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.