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Obama's Sudan Fumble

How the U.S. president is bungling Sudan's elections -- and it will come back to haunt him later.

Sudan is voting in its first national elections in over 20 years, and the process is playing out much as one might expect, given that the country's ruling National Congress Party is led by accused war criminal President Omar Hassan al-Bashir. Much of the international reporting so far has focused on the numerous irregularities and technical glitches that have become apparent as voting unfolds, almost all of which (surprise!) seem to favor the ruling party. But this is an election that was effectively stolen long ago, as the Sudanese government steadfastly refused to implement the provisions of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that were supposed to create a free and fair environment for elections. Instead, press freedoms remain badly curtailed; the dreaded national security service still detains opposition figures at will; freedom to publicly assemble is denied; and everything from voter registration to the printing of ballots has been skewed to assist Bashir in his desire to stage-manage an election without actually risking a fair vote.

For veteran Sudan watchers, none of this comes as much of a shock. Analysts looking for democratic upsides have had to console themselves with the few examples in which opposition groups have gained a toehold of political space to publicly question the regime. What is more surprising, however, has been the muddled and squeamish posture of U.S. President Barack Obama's administration toward Sudan's election -- one that underscores a larger, ongoing struggle to place democracy promotion effectively within the context of U.S. foreign policy more broadly.

Obama's special envoy for Sudan, retired Maj. Gen. J. Scott Gration, no stranger to gaffes, triggered his most recent bout of eye-rolling in both Sudan and Washington when he emerged from a meeting with the National Election Commission 11 days ago and declared that the commission's members had given him "confidence that the elections will start on time and they would be as free and as fair as possible." The comments were unfortunate enough by themselves, but their timing also conspired against them; Gration spoke just as increasing numbers of opposition parties and candidates were either boycotting the election completely or pulling out of the presidential contest -- as did the largest party in South Sudan -- because the election was transparently neither free nor fair.

Why the rose-colored glasses from the special envoy? Gration is clearly eager to view this election as a necessary benchmark, a box to check, on the road to the broader issue of independence for South Sudan, which will be determined in a January 2011 referendum. Any suggestion that Sudan's election was flawed could provoke Bashir to try to disrupt the January referendum, Gration fears, and indeed, Bashir has made threats to this effect. Still, the imperatives of his short-term diplomacy seemed to be at odds with the long-term goal of transforming Sudan into a freer and more democratic place.

Here is where we see some interesting parallels with two other recent elections, both initially mishandled by the administration: those in Afghanistan and Iran. In all three cases, the administration seemed reluctant to acknowledge upfront that the elections were profoundly flawed, even though it had more than enough evidence to that effect. In all three cases, the administration moved only slowly to toe a tougher line -- after widespread howls from human rights activists, opposition parties in the respective countries, the media, and Republican critics were heard first.

Obama was wise to move away from the bellicose democracy-promotion of George W. Bush, and the president used his June 4 Cairo speech to make the case to the Islamic world that he would take a more respectful, nuanced approach to that region than did his predecessor. That is all well and good. But trying to reset the tone and engage in effective dialogue just won't work if it also entails obvious denials of reality. Pretending that Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his allies did not engage in widespread fraud did nothing for U.S. credibility or Washington's strategic partnership with Kabul. It shouldn't have taken days after the Iranian presidential vote for Obama to acknowledge that every vote deserved to be counted and that basic freedoms needed to be respected -- yes, even if his administration was having a high-wire dialogue with Iran on the future of nuclear weapons. Now again in Sudan, the special envoy shouldn't bless a tragically flawed election with the copacetic stamp of "free and fair enough" -- even as we ponder the likelihood that the country will split in two next January.

There's no need to sacrifice U.S. policy goals to lofty truth-telling. In fact, there's a case to be made that diplomatic goals are actually better achieved with frank honesty when elections don't pass the smell test. For example, if the administration had taken a tougher line with Khartoum about creating the underlying conditions for a free and fair national election, the country would already be further down the road toward creating genuine power-sharing in Sudan. Such an arrangement would in turn incentivize Bashir not to engage in adventurism around the upcoming independence referendum, and it would be an important step toward preventing future conflicts in Northern Sudan -- after the South heads for the exit. Would negotiating all this be difficult? Absolutely. Yet, grasping the nettle now seems far preferable to watching from the sidelines as Sudan descends into broader conflict -- again.

So if shouting about democracy from the rooftops à la George W. Bush was not effective, neither will be defending democracy in mumbled tones. One hopes that this administration has learned from its initial stumbles. Obama will have an important opportunity to get it right when he offers his first public comments on Sudan's election in the days to come.

PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images

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