The Blog

Obama's Sudan Policy Imperative

Reining in Bashir and bolstering South Sudan.

12:00 AM, Apr 2, 2009 • By LEONARD A. LEO and NINA SHEA
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Ret.General Scott Gration, President Obama's new special envoy on Sudan, faces baptism by fire. He visits Sudan this week in the hope of resolving an aid crisis in which over a million Darfur refugees are being brought to the brink of death by the expulsion in March of a dozen international relief agencies. Sudan's President Omar Bashir is holding these western Sudanese hostage in retaliation for an International Criminal Court indictment against him for war crimes against those very same tribes.

But while Gration tackles how to get food and medicine back into Darfur, he confronts an even larger imperative. Sudan's crucial Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005 (CPA) is now also endangered.

The ICC arrest warrant has been a "game changer" but not in quite the way international law proponents intended. Instead of strengthening Khartoum's moderates, it has backfired with the ruthless Bashir winning over friends through his army's control of rich oil fields in South Sudan and his open identification with Islamist extremism. Powerful UN blocs--the Arab League, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), the Organization of African Unity (OAU)--and China side with him. Confidence renewed, Bashir seems poised to break the historic peace agreement that ended a long civil war between that country's north and south. Should this agreement fall apart, Sudan will once again become a nation-wide humanitarian catastrophe and an international security threat.

At her confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that ensuring implementation of Sudan's CPA would be for her a "top priority." This obscure accord in an African backwater may seem an odd choice, but, in fact, Mrs. Clinton laid down a critical marker for the administration.

The product of four years of intense international diplomacy led by the United States, the CPA advances American interests on many levels. The North-South peace agreement is of paramount importance, not only for the South but the entire country because of the political restructuring it entails. It mandates national and regional elections in mid-2009 and a referendum in the South on independence in 2011.

Undeniably, the CPA has been a signal humanitarian victory. The toll of what was then Africa's longest running conflict had been staggering. Two million--mostly Christian and animist Southern civilians--had been killed, four million, displaced, and hundreds of thousands, enslaved. Renewed war would result in a humanitarian crisis that would dwarf Darfur's by several orders of magnitude.

Apart from Darfur's current aid crisis, there's also the conflict in Darfur that has taken some 300,000 lives and displaced 2.5 million. During the Bush years this was a passionate, rallying cause for liberal activists, some of whom now are well-placed in the Obama administration. The need to resolve it remains. Persuading Darfur's parties to agree on peace would be inconceivable were Khartoum to discard the CPA.

The CPA is in addition a bulwark against the spread of Islamist extremism. The agreement recognizes the South's autonomy, thus freeing it from Islamist courts. It was Khartoum's imposition of sharia, replete with stonings and amputations, that sparked the South's rebellion in the 1980s. Bashir prosecuted the North's fight by calling for "jihad." When Nuba Muslims refused to heed the call, he solicited a fatwa pronouncing them apostate and authorizing their slaughter. South Sudan now embraces religious freedom and pluralism, and aspires to Western-style democracy.

The South--the site of 85 percent of Sudan's oil--is now jihad-free, in contrast to the North. Formerly a bin Laden refuge, the North today reportedly sponsors ten other jihadist training camps and remains on the U.S. list of terrorist states. In the wake of the ICC action, Khartoum hosted a solidarity visit by a senior delegation of Iranian, Syrian, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah officials. American and Israeli analysts revealed last week that a 17-truck convoy that had been bombed in northern Sudan in January was apparently transporting arms to Hamas from Iran and was bombed by Israel. Sub-Saharan Africa's vulnerability to terrorism had been a special concern of Susan Rice's before becoming Obama's UN ambassador. As she must know, the CPA curbs the spread of Islamist terror across Sudan's southern border, and limits Bashir's terrorist state from having total control of the country's oil revenues.

The best way of reining in Bashir is by supporting the CPA and the best way of doing that is by bolstering the still-shattered South.