Argument

Sudan Is Still Up to No Good

Sudanese leader Omar Hassan al-Bashir is playing a breathtakingly cynical double game: harboring a notorious Ugandan death cult while pledging to work for peace in Darfur.

The Lord's Resistance Army has come to Darfur, Sudan, and that is not good news for anyone. The Lord's Resistance Army is a vicious militia led by self-proclaimed messiah Joseph Kony, and though he does not appear to be with the contingent that has moved into Darfur, Kony is widely and rightly regarded as one of the most heinous war criminals still on the loose in the entire world.

The Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) has long operated as a hybrid between a cult and a rebel army. Kony and the LRA originally sprang up in northern Uganda and waged a brutal campaign trying to overthrow that country's government. Millions of Ugandans fled the fighting, and the LRA engaged in virtually every depravity known in warfare. The LRA's ranks have been swelled with kidnapped child soldiers, girls are regularly treated as sex slaves, and innocent civilians are maimed and killed in a fashion too brutal to describe.

In recent years, Kony and his forces have fallen on harder times, though their brutality has not diminished. Dislodged from northern Uganda, Kony and his troops first fled into northeastern Congo and then the Central African Republic. However, the Ugandan army -- with quiet assistance from the United States -- has remained in dogged pursuit of Kony and his forces. The LRA is a relatively small force these days, probably numbering less than 1,000 hard-core fighters who remain loyal to Kony, but it is still causing mayhem and suffering well disproportionate to its size. Kony and his men have killed around 2,000 civilians in the last year and driven another 450,000 from their homes. Although the Ugandan offensive against Kony has suffered some significant missteps along the way, it has put increasing pressure on the LRA.

Just this week, the Enough Project learned from multiple, credible sources in the field that elements of the LRA had crossed into Darfur. These forces appear to be seeking safe haven under the protection of the Sudanese military, and Sudan's notorious president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, has been a longtime LRA patron, so this does not come as a surprise. Clearly, Kony and his deputies believe that Sudan is one of the few places left where the Ugandan army will not pursue them, and they are likely increasingly desperate.

The even larger story is what all of this says about Sudan and Bashir at a time when U.S. diplomacy has been geared to striking a new tone in the relationship. Although Bashir has been eager to portray himself as willing to repair relations with the world after last year's International Criminal Court indictment, and the United States in particular, giving safe haven to the LRA is yet another slap at Darfuris, at Washington, and at fundamental human decency. The evidence clearly suggests that advance LRA scouts coordinated with Sudanese armed forces well in advance of the LRA's arrival in Darfur, and it seems implausible that local Sudanese armed forces commanders would welcome the group in Darfur without seeking approval from Khartoum, including Bashir. There are also suggestions that the LRA has received direct logistical support from the Sudanese army since arriving in Darfur.

The last two weeks have offered breathtaking examples of Bashir's duplicity. Even as he traveled to Doha to proudly declare "the war is finished" in Darfur after signing a preliminary peace deal with a rebel faction, Sudanese troops intensified military attacks in Darfur that killed hundreds and displaced thousands, according to the United Nations. During a recent campaign speech in southern Sudan, Bashir equally proudly declared that his party is working to end "insurgent attacks by the Lord's Resistance Army in the south." As he spoke, Bashir's own armed forces were providing the LRA with the cover it needs to regroup in Darfur, rearm, and again terrorize innocent civilians across the region.

International diplomats are already deeply concerned that an independence referendum for South Sudan in January 2011 could result in a return to the North-South civil war that claimed 2 million lives in a conflict that ran for 20 years. The LRA's arrival in Darfur and a recent uptick of its activities in southern Sudan suggest that Bashir and his allies remain willing to once again use proxy forces as their favorite method for sowing mayhem and maintaining their grip on power. In Darfur and South Sudan, the Sudanese government has used proxy militias, such as the LRA and the janjaweed, to carry out the most egregious attacks against its enemies while trying to maintain a thin veneer of plausible deniability.

The news of the LRA's arrival in Darfur should be a clear wake-up call for not only U.S. President Barack Obama's administration, but the entire international community. It is precisely because Bashir has never been held accountable for his past actions that he feels fully empowered to welcome the LRA into his arms and engage in dangerous adventurism on multiple fronts. In recent months, there has been an increasing push by some elements within the Obama administration to ease sanctions against Sudan. The arrival of the Lord's Resistance Army in Darfur will likely let the air out of that particular balloon, and congressional oversight committees might take some genuine umbrage that they were not informed of these developments in a timely or transparent manner. Both Kony and Bashir deserve to face their charges fairly at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, but that will only happen if the world no longer treats accountability as an afterthought.

ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Fiasco in Jerusalem

Israel's embarrassment of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is just further evidence of the Netanyahu government's incompetence.

