Bashir Insanity

Team Obama has just offered Sudan's genocidal tyrant one last olive branch. A hickory switch might work better.

This past Tuesday, when the punditocracy was raptly focused on the electoral results in Delaware and New Hampshire, the U.S. State Department quietly issued a policy statement on Sudan that offered the government of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir a path to escape sanctions and restore normal relations with the United States.

Why no fanfare? Perhaps an administration highly sensitive to accusations of equivocation in the face of evil was reluctant to call attention to a policy that emphasized carrots rather than sticks -- or rather, to use the splendidly mangled metaphor of one administration official, offered to the regime in Khartoum "a carrot painted with a finer degree of granularity." Bashir, who has been indicted on genocide charges by the International Criminal Court, doesn't deserve a carrot. But the Obama administration has rightly concluded that absent strong inducements, deserved or not, from the United States and other key actors, the regime in Khartoum could well plunge Sudan back into a horrendous civil war.

In January 2005, the regime and the breakaway government of the south put an end to almost 40 years of war by signing the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. The CPA gave southerners the right to choose independence or greater autonomy within Sudan. The referendum in which they will make that choice is scheduled for Jan. 10, 2011, and no one doubts that voters will overwhelmingly choose the former -- if the referendum is held, and conducted honestly. But Khartoum appears to have no intention of permitting that. Oil has turned Sudan into a boom economy, and 80 percent of the country's oil is located in the south. Moreover, the regime fears -- with good reason -- that granting independence to the South would embolden other regional insurgencies.

Suliman Baldo, a Sudanese scholar with the International Center on Transitional Justice, says that the Bashir government has been orchestrating a domestic media campaign to promote the fiction that all Sudanese seek national unity -- and thus that a vote for independence is intrinsically illegitimate. Baldo and others fear that if Khartoum blocks or refuses to recognize the election, provoking the government of the South to unilaterally declare independence, the decades-long civil war that led to the deaths of two million people will resume.

The Obama administration has responded to this apocalyptic prospect with a belated, but very concentrated, diplomatic surge. Both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and National Security Advisor James Jones have spoken with Salva Kiir, the southern leader, and Ali Osman Taha, Sudan's vice president, urging them to make progress on the terms laid out in the CPA, which they have so far failed to do. President Obama announced last week that he would personally attend a U.N. Security Council session on Sudan chaired by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon during the upcoming General Assembly meeting; that in turn has persuaded other heads of state, as well as Kiir and Taha, to attend. The administration has beefed up its diplomatic representation in Sudan, in part by naming Princeton Lyman, a veteran diplomat with long experience in Africa, to work with the two sides. And last weekend Scott Gration, Obama's special envoy to Sudan, went to Khartoum to deliver the administration's new offer.

That offer is at the heart of the strategy document released earlier this week. Gration presented the regime with four ascending "stages" of granularized carrot. The administration will immediately change the rules governing the export of agricultural equipment to Sudan, now tightly controlled by sanctions. "Previously there had been an assumption of no," a White House official explained to me. "Now we're going to shift to an assumption of yes." This is, in effect, a gift for showing up -- no strings attached. If the regime permits the referendum to proceed and respects the outcome, the White House will lift further trade restrictions (though not on the all-important oil sector). If Khartoum also reaches agreement on key North-South issues, including the drawing of boundaries and sharing of oil revenue, Washington will appoint an ambassador (the last ambassador, Timothy Michael Carney, was withdrawn in 1996 after Sudan was declared a state sponsor of terrorism). Only, however, if Khartoum also resolves the Darfur conflict does the administration promise to seek full normalization and the lifting of sanctions.

Administration officials present the package as an "intensification" of existing diplomacy, but that is slightly disingenuous. After long, and reportedly heated, arguments inside the White House over the proper balance between carrot and stick, officials have produced a document that is highly specific about inducements and carefully vague about threats. Despite veiled references to "accountability," the statement is silent on the ICC indictments. And after much discussion over whether it's acceptable, or effective, to address the North-South conflict separately from Darfur, the administration plan will allow Khartoum to profit from compliance on North-South issues, though Bashir wins the jackpot only for restoring peace to Darfur.

Some, though not all, members of the advocacy community are appalled at the decision to, quite literally, let the regime get away with murder. John Norris, a Sudan expert at the Center for American Progress and former head of the Enough Project, calls the package "unseemly." Norris points out that in 2005 Western diplomats made a calculated decision to bless the North-South peace agreement even as the regime perpetrated mass slaughter in Darfur. Indeed, from the very beginnings of the killings in Darfur, in 2003, Bashir responded to pressure from the West by threatening to scuttle negotiations over ending the civil war. "Once again," Norris says, "you've got a bunch of diplomats saying that this current situation is so serious that we need to ignore all this other stuff."

