The Magazine

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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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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