The international community has rendered its judgment on the elections just completed in Sudan -- and it's painstakingly mild and conscientiously balanced. The European Union noted "important deficiencies against international standards," but nevertheless deemed them a "crucial" step toward national reconciliation. Major donors Britain, Norway, and the United States, known as the Sudan Troika, likewise took "note" of "initial assessments ... including the judgment that the elections failed to meet international standards." The Carter Center commended the "increased political and civic participation" surrounding the ballot.
The election was, in fact, transparently rigged, if not literally at the ballot box then effectively in the weeks and months beforehand. As the International Crisis Group put it succinctly in a report last month, the ruling National Congress Party "has manipulated the census results and voter registration, drafted the election law in its favor, gerrymandered electoral districts, co-opted traditional leaders and bought tribal loyalties."
Why, then, are these international observers, who after all represent Sudan's chief donors, so exquisitely minding their language? Last October, when the State Department promulgated its new Sudan policy, Obama administration officials told me that if they could not induce Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir to hold a reasonably free and fair election, they would at the very least "tell it like it is." So why are they pulling their punches?
The advocacy community sees in the administration's soft line on Sudan an act of consummate cynicism, and perhaps the most vivid proof to date that "engagement" is English for realpolitik. John Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough Project, recently accused L. Scott Gration, the administration's envoy on Sudan, of seeking to "whitewash" the outcome of Sudan's recent national elections "for the sake of expediency." Sean Brooks of the Save Darfur Coalition, wrote that the United States and other international actors apparently prefer "stability" to "safeguarding and promoting human rights and democracy in Sudan."
But the Cold War is over, and Scott Gration is no Henry Kissinger. The Obama administration is not "supporting" Bashir, an indicted war criminal, as a counterweight to international communism, or global terrorism. Gration has called for the indictment, issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC), to be served, though it's true that he hasn't been very ardent about it. What, then, explains the policy? A White House spokesman told me that relevant officials are too "swamped" to comment, so I'll have to speculate about what's in their heads -- and in the heads of the other internationals tangled in the briar patch that is Sudan.
There's no secret about the end game. In January 2005, the regime in Khartoum and the Sudan People's Liberation Army, which between them had waged a monstrous civil war over control of the southern half of the country for two decades, signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement ending the fighting. The CPA mandated a referendum in which southerners would decide whether to secede or to join a new unity government. That referendum is to be held next January, and there is no question that voters will choose secession -- at least absent massive electoral fraud. Partition is a process that invites bloodshed on a massive scale even in places without Sudan's scarred history (think India-Pakistan). The international community, including the Obama administration, has thus made a strategic choice to give Bashir an election he was bound to rig in any case in order to increase the likelihood that he will accept a secession vote. That is the "stability" they are seeking.