Two Years to Self Destruct in Sudan

It's not too late to stop Africa's largest country from splitting in half. But Obama needs to act now to prevent the worst.

Imagine if we had enjoyed the luxury of knowing, two years before it happened, that Yugoslavia would disintegrate in 1991. Or just think if U.S. diplomats had been able to predict years earlier exactly when the Soviet Union was going to collapse. One certainly hopes the United States would have been better positioned to deal with these momentous events. But a current case gives one pause. Sudan might very well split in half in precisely two years, and policymakers have taken far too little notice.

In 2011, Sudan is scheduled to hold a referendum that will allow South Sudan to vote on severing its ties with the North and declaring independence. Almost every observer has concluded that if this referendum happens, the South will vote overwhelmingly for independence, sundering in half the largest country in Africa (that's why the road ahead could not be clearer). But it's the actions taken now, by the Barack Obama administration, that may well determine if Sudan's breakup occurs peacefully or is steeped in blood and a return to full-blown civil war.

The early signs are discouraging. There has been a sharp uptick in violent clashes in South Sudan of the same sort that have already killed hundreds this year. So dramatic is the escalation that the United Nations recently noted that the violence there is now worse than that in Darfur. There have been abundant allegations that the Sudanese government, headed by President Omar Hassan al-Bashir (who is still wanted on outstanding war crimes charges by the International Criminal Court), has been rapidly rearming proxy militias in the South to do Khartoum's bidding. The use of proxy militias has long been a favorite tactic of the ruling party -- both in Darfur and South Sudan. Officials from the South accuse Khartoum of distributing "thousands" of AK-47s in recent months. The U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in Sudan has also noted the presence of more modern and powerful weaponry in recent clashes than has traditionally been the case.

Foreign proxies are also up to no good. The notorious Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), originally from Uganda, has stepped up its attacks in South Sudan. Bashir has a long history of using the LRA as his cat's paw in exchange for weapons, money, and political support. And though it's too early to tell if he is doing so again, Khartoum certainly does have every incentive to use violence in an effort to derail the independence referendum -- or at least seize substantial chunks of territory (some of which is oil-laden) from a newly independent South.

The response from the international community to these dark storm clouds on the horizon has largely amounted to whistling past the graveyard. The U.S. special envoy for Sudan, Maj. Gen. J. Scott Gration, set off a firestorm of protest in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on July 30 when he suggested that Sudan only remained on the list of state sponsors of terrorism for purely "political" reasons and that some of the sanctions against Sudan might need to be rolled back. The administration quickly swept into damage-control mode, insisting that Sudan's removal from the terrorism list was not being contemplated as part of its Sudan policy review and that the special envoy was only referring to lifting some specific sanctions that he thought were obstructing the delivery of aid and development to South Sudan. (If that were the case, Gration's position was seriously undercut when the government of South Sudan announced that it opposes lifting any sanctions against the North.)

Across the country in Darfur, the news is not good either. Martin Luther Agwai, the departing commander of the U.N. force in Darfur, long noted as one of the least effective peacekeeping missions in operation, set off his own tempest when he declared at his farewell news conference, "As of today, I would not say there is a war going on in Darfur." It is true that violence in Darfur has been declining as the region slips into the rainy season. But Agwai conveniently neglected to note that 3 million Darfuris are still displaced and in refugee camps because they can't go home in the face of continued insecurity and violence. Janjaweed militias still roam freely, and there is no credible peace deal for Darfur in sight. In all likelihood, the war in Darfur is merely in a lull and far from done, given that neither side has secured a decisive military victory, nor has a peace deal been signed.

So with Darfur quieter but dangerously unresolved and the South headed for very dangerous shoals, what is the international community doing? Spending a frustrating amount of time getting various Sudanese actors to reagree to existing agreements. They're still miles away from actually implementing the peace deals already on the books. Despite the hope that 2005's Comprehensive Peace Agreement between North and South instilled, further progress has been elusive. Bashir and his allies quickly realized that they did not face any cost from the international community for not implementing the peace deal; they have since entirely (though not surprisingly) slow-rolled its key provisions. Now, it increasingly looks like Khartoum is trying to derail the referendum completely through both diplomacy and violent proxies.

So unless the world starts to hold Sudan accountable for such behavior, the worst may be yet be come. This time, we've been warned.



Israel and Sweden's War of Words

An outrageous anti-Semitic article in a Swedish newspaper caused a diplomatic row with Israel. But what's really behind the sturm-und-drang?

