Obama's Weakness, Sudan's Tragedy

When an empire falls, it’s not only Rome that burns: some of the worst shockwaves hit the peripheries, the former client states and once-loyal allies. Note the Yugoslav wars after the collapse of the Soviet Union, or the Indo-Pakistani wars that followed British withdrawal.

The three wars ongoing in Sudan and its borderlands — in Darfur, Blue Nile state, and the Nuba Mountains — are connected to a broad show of U.S. weakness in the Obama years. The evacuation of American embassy workers from Khartoum on September 15 came as a dramatic reminder of the decline of American standing in the country, and was all the more humiliating for the public snub that the Sudanese foreign minister sent Hillary Clinton in rejecting her request to deploy Marines at the embattled embassy.

President Obama’s retreat from Sudan began earlier with his acceptance of the expulsion of U.S.-funded aid agencies from Darfur in 2009; America’s endorsement of the rigged 2010 general election; and compromise on the 2011 Abyei Referendum for which the U.S. had signed on as guarantor.

The president’s diffidence marks an about-face from a decade-long U.S. surge in the Sudan. The superpower’s erratic but forceful entrée began after the East Africa embassy bombings of 1998. Under the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, U.S. power helped change the face of militant political Islam in the country and led to its ultimate defeat in southern Sudan. These presidents used sanctions, direct military action, and diplomacy to achieve their ends. They offered material and moral support to armed liberation movements and pro-democracy groups, and they compelled Khartoum to stop harboring terrorists.

President George W. Bush sent as envoys men whom he respected and trusted, including former senator John Danforth, former USAID director Andrew Natsios, and one of his more experienced foreign policy advisors, Richard Williamson. These envoys helped broker a peace agreement between Khartoum and the U.S.-backed southern rebels, forced Sudan to accept UN peacekeepers in Darfur, and managed one of the world’s largest sustained relief efforts.

By contrast, President Obama’s envoy — retired Air Force General Scott Gration — proposed to lift economic sanctions, endorsed an undemocratic election, and asked southerners to accept the division of Abyei rather than carry out the referendum guaranteed under the peace agreement Danforth had brokered. In 2011 Gration was named ambassador to Kenya, where his year-long tenure was “divisive and ineffective” according to a scathing 68-page report recently published by the Office of the Inspector General. Out of 80 diplomatic chiefs of mission inspected, “the Ambassador ranked last for interpersonal relations, next to last on both managerial skill and attention to morale, and third from last in his overall scores from surveys of mission members,” the inspector general found.

Under the guarantee of the Bush administration, secessionist South Sudan won the right to a share of oil revenues. This was the economic incentive to prevent a return to war. The agreement put in place revenue-sharing arrangements for the period from 2005 to mid-2011.

During these years Sudan’s economy depended significantly on oil drilled in South Sudanese fields, while South Sudan needed Khartoum’s pipelines to export its oil to the Red Sea. A post-secession agreement that acknowledged these realities was needed for the period after South Sudan became independent in July 2011.

But there was no agreement. For years before Independence Day, the outlines of the coming crisis were clear: no oil deal, no peace, no prosperity. “We are once again staring into the abyss,” former White House envoy Richard Williamson wrote in Foreign Policy in November 2010, citing the “naiveté” of Obama and his advisors.

And the war came.

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.

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?