So there is both a moral case and a strategic case against offering Khartoum goodies in exchange for behaving itself on the referendum. But if the derailing of the referendum really would lead to mass killing (and some experts I spoke to are skeptical on this score), then it's patent that the moral imperative is to give Bashir incentives to behave himself, and to leave the issue of just deserts to a future date. The only real question is effectiveness. A number of studies (pdf) have concluded that marginalizing Darfur to get the CPA signed was a disastrous mistake that sent Bashir a signal that he could do as he wished with the people of Darfur. Why is it correct now?

Gration was foolish enough to say earlier this year that what remained in Darfur, seven years after the killing broke out, was only "the remnants of genocide." He was quickly forced to retract the comment in the face of outrage from activists. But he was right. Civilians in Darfur still live in a state of terror, and millions remain displaced; but much of the killing now pits rebel groups, or Arab tribesmen, against one another. On the other hand, the steadily rising levels of violence in the South, much of it probably instigated by Bashir and his colleagues, could explode into the kind of mass ethnic reprisals provoked by the partition of India and Pakistan in 1948. As a State Department official puts it delicately, "There is a sense of urgency on both Darfur and the CPA, but there is a growing sense of immediacy on North-South issues." The situation in 2005 was the exact opposite.

That said, Bashir must be made to feel that there is a powerful, and imminent, "or else." So far, the Obama team has hesitated to make threats. Gration in particular has been far too willing in the past to accept the regime's bona fides, as if unaware of the bland reassurances and bald-faced lies that frustrated his predecessors. Even now, he and his team may be putting too much stock in the influence of "moderates" inside the ruling National Congress Party, whom Western officials have been banking on -- fruitlessly -- for years. Bashir is likely to "accept" the State Department's proposal, and then add onerous conditions of his own. A White House official insists that the administration is prepared for that eventuality, and adds that the ability to marshal an international response in case of rejection is "a very important part of the thinking" that went into the new offer. As with Iran, that is, the regime's rebuff of what is seen as a fair offer will help the United States build the case for tougher sanctions than those Sudan now faces.

Will Bashir be suitably impressed by that prospect? Over the years, he has blithely ignored Security Council resolutions, sanctions, threats of prosecution, and global public opprobrium. He has learned all too well how to exploit the weakness of international diplomacy. Now he holds a lit match over a vast bonfire. Perhaps he fears the consequences of flicking it on to the pyre, but the irresolute response of years past have ensured it's his choice -- and his alone.


Terms of Engagement

Darkness and Light

Barack Obama promised to end "the color-coded politics of fear." But we're still living in the shadows.

On Aug. 1, 2007, I heard Barack Obama, whose presidential candidacy was feeling increasingly quixotic, deliver a foreign-policy speech in Washington. The speech would become instantly famous for Obama's chesty declaration that as president he would attack "high-value" terrorists in Pakistan even without Pakistani approval. That was the red meat; but it wasn't the theme, and it wasn't what I recalled later.

"After 9/11," Obama said, "our calling was to write a new chapter in the American story... Instead, we got a color-coded politics of fear." He promised a post-post-9/11 foreign policy that would replace the fearfulness and belligerence of the George W. Bush era with a new sense of openness and opportunity. One reason voters ultimately flocked to Obama was that he promised to liberate Americans from the darkness into which they had been plunged by the terrorist attacks.

Now that the ninth anniversary of 9/11 -- the second under President Obama -- has arrived, it is fair to ask: Has he succeeded? Has Obama lifted that pall of fear and the overweening obsession with Islamic terrorism? Obama has been -- for the most part -- true to his words. But I think the answer to the larger questions is no.

The "color-coded politics of fear" represented only one side of the "war on terror" that Obama inherited. That side -- the dark side -- meant the torture of detainees, imprisonment without recourse, "extraordinary rendition," the vast and sometimes inhuman machinery of homeland security. The visionary element -- the Bush side, as it were, rather than the Dick Cheney side -- involved the hoped-for transformation of the Islamic world through regime change and democracy promotion. What is really remarkable, and deeply disturbing, about the public mood today is that despite al Qaeda's failure to mount an attack on American soil since 9/11, the dark side -- Cheney's legacy -- has persisted, while the transformative vision has come to seem like a fable, the artifact of an old naivete.

