If your diplomacy is founded on mediation and, as Americans are wont to say, playing the honest broker, but one side gets the distinct impression that you are “selling it down the river,” either they are paranoid or you are doing something wrong. One possibility does not exclude the other, but according to Roger Winter, possibly the American with the deepest understanding of Sudan, the Obama administration’s special envoy to this woebegone land of 41 million people is sending messages likely to dishearten one side while emboldening the other. As a result, the incentive for compromise and cooperation diminishes, and a renewal of all-out war becomes more likely.

To make matters worse, the side being sold down the river—Winter insists he uses the term deliberately—is ours. Several administrations, special envoys, and special administrators of the U.S. Agency for International Development (Winter was one of them) have agreed that aggression has come from the Arab-Islamic regime of Omar al-Bashir in Khartoum. They have also agreed that the South—the Texas-sized territory south of the sources of the Nile and bordering on Kenya and Uganda, where Christianity and traditional African religion predominate—ought to go its separate way if it desires. The Bush administration thought it had nailed that understanding down five years ago in the north-south Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which calls for a referendum on southern independence next January.

The job of the special envoy in this scheme should be to ensure that both sides are observing the agreement and that the United States is prepared to help enforce it. The period before independence, which has less than a year to go, is supposed to be characterized by confidence-building measures to assure the two regions that life will go on peacefully in the next phase. In particular, agreements on wealth-sharing (notably from oil) and on the in-between province of Abiyeh were to be hammered out, and violence was to end. Instead, the last year has witnessed a recrudescence of violence in the South at a level unseen since the de facto termination of the north-south war some ten years ago. It has gone largely unnoticed by the outside world, which pays attention only to the “ethnic cleansing” in the western province of Darfur. (Darfur is overwhelmingly Muslim, but more African than Arab.)

Blame for this violence depends on whose finger is pointing. Southerners say militias are armed by Khartoum and paid to do mischief. The government of Sudan takes a “Who, us?” attitude, noting that the southerners have never governed themselves and are prone to tribal rivalries and fights over women and cattle. The special envoy, retired Air Force general Scott Gration, recently seemed to lend support to this frankly neo-colonialist view by qualifying the autonomous government of South Sudan as a failed-state-in-the-making.

Where failed states are concerned, Roger Winter observes, it is difficult to find a better example than the state hijacked in 1989 by Omar al-Bashir’s then-National Islamic Front (later renamed the National Congress party) with the express aim of preventing North-South reconciliation. Since then, he adds, the Bashir regime has appropriated the northern economy, devastated Darfur, and is now keeping a grip on the South’s oil wealth despite the stipulation in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that it must be shared half and half.

Winter and the Southern government he advises (after decades in the region as head of the U.S. Committee on Refugees and as a high-ranking U.S. government official) believe Khartoum has no intention of implementing the practical steps, spelled out in the peace agreement, designed to facilitate an amicable divorce between the two regions, joined together in one of those fits of geographic absent-mindedness that characterized 19th-century British imperialism.

In point of fact, colonization in Sudan was a bit more complicated than that, involving Egyptian politics and the passage to India. But among textbook examples of the mindless way de-colonization occurred, Sudan independence, in 1956, belongs in chapter one. In over 50 years, the country has had no peace, notwithstanding paper agreements. Enmity between Arab and African has persisted. Intra-tribal suspicions have deepened. The region has remained volatile, with Uganda, Kenya, and Congo, to name only the bigger regional players, all threatened by destabilization and civil war if the lid flies off in Sudan. Slavery, rapine, population displacement, and village-burning continue to be used with impunity as instruments of political competition in what some call peace.

The United States has poured some $9 billion into Sudan since signing off on the peace agreement in 2005. Where all the money has gone would make an interesting assignment for GAO sleuths. In the meantime, Khartoum has been unable or unwilling to suggest an acceptable demarcation line between the two Sudans, and it has blocked the establishment of the voter rolls needed to hold the referendum.

Observers believe the pro-independence side would easily win a free and fair vote. The national presidential and parliamentary elections now scheduled for April might offer a dry run. Bashir and Salva Kiir, who is president of South Sudan, insist the elections will be peaceful.

While Kiir concentrates on preparing the South for the referendum and its aftermath, Bashir promises to respect the result. In areas under Khartoum’s control, however, restrictions on press freedom and detention of opposition activists and leaders on baseless charges are casting doubt on the electoral process. The Southern government too has been cited by observers, including Human Rights Watch, for harassing political opponents. In an atmosphere of general mistrust, the most neutral thing that can be said about these elections is that each side is going to accuse the other of rigging them.

Against this background, the Obama administration, according to Winter, has sent Sudan, both North and South, confusing signals; at worst, it is creating the impression, he says, that its priority is to gain Bashir’s goodwill.

The Bashir government, for its part, believes it is no longer cornered by a combination of U.S. pressure (in the form of sanctions, renewed in October), international condemnation (the International Criminal Court’s indictment of Omar al-Bashir on war crimes charges and crimes against humanity in Darfur), and a decidedly pro-South tilt on the part of U.S. representatives. What is not at all clear is what this is supposed to do for the U.S. interests in the region.

It is possible the situation will work itself out to no one’s complete satisfaction but to no one’s utter despair either, and General Gration will be vindicated in his engagement policy. The idea is that if Bashir does not feel threatened, he will become more reasonable than he has been in the past 20 years. On the other hand, if he remains true to his past character and things break down again, a new round of fighting will follow. This will complicate our strategic position in the Indian Ocean, where undernourished teenage pirates run circles around us even as we discover a new terror-war front in the southern cone of the Arabian peninsula.

Absent a charismatic, unifying figure such as the South’s late John Garang, who died in a helicopter crash shortly after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, it appears unlikely Sudan can do better as one nation on the brink of civil war than it can as two nations with grudges but also with common interests. Winter’s position therefore is that the United States should be more explicitly pro-South, which would have the advantage of deterring Northern aggression while paving the way for a new Western-aligned nation in an extremely strategic region.

Roger Kaplan is a writer in Washington.

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