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.