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Selling Sudan Down the River

The Obama administration’s diplomatic ­malpractice.

Mar 1, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 23 • By ROGER KAPLAN
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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.

Selling Sudan Down the River

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.

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