The opportunity to watch Washington graybeards at the Council on Foreign Relations jump over each other to take cell phone photos of George Clooney provided reason enough to attend Tuesday’s event on Sudan. But the discussion with Clooney and Enough Project co-founder John Prendergast offered little reason for enthusiasm regarding the international community’s ability to peacefully resolve the issues surrounding the January 2011 self-determination referendum and the eventual independence of the South.
It is not that Clooney and Prendergast’s work on the issue deserves criticism. Sudan is perhaps the only issue on which the Hollywood left is in agreement with the political right and Evangelical Christians, and Clooney demonstrated a more intelligent grasp of the situation than Obama’s special envoy Scott Gration has in the past. Still, the pair’s report on their recent visit to Sudan and proposed solutions—or lack thereof—indicate daunting challenges ahead.
Clooney and Prendergast accurately diagnosed the problems contributing to the present impasse. After the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in 2005, not nearly enough effort was focused on holding the North accountable in preparing for the upcoming self-determination referendum in the South. Even now, the Obama administration continues to allow ICC-indicted genocidaire Omar al-Bashir to delay referendum preparations—as if the dictator’s sudden concerns about voter registration in Abyei were anything other than a late attempt to avert the South’s independence and the loss of oil revenue. Despite Bashir’s obstruction of border demarcation and sponsorship of renewed violence in Darfur, the administration has done nothing but talk of meaningless carrots and sticks, or, in Gration’s parlance, “gold stars.”
Thus, with only three months until the referendum, the administration’s last hope—an approach endorsed by Prendergast and Clooney—appears to be a final attempt at appeasing Bashir. Namely, to demand oil revenue-sharing concessions from the South and offer a normalization of relations between the Khartoum and the U.S. in exchange for Bashir’s allowance of a peaceful separation.
While Clooney and Prendergast expressed their own reservations over this approach, and what it means for how the U.S. deals with regimes like Bashir’s, they argued that such a compromise is the only option available to avoid bloodshed. And, absent taking a harder line against Bashir, which the Obama administration is clearly unwilling to consider, they may be right. The proposal at least provides meaningful incentives, which the Obama administration has thus far failed to do. Indeed, some compromise may be possible, since the infrastructure for exporting crude is primarily in the North, while most of the oil fields lie in the South. In addition, China, the North’s leading trade partner, has a vested interest in supporting peace, as Chinese oilfields will be the first targets of any hostilities, which would constitute a significant disruption to their crude imports.
But the question is whether the South would—or should—accept such a compromise, especially knowing that the international community cannot be relied upon to hold Bashir accountable for any agreement. Prendergast and Clooney both acknowledged that the South is resolved to fight for its independence if necessary. Both sides have built up armaments, including tanks, and some reports suggest both sides are organizing militias along the border. There is clearly a point at which the South will prefer to fight for independence rather than concede too much to a regime that has terrorized and persecuted its people for decades. In this way, such “robust diplomacy” could just as easily provoke war as prevent it.
Moreover, even if an agreement could be reached, violence may not be avoided. Sudan is comprised of many tribal groups and is riven by antagonisms beyond North and South. In fact, there may be a greater potential for internal conflict within both North and South, a possibility which neither Clooney nor Prendergast addressed. Neither Southern Sudan president Salva Kiir nor Bashir is as firmly entrenched in power as most American observers believe. Further complicating matters, as Clooney and Prendergast acknowledged, the Darfuris have recently called for independence as well (a possibility I wrote about in March).
All parties probably lack the financial resources and international sponsorship needed to sustain a prolonged military campaign. Yet the potential for internecine chaos remains, and any serious approach toward stabilizing Sudan will have to look beyond North-South hostilities. The fact that the U.S. seems oblivious to these possibilities is yet another indication of how poorly conceived its diplomacy – and foreign policy – is.
Those who missed getting a picture of Clooney this time will probably get another chance in the near future. But until then, hopefully National Security Advisor Tom Donilon is taking notes.
Julius Krein is an associate at an international investment firm active in Africa.