the administration’s Sudan policy has been deeply troubled to date. The day-to-day diplomacy has often been ill-disciplined and created considerable confusion among key actors as pressing timeliness loom and major components of core agreements remain largely unimplemented. At best, the completed policy review is a chance to start anew, and get the policy and diplomacy back on track. At worst, it is an effort to rhetorically paper over an issue that has been treated as a fairly low foreign policy priority by the administration.
Allowing the status quo in Sudan to continue is a recipe for a return to war between the North and the South. If the Obama administration doesn’t build a multilateral coalition around this policy, doesn’t recognize the dangers of the increasing attacks in the South and the NCP’s hidden hand in sowing instability in the South in advance of the referendum, and is not willing to utilize multilateral and unilateral pressures (which have a history of working) early enough to make a difference, nation-wide war will be inevitable. U.S. policy objectives, so sensible on paper, will go up in smoke as Sudan burns again.