The war of words between the Swedish and Israeli governments seems to be over for now. Whatever follows, one thing is clear: The tensions will not disappear anytime soon.

On Aug. 17, the left-leaning Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet ran an exposé with the headline "They Plunder the Organs of Our Sons" in its culture pages. It made a series of bizarre and unfounded allegations about the Israeli Defense Forces harvesting organs from killed and gutted Palestinians. It was a guilt-by-association hit piece, with a dark undercurrent of anti-Semitism.

Naturally, the article set off some criticism in Sweden and Israel, two countries whose relations at the moment are best characterized as uneasy. But the Aftonbladet affair ultimately is not a case of prejudiced journalism. It reveals deeper politics: the widening rift between Israel -- with its current right-wing government -- and Sweden and the European Union, where sympathies in the Middle East conflict have drifted to the Palestinian side.

The Aftonbladet article, at first, didn't make much of a rumble. As a Swedish Jewish leader told Haaretz, "No one even noticed [it]." But then, two days later, the Swedish ambassador in Tel Aviv, Elisabet Borsiin Bonnier, made an official statement, published on the embassy's Web site, calling the article "shocking and appalling." The Swedish Foreign Ministry immediately backtracked, calling the statement a "local initiative," not the official view of the Swedish government.

This in turn angered the Israelis, and the affair became a foreign-policy concern writ large. The government in Jerusalem publicly demanded a condemnation from the Swedish government. Stockholm's Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said he would not do so because Sweden has freedom of the press and the government does not condemn newspaper articles.

By then, the conversation in Sweden had already shifted to legality and freedom of speech, rather than the prejudices behind the article. Jan Helin, Aftonbladet's editor in chief, must have been grateful for the change in focus -- and so, presumably, was much of the Swedish public, which would prefer not to think about the rising tide of anti-Semitism in its own country and in the rest of Europe.

But the Israeli government would not let it go. On Aug. 20, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman released a statement saying: "It is a shame that the Swedish Foreign Ministry does not get involved when speaking about blood libels against Jews, something that is reminiscent of Sweden's position during World War II, when it also did not intervene."

Many in Sweden considered Lieberman's words over the top, and they were. However, they were also a key part of Lieberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's attempt to get the upper hand on the Swedish government, especially as Sweden at the moment chairs the 27-member European Union.

To Israelis, Sweden seems destined to misunderstand their predicament. Tucked between Finland, Norway, and Denmark, Sweden has the friendliest neighbors in the world. Israel has the world's most hostile and resentful. There is a Swedish no-doubt-about-it conviction that differences, however deep and old, always can be settled in negotiations. Regarding the Middle East, Swedes tend to think that if Israel as the stronger party took the first, and even second, step, the Palestinians and their Arab brothers would follow suit -- as sure as day follows night. And Swedish inclinations are very much Europe's inclinations.

This is problematic for Israel, which is under great pressure from the United States and the European Union, especially concerning the settlements. Israel's U.S. and European allies want a two-state solution now, not in some distant future. But for Israelis, the distant future is the only feasible scenario for such a change -- especially given the split between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank, and the unwillingness of some Arab states to make even symbolic gestures of goodwill. Furthermore, the Palestinians are no longer the most pressing issue for Israel. Iran is. And for good reason: Iran poses an existential threat to the Jewish state, with its continued armament, its support of Hamas and Hezbollah, its intransigence on the nuclear issue, and its leaders' threats to "wipe Israel off the map."

U.S. President Barack Obama has given Iran until late September to respond to an offer of talks about Tehran's nuclear program -- but only if it freezes uranium enrichment. If it does not, it will face tougher sanctions. But for sanctions to work, Obama needs Europeans' support, which they are hesitant to give. Germany is the largest economy in the European Union, and Iran's biggest trading partner in Europe. Political demands for harder sanctions on the regime in Tehran will meet heavy resistance in German business circles. Israel wants U.S. and European inaction on the settlements and -- more than anything else -- action on Iran. (Both of these are things Sweden can theoretically help provide.) Therefore, Netanyahu and Lieberman are deploying all diplomatic means possible -- even if it means playing on the consciences of European leaders for their countries' inactions and sins of omission during World War II and the Holocaust.

The Aftonbladet article, with its allusions to age-old anti-Semitic myths, gave Israeli leaders a tool to use to that end. It might not be pretty. It will probably not work. But who can blame them for trying?

Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images