Benjamin Netanyahu accidentally broke the glass on Tuesday, but that was just the beginning -- and only the lesser Israeli disaster in a day that marked a new low point for Netanyahu's rocky relationship with the current U.S. administration. The Israeli prime minister's team prepared a symbolic gift for visiting U.S. Vice President Joe Biden: a framed document announcing that several trees were planted in Jerusalem in memory of Biden's mother, a loyal supporter of Israel. But Netanyahu leaned on the present by mistake and shattered the glass frame. "I have one thing to offer you right now, and it's broken glass," the prime minister said, trying to improvise a joke during a joint news conference. It got worse.

Biden arrived in Israel, the third and most-senior U.S. official to do so in less than three weeks, mainly to talk about Iran. President Barack Obama's administration is worried that Israel might interfere with the U.S. plan to initiate international sanctions against the regime in Tehran by launching a pre-emptive strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. But apart from issuing restraining orders against Israeli F-16s, the Americans were also hoping to show progress on the Palestinian track. After many attempts, and many mistakes, it seemed by early March that both sides were willing to resume negotiations, though indirectly, mediated by U.S. special envoy George Mitchell. This was hardly a cause for celebration because everybody involved in the talks assumes there is only a slight chance of significant achievement in the near future. Yet Netanyahu managed to ruin even that. A few hours after Biden arrived in Jerusalem, Israel's Interior Ministry announced that approval had been granted to build 1,600 new housing units in Ramat Shlomo, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in northeast Jerusalem that borders the Palestinian neighborhood of Shuafat.

The units were authorized by the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee, the body in charge of approving such programs. It will be one of the largest construction projects launched by Israel in Jerusalem in recent years. It is also seen as a direct insult to the vice president because the Obama administration had emphasized numerous times during the last few months its strong reservations against Jewish neighborhoods expanding beyond the Green Line (1967 borders) in East Jerusalem. Ramat Shlomo lies beyond that line.

Biden reacted immediately. In Washington, the White House issued a statement condemning the decision, while the vice president, acting in what was clearly an undiplomatic manner, arrived an hour and a half late to a formal dinner with the prime minister and his wife. Biden, it was explained, was busy on the phone with Washington, trying to figure out the appropriate U.S. response. Then on Wednesday in Ramallah, the vice president verbally attacked the Israeli decision, saying the housing plan "undermines ... the trust that we need right now in order to begin as well as produce profitable negotiations."

Why was it necessary for Netanyahu to embarrass Biden, a longtime supporter of Israel and a man the prime minister describes as a personal friend? Did Netanyahu even know of the plan to announce the decision during the visit? The answer to the second question is apparently negative, as Netanyahu has denied being in the loop. As for the timing, it might have been a coincidence because the committee was planning to do it anyway.

It wouldn't even come as a surprise to anybody following the Israeli bureaucracy closely. Many in the United States see Netanyahu as a hard-liner who isn't serious about peace. But seen from Israel, a perhaps more-important issue is the incompetence of some of his advisors. Netanyahu's government makes unnecessary blunders (such as the recent pointless insults to the Turkish ambassador in Tel Aviv) on an almost weekly basis, though usually the consequences aren't always so far-reaching.

For Netanyahu, the current disorganized construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank is a feature, not a bug. Israeli governments, as a rule, find it useful to leave such district planning commissions with no supervision. "A righteous person's work is done by others," goes the old Jewish saying. Why should a minister bother to interrupt? If the construction goes unnoticed, Israel has succeeded in creating "facts on the ground" in a disputed area. If the plan is exposed, better not to be involved. East Jerusalem is not officially included in Netanyahu's pledge to freeze construction in the settlements for 10 months. But a close look at the situation in the West Bank will show that even there, the government and the settlers have found diverse ways to bypass the official decision. Settlers were granted permission to build hundreds of housing units just before the freeze was announced, and they are also allowed to complete houses for which the foundations have already been laid.

There is also a potential domestic political explanation for the latest crisis. Interior Minister Eli Yishai is the leader of Shas, an ultra-Orthodox party on the right wing of Netanyahu's coalition. His ministry's decision will mostly help Shas constituents living in the overcrowded religious neighborhoods of Jerusalem. Yishai faces fierce competition from within his party, but unlike Netanyahu, the interior minister can afford some criticism from Washington. Actually, it might even help him among his voters.

Not surprisingly, the Palestinians could hardly curb their enthusiasm regarding the Israeli fiasco. While not very keen to achieve any progress in the "proximity talks" with the Israelis, Palestinian leaders are more than happy to see Israel take the blame for any obstacles to Obama's dream of peace in the region. Unfortunately, the outcome for Netanyahu might be even worse. At such a delicate time regarding Iran, Israel needs maximum cooperation and understanding from the Unites States. But after this latest scandal, Obama and Biden now have fewer reasons to trust Netanyahu's word.

Avi Ohayon - GPO via Getty Images