Barack Obama's got a new point man in Sudan. On March 31 the U.S. president announced that Princeton Lyman, a retired ambassador with a diplomatic pedigree as distinguished as his name, will replace J. Scott Gration as his special envoy to the war-torn country. Lyman's credentials are strong. He has been working the Sudan file since last August, so he will hit the ground running. And unlike Gration, who had no diplomatic experience before Obama appointed him, Lyman's tenure as the U.S. ambassador to South Africa during the transition from apartheid gives him keen insight into dealing with a delicate, complicated situation. There will be no more "cookies and gold stars" gaffes from here on out.
But none of that means Lyman will succeed in his mission. In theory, the appointment of yet another special envoy signals Obama's commitment to prioritize Sudan among competing foreign-policy issues. At best, a special envoy should be able to coordinate Sudan policy across various agencies to avoid the stovepiping problem that so often plagues the U.S. government. But a review of the envoys to date suggests that theory is one thing, bureaucratic reality quite another.
George W. Bush appointed two envoys: Andrew Natsios and Richard Williamson. Both were thwarted by the part-time nature of their tenure. Neither was ever integrated into the Sudan Programs Group in the State Department, where the bulk of decision-making on Sudan took place. Turf warfare was all too common as the envoys and State Department officials never managed to read from the same playbook. The result was mixed signals sent to Khartoum, as when one top U.S. official told the Sudanese foreign minister she was convinced that Sudan was not a state sponsor of terrorism, while Natsios was saying publicly and privately that Sudan had to stay on the terrorism list until both Darfur was resolved and the north-south peace agreement was implemented.
When Obama appointed Gration on a full-time basis and moved to straighten out the overlapping lines of authority, Sudan watchers hoped the turf wars were over. Yet Gration was soon publicly at loggerheads with Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who advocated a tougher line on Sudanese leader Omar Hassan al-Bashir. Again, the result was a divided U.S. position that diminished Obama's diplomatic leverage. The lesson is that Lyman may find his job is as much about skilled diplomacy with officials in Washington as with those in Khartoum.