Bashir's Choice

The brutal means that the Sudanese president has used to keep his country together have instead blown it apart in the most chaotic way possible.

South Sudan is being baptized in blood. On Saturday, July 9, when the south formally declares its independence from Sudan, civilians in the disputed border region of Southern Kordofan will be scrambling to survive a sustained campaign of aerial bombardment. A report by an aid worker in the Nuba Mountains of Southern Kordofan described a campaign of "ethnic cleansing" carried out by "troops, artillery, tanks, and machine gun carriers" as well as Antonov bombers. Since Khartoum has blocked the United Nations, NGOs, and the media from the region, it is impossible to know how many civilians have been killed in recent weeks, though aid workers cited in the New York Times put the number at "hundreds." And hundreds more were killed last month in Abyei, another border state.

You might think that Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for carrying out genocide in the western region of Darfur, has decided to violently nullify the January referendum in which the people of the south voted overwhelmingly for independence. But that's almost certainly not the case. A recent report by the International Crisis Group speculates that Bashir has launched the onslaught in order to improve his negotiating position on a range of issues between north and south, including the drawing of borders and the division of oil revenues. This is Bashir's idea of statecraft. As Sudan scholar Gérard Prunier once wrote, the regime's "policy and political philosophy since it came to power in 1989 has kept verging on genocide in its general treatment of the national question in Sudan."

The essential story of Sudan over the last several decades is the story of the regime against the people. This is, of course, a perfectly familiar African story, but what makes Sudan's story distinctive is the way a small, homogenous class of riverine Arabs has used massive and barely controlled violence to maintain control over an immense and vastly diverse country. In Darfur, it has succeeded. In the south, it has failed; and on Saturday's independence day the beleaguered people of the south will explode with euphoria before settling down to face an extremely grim future, for South Sudan will be one of the world's poorest and least-developed countries.

It did not have to be this way, and a remarkable new book of essay and photographs titled We'll Make Our Homes Here: Sudan at the Referendum offers a powerful reminder that that is so. Tim McKulka, a staff photographer for the U.N. Mission in Sudan (UNMIS), took the pictures, compiled and edited the essays, and somehow -- this may be the most impressive part -- persuaded UNMIS itself to publish the book. McKulka's pictures show Sudan in all its topographical and human variety: deserts, mountains, rivers, and the oil-boom capital of Khartoum; nomadic cattle-herders, Arab traders, and Nuer tribesmen with ritual scarification. Sudan is a vast migratory space -- at almost 1 million square miles, the world's 10th-largest country and the largest in Africa -- which tribes have crisscrossed over the centuries, depositing one layer of culture and habits atop another.

The book's 13 essays, most of them intensely personal and all written by Sudanese, are shot through with nostalgia for this densely layered past and for the vanished ethos of tolerance that allowed such varied peoples to live alongside one another. Leila Aboulela, an author and playwright, recalls the cosmopolitan Khartoum of her childhood in the 1960s: "The city was spacious and languid; close-knit and unconventional; a place to be innovative and adventurous." (Afghans who remember the Kabul of that time describe it in much the same language.) Abdalla Adam Khatir, a Darfuri journalist and activist, describes his days as a university student in the 1970s traveling from the Blue Nile to Port Sudan to the massifs of Kordofan. This act of discovery, he writes, "deepened my commitment to the notion of a Sudanese nation."  

There may be some glossing over of ugly realities here. The Sudanese have long been pittted against one another as well as against the state: Nuer tribesmen fight Dinka in the south; nomads fight pastoralists along the border. But politics matter, and those who have controlled Sudan have always used some variant of divide-and-rule. As historian Edward Thomas notes in a prefatory essay, 19th-century Ottoman rulers used the south as a source of slaves for the Egyptian army. British administrators later separated the country into ethnic zones in order to preclude the rise of nationalism. When Britain granted Sudan independence in 1956, the Christian south agreed to join with the Islamic north only on the condition that the country adopt a decentralized system; instead, Britain handed off its full colonial powers to a mercantile Arab regime in Khartoum. A campaign to forcibly Islamize the south provoked a civil war that lasted until a 1972 peace treaty. A new military ruler dissolved the south's autonomous government, setting off a new round of fighting in 1983. Two million people died before the two sides signed the 2005 agreement that set the stage for this year's referendum and independence. And as one war was winding down, a new one in Darfur, provoked by the same repressive policies and carried out with the same brutality, was starting up.