In that 2007 speech, Obama explicitly repudiated the use of torture, saying that "the days of compromising our values are over." And he has, in fact, ended the practices he considers torture. But he has not convinced the public. At the height of Obama's popularity, in April 2009, a significant plurality of Americans asserted in a CBS News poll that waterboarding was justified -- even though an overwhelming majority agreed with the president that the practice constituted torture. Even Cheney never made so bald a claim. Between half and two-thirds of respondents consistently oppose closing the Guantanamo Bay facility. Americans actually have a more negative view of Islam today than they did five years ago; perhaps the reason why a rising fraction of the public believes that Obama is a Muslim is that they can think of no worse an epithet.

On the other hand, the appetite for transformative adventures has evaporated. The public views the war in Iraq as a failure. A full 43 percent now say that even the war in Afghanistan was a "mistake" from the outset. And large majorities take a dim view of democracy promotion in general. This, then, is the national mood nine years after the terrorist attacks: sullen, suspicious, defensive, borderline isolationist. (For more on this, see Scott Malcomson's fine new memoir on the subject, Generation's End: A Personal Memoir of American Power After 9/11.) I'm beginning to wonder if, back in 2007, I should have paid less attention to Obama's sweeping new formulation and more to his hyperbolic attempt to prove to a wary public that he wasn't going to be soft on terrorism.

Obama has trod carefully -- perhaps too carefully -- on issues like the closing of Guantánamo or the detention of alleged terrorists without trial; but these are intrinsically hard questions, and in neither case would be it fair to say that he has trafficked in the color-coded politics of fear. Nevertheless, the administration's policies have had the inadvertent effect of enhancing the national preoccupation with the threat from the Islamic world. From the very outset of his tenure, Obama has seen his great mission to be undoing the harm that his predecessor did in the Middle East. He gave his first interview as president to news channel Al Arabiya; he made his first phone calls to Middle Eastern leaders. By far, the most important speech of his first year in office was the Cairo address in which he promised a "new beginning" in the Middle East. And the consuming foreign-policy issues of his tenure have been the nuclear standoff in Iran and the war in Afghanistan -- a war, Obama has consistently argued, that America cannot afford to lose.

Unfortunately, the Middle East is the world's most intransigent region, a place where U.S. efforts of any kind produce the most modest outcomes. Obama has "succeeded" in Iraq by redefining success as getting out. Meanwhile in Afghanistan, the United States is spending $100 billion a year, and of course precious lives, while the effort to persuade the Afghan people that their government is worth defending is, if anything, going backward. Obama continues to insist that Afghanistan is the central front in the real war on terror, but the recent report of the Afghanistan Study Group concludes flatly that "the U.S. interests at stake in Afghanistan do not warrant this level of sacrifice."

George Friedman, head of the global intelligence firm Stratfor, recently wrote that "the most significant effect of 9/11" was that "the United States became obsessed with a single region." He concedes that this was inevitable in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. Today, though, he argues, it is necessary to ask: "What does the United States lose elsewhere while it focuses on the future of Kandahar?" Friedman shares the Afghanistan Study Group's skepticism about the consequences of military failure there, but he also makes the cold-blooded assertion that "the United States cannot subordinate its grand strategy to simply fighting terrorism even if there will be occasional terrorist attacks on the United States."

Kibitzers like Friedman, or me, don't have to deal with U.S. public opinion, of course. Another terrorist attack would make it even harder than it already is for Obama to advance a post-post-9/11 strategy. And I don't think Friedman is right in claiming that, for example, Russia exploited U.S. preoccupation with the Middle East to attack Georgia in 2008. But there are undeniably grave costs to that preoccupation, and not only in blood and treasure. Doubling down in Afghanistan has further ratcheted up the public sense of menace -- they'll attack us here if we don't stop them there -- while the failure to make headway has deepened public cynicism about America's capacity to shape a better world. Obama has adopted from Bush the premise that the United States must find a way to tame the Islamic world, though he has tried to go about it in a very different way. But though this may be true in the long run, in the short run it has turned out to be a thankless task.

The Obama administration cannot, of course, abandon the Middle East peace initiative it has just helped foster, or ignore Iran's nuclear aspirations. But it can pivot from the "arc of crisis," as Zbigniew Brzezinski once dismally labeled the broader Middle East, to the world of opportunity that Obama, as candidate, so successfully invoked. In this regard, I took heart from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's speech this week at the Council on Foreign Relations. After a ritual mention of Middle Eastern crises, Clinton moved on to relations with European allies and NATO, development assistance, the need to incorporate emerging powers into the global order, regional cooperation, reform of the United Nations and other global institutions, and the obligation to defend and nurture fragile democracies. (Of course, she ended by talking about Iran policy as the successful consummation of all these initiatives.) This is the long-term agenda that has been obscured by crisis.

Are the American people in the mood to hear about global architecture? I don't know; they're in a very bad mood. Nevertheless, we should say on 9/11/10, as Obama did in 2007, "It is time to turn the page."

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