Argument

Sudan Score Card

The Obama administration's policy review on Sudan is now complete. Is it any good?

Over the last nine months, the Sudan policy review has taken on something of a mythical air. Activists and others lost count of the number of times they were told the review would be completed "in weeks, not months" -- even as months stretched on. Tales of sharp-elbowed infighting between the U.S. special envoy for Sudan, retired Maj. Gen. Scott Gration, and the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, dominated the narrative. So did a series of high-profile gaffes, ranging from the absurd -- with the special envoy talking of handing out "cookies" and "gold stars" to Sudan's ruling National Congress Party -- to the just plain bizarre, as former National Security Advisor Bud McFarlane was found to be lobbying the administration to normalize relations with Sudan, after receiving $1.3 million from Khartoum passed through Qatar.

The Barack Obama administration was clearly eager to use the policy review as a chance to hit the much-needed reset button. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was joined by Rice and Gration in a carefully choreographed show of internal unity at Monday's rollout event, and everyone dutifully sang from the same song sheet. The public version of the policy is a modest five pages in length and says many of the right things. But it also reflects the bipolar views of an administration that, after nearly a year in office, still seems divided on Sudan.

Kicking off to a good start, the policy calls for a comprehensive approach to Sudan's interlinked crises and notes the genuine risk of a return to wholesale warfare in the run-up to a 2011 independence referendum for South Sudan.

The document also goes to some lengths to dispel the notion that U.S. policy toward Khartoum has become too accommodating. It insists that incentives be offered not for gestures of goodwill, such as "the signing of a MOU [memorandum of understanding] or the issuance of a set of visas," but "rather based on verifiable changes in conditions on the ground." The policy review also institutes a quarterly, senior interagency review of "indicators of progress or of deepening crisis" as a means to calibrate incentives and pressures, with an admonition that "[f]ailure to improve conditions will trigger increased pressure on recalcitrant actors." The administration also offers an overdue acknowledgment that "accountability for genocide and atrocities is necessary for reconciliation and lasting peace."

Yet in many ways, the policy feels like an uncomfortable compromise between feuding internal approaches, producing something that is neither fish nor foul. Those in the administration arguing a tough line gained some important concessions. The situation in Darfur is still viewed as an ongoing genocide rather than the "remnants of genocide" typology used repeatedly by the special envoy. Incentives are said to be conditioned on genuine progress rather than rhetoric. There is a fairly stark recognition that the South will opt for independence in 2011 and that the United States and the international community will need to deal with a new state.

Yet, those advocating a softer line are given a good deal of love as well. In interview after interview over the weekend, senior administration officials echoed the line of the policy review: "We have to engage with those with whom we disagree," meaning they have to deal with Khartoum despite its involvement in atrocities. The idea of engagement with Sudan's government is in itself not controversial, but there is a clear sense that the administration sees incentives as a powerful tool to deal with Khartoum -- perhaps even more powerful than pressure. The benchmarks established for grading Sudan's progress are left deliberately gauzy, making it more likely that Khartoum will benefit from the soft bigotry of low expectations.

Along these lines, there is also considerable emphasis placed on the importance of counterterrorism cooperation as a key pillar of the U.S. relationship with Sudan. In a July hearing, Sen. Russ Feingold argued strongly to Gration that he thought Sudan's cooperation in this regard was being overhyped. His reservations may well be well-founded.

The mix of soft and hard policies in the new document is awkward. The United States has again declared that genocide is taking place in Darfur, yet wants to constructively engage the perpetrators of that genocide. If the administration truly sees genocide taking place on the ground, it should do everything in its power to stop it. If it doesn't see a genocide taking place and thinks a path toward normalization makes more sense, it should have the courage to say so.

Much of this might simply be realpolitik, an administration feeling overstretched in Afghanistan, Iraq, and beyond acknowledging that the lofty human rights standards that then-Senators Obama, Joe Biden, and Clinton expressed on the campaign trail need to be put on a back burner. At the end of the day, as much as President Obama may be interested in solving Sudan's multiple crises, he might settle for containing them.

Still, as a paper exercise, the policy review was oddly silent on perhaps the most important issue: the conduct of day-to-day diplomacy. Given the multiple missteps in recent months, the relative estrangement between Gration and the State Department hierarchy, and the sense among key allies that the United States is simply not paying attention to Sudan, there were no practical steps announced to better manage the portfolio. Unless Sudan policy actually begins to be owned by the upper reaches of the National Security Council and State Department, everyone involved will look at the policy review as a nicely crafted set of words that can gently be ignored.

