The Obama administration, by contrast, which rejects unilateralism as a matter of dogma, could not seriously consider the “moral” option that Bush had preferred. It was left to pursue a policy of “engagement,” as Obama himself termed it in an interview with YouTube in February 2010:
We continue to put pressure on the Sudanese government. If they are not cooperative in these efforts, then it is going to be appropriate for us to conclude that engagement doesn’t work, and we’re going to have to apply additional pressure on Sudan in order to achieve our objectives. But my hope is that we can broker agreements with all the parties involved to deal with what has been enormous human tragedy in that region.
Engagement with the Sudanese government was of course ongoing during the Bush years too, but it was never described as a strategy. Germany is also “engaged” with the Sudanese government, but that didn’t prevent their embassy from being set aflame by militants last month. The reason the American embassy was spared the same fate is that it was more powerfully defended.
The United States is not merely a disinterested broker in Sudan and South Sudan. It is — or was — a major player of its own accord. Despite its remoteness, Sudan had seen and felt the rise of American power in the Middle East and North Africa. The country that once sheltered Osama Bin Laden has reluctantly tolerated U.S.-backed democracy programs, humanitarian aid, counter-terrorism operations, and peacekeeping and diplomatic initiatives.
These efforts require the presence of U.S. personnel in Khartoum. Whether their withdrawal is only a temporary safety measure remains to be seen. But from the vantage of a land at the far reach of American influence, the U.S. weakness appears very clear indeed. Were it strong, would the United States have sent as legate a “divisive and ineffective” retired general? Were it strong, would the United States have watched passively the abrogation of a treaty it had brokered? Were it strong, would the United States have accepted that its embassy under threat could not — under order of a cowed enemy — be reinforced by a cohort of its own troops?