Darfur, Nuba, and Blue Nile — separate but interconnected conflicts — are all fueled in part by failure to address the North-South relationship. But these conflicts pale in significance to what happened between the Sudanese and South Sudanese militaries at the Heglig oil field in April 2012. The fighting there followed months of bickering over pipeline fees and payment arrearages that led to the shutdown of oil production. In a desperate game of brinksmanship, South Sudan and allied Darfur rebels invaded, looted, and occupied the most productive field in north Sudan.
President Obama urged South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir to pull back, but the damage was done. The return to war in the borderlands and the collapse of the oil economy brought severe humanitarian consequences. The population of the north’s Blue Nile state, forcibly displaced, experienced mortality rates more than double the emergency threshold level. In the Nuba Mountains, thousands of people died of malnutrition and preventable diseases. In both countries, racial hatred — peaking in the moment of crisis — pushed tens of thousands into desperate transit camps.
The Obama administration has watched passively. Not even its vaunted support for the UN has held up under fire. When Sudanese forces invaded Abyei and looted UN warehouses there in May 2011, the White House responded delicately that the move “could set back the process of normalizing relations between Sudan and the United States, and inhibit the international community’s ability to move forward on issues critical to Sudan’s future.” And a month later, just as the next crisis broke in South Kordofan, the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) was hurriedly expelled.
This was accepted by the Obama administration as a matter of course, as bases in the north closed and the remnant of the mission in the autonomous south adopted an additional ‘S’ to its name, UNMISS, denoting the reduced scope of its mandate.
The concession is all the more remarkable because of the reports of atrocities that were making their way out of South Kordofan in the days just before the pullout. The president’s own press secretary on June 10 cited “accounts of security services and military forces detaining, and summarily executing local authorities, political rivals, medical personnel, and others.”
“We call on the UN to fully investigate these incidents,” the White House stated, apparently confused as to the impending end date of the mission.
At no point did the United States unilaterally investigate and publicly document these reports, as it had done for Darfur in 2004 using survey information from witnesses and refugees in eastern Chad. Under Secretary Colin Powell, the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research published a major report on “Documenting Atrocities in Darfur,” whereas comparable research recently carried out by USAID among the refugees from Blue Nile state has been covered up.
Most significantly, the administration failed to bring food into the conflict zone despite repeated warnings of a “severe emergency” by FEWS-NET, a U.S.-funded famine watchdog. The administration made demand after demand for humanitarian access to the Nuba Mountains. Khartoum at first said no, then dissembled over “modalities” — and to this day Obama has yet to get his way.
In the Nuba Mountains case, the administration appears to have enjoyed a number of policy options. The favored choice was in support of a tripartite proposal by the UN, African Union, and Arab League, which would guarantee access through logistically superior northern routes but required Khartoum’s consent. But American diplomats also deliberately leaked plans for an unauthorized aid intervention into rebel-held territory, which would have created political complications with Khartoum potentially damaging to existing aid efforts in Darfur. This option was on the table until seasonal rains made the access route from South Sudan impassable.
Although it is difficult to imagine the current U.S. president making the brazen call for such an intervention, it is worth noting that the previous president faced similar hard calls on Sudan and is known to have favored the strong option at least once. As reported by Rebecca Hamilton in her book Fighting for Darfur, Bush weighed the deployment of U.S. or NATO troops and he actually convened a White House meeting with anti-genocide activists to discuss the option. They advised him against U.S. military intervention.
Bush understood the dilemma in classic hard power terms: war or diplomacy. Later official articulations of the strong option would always be a shade more abstruse: “robust,” “sticks,” “pressure,” “consequences.” But where the president stood was clear: unilateral military intervention — in other words, invasion — he perceived as morally justified, just not practical. From this position of moral principle a policy took shape.