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Disastrous Lessons

Gordon M. Goldstein's Lessons in Disaster ignores history -- and makes dangerous recommendations to the Obama White House today.

White House watchers have been abuzz for the last two weeks with news that U.S. President Barack Obama and his top advisors are reading Gordon Goldstein's book, Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam. The White House has rightly been commended for looking back to lessons past, for all great wartime leaders have been keen students of history. But the choice of Goldstein's book is most unfortunate because its history is flawed and its recommendations are consequently dangerous.

Goldstein's history is part of a swath of accounts that claim the Vietnam War was unnecessary because the strategic stakes were low and unwinnable because the enemy was less casualty-averse. In the past 15 years, however, several scholarly works have inflicted major damage on those interpretations. Instead of seriously considering those histories and the new evidence presented therein, Goldstein simply ignored them. What we are left with is an outdated portrait of history that does not even address the many potent objections that can be raised against it.

Goldstein's historical myopia yielded the lesson that is most likely to influence the current White House: that the president should distrust predictions and resource requests from the military. In analyzing the Vietnam deliberations of 1965, Goldstein maligns the theater's commanding general, William Westmoreland, for blithely assuming that the enemy would cave in under heightened U.S. military pressure. Westmoreland's reliance on this false assumption, Goldstein says, resulted in a futile strategy of attrition.

The historical documents tell a different story, one in which the military leadership demonstrated noteworthy prescience. On June 24, 1965, Westmoreland cabled the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that "it is time all concerned face up to [the] fact that we must be prepared for a long war," for "if the Communists have the determination to make it such, they certainly have the capabilities." He added, "I face the very practical problem of maintaining morale of people on their second combat tours, with many, many more to come, I suspect, when all the forces we require are committed." While the military prepared for the long haul, it was civilian leaders, particularly the Harvard-educated proponents of game theory, who expected rapid enemy capitulation.

Goldstein overlooks the U.S. military's recommendations for more aggressive actions in 1964 and 1965, as well as the lack of military knowledge and the contempt for the generals that led Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and other civilians to quash those recommendations. The Joint Chiefs of Staff lobbied unsuccessfully for intensified bombing of North Vietnam and insertion of U.S. ground forces in Laos to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail. North Vietnamese sources, conspicuously absent from Goldstein's book, have since revealed that these actions would have reaped huge strategic rewards for the United States.

The White House's rejection of those proposals nearly a half-century ago further undermines Goldstein's criticisms of Westmoreland's military strategy. By leaving the Ho Chi Minh Trail open, then-President Lyndon Johnson allowed North Vietnamese soldiers into South Vietnam in such numbers that Westmoreland had no choice but to engage them in big battles. Nor does Goldstein examine counterinsurgency in detail, look into specific battles, or otherwise demonstrate appreciation of the military realities on the ground. As a true reading of Vietnam history teaches, civilians -- be they historians or White House advisors -- should not second-guess military strategies without a strong command of the particulars.

Finally, Goldstein disregards the South Vietnamese government's long-term potential for carrying the burden of the war. The U.S. military favored a large troop commitment in 1965 to buy time for the resuscitation of the Saigon government, which had been crippled by a series of purges following the November 1963 coup. That coup had been engineered by the U.S. civilian leadership and pushed through over the U.S. military's objections. Army Chief of Staff Harold K. Johnson predicted in March 1965 that saving South Vietnam would require five years and 500,000 troops. By 1970, as it turned out, the Viet Cong insurgency was in tatters, U.S. troop levels were falling rapidly from a peak of 553,000, and South Vietnamese ground forces were on their way to self-sufficiency. In 1972, after all U.S. ground forces had left, South Vietnam repulsed a 14-division North Vietnamese Army offensive. It likely would have defeated the next offensive, in 1975, had the U.S. government lived up to its promises of continued military aid and air support.

In Vietnam, the civilian leadership showed too little deference toward military advice, not too much. As the commander in chief, the president must, of course, scrutinize the military advice he receives and not defer automatically. But history suggests that the country's military leaders possess experience, knowledge, and wisdom that warrant the utmost respect from the recipients of their advice. The White House should tune out Goldstein and instead listen intently to what the generals have to say.

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