I cannot help thinking of India when I read this story. There is an obvious analogy between the bloodshed surrounding the hiving off of south from north and India's Partition, which led to the deaths of perhaps a quarter-million people as Muslims fled north to Pakistan and Hindus south to India. Sudan is suffering through a partition of its own. But there was nothing inevitable about the fratricide either at India's birth or at South Sudan's; both are a consequence of political choices. And in fact what actually strikes me is the contrast between the choices made by the two countries' post-colonial leaders. India's prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, horrified by the violent energies unleashed by Partition, went to enormous lengths to calm anti-Muslim feeling in India and to blunt calls to redraw state borders along linguistic lines. And when violence flared over the linguistic issue in 1955, Nehru gave in, recognizing that India could survive as a diverse country only by granting more regional and cultural autonomy.

Multiethnic states like Sudan are not doomed to failure. India is just one example; Indonesia is another. It all depends on political leadership. Of course, the problem is harder in diverse states ruled by a minority tribe, such as Sudan or Syria. Leaders must either bring others into the circle of power or practice endless repression. Bashir has made the latter choice; so, too, has the Assad family in Syria. President Bashar al-Assad is now discovering the corollary to this choice: As repression provokes resistance, the regime must keep ratcheting up the level of brutality in order to survive.

If you're the president of a country as big as Sudan, you can sustain your rule by letting go of a piece of the country you can no longer successfully repress. But you cannot sustain the idea of the country. John Garang, the southern leader who had signed the 2005 agreement with the Bashir regime and died soon thereafter in a plane crash, had fought for the vision of a single Sudan with a mixed leadership. That sounds almost laughably naive today. Jacob J. Akol, a southern journalist, writes in We'll Make Our Homes Here that while the myth of Sudan is "an Islamic and culturally Arab nation in the heart of Africa," the reality is "a people trying to break away from a forced and unfair unity about which they were never consulted." Nothing but force holds Sudan together.

Leafing through the volume, I was struck by a picture of a giant parabola on Khartoum's skyline -- a new oil company headquarters. That hadn't been there when I visited in 2004. Oil revenue has made Sudan one of Africa's fastest-growing states; the fight over the border regions has much to do with access to that oil wealth. But while it will transform Khartoum's skyline, oil wealth will not solve Sudan's problems: By increasing corruption and further concentrating wealth and power in the center, it will only further alienate the millions who live along the periphery. Bashir has a genius for survival, and he may outlast his enemies; but Sudan, as a country, will fail.


Terms of Engagement

Lift One from the Gipper

Tim Pawlenty has the Reaganite foreign policy talking points down, but do they add up to anything?

As I was sitting in the audience at the Council on Foreign Relations the other day, listening to Gov. Tim Pawlenty check off the boxes of right-wing internationalism, I kept waiting for the personal payoff moment, where the candidate says, "As a boy growing up in the depths of the Cold War," or even, "I saw the miracle of free markets on a trip to Singapore." But the moment never came, and Pawlenty marched blandly forward with his agenda: apply more pressure on Iran and less on Israel; watch out for the Muslim Brotherhood; assassinate Muammar al-Qaddafi.

I imagine that if the former Minnesota governor had a stock of foundational experiences or even intuitions about the world, he would have drawn on them. Perhaps he hadn't paid much attention to the world beyond our borders prior to deciding to run for president. That's a problem, though hardly an unfamiliar one among governors; both George W. Bush and Bill Clinton learned on the job, with more or less damage along the way. But the problem, in this case, is endemic: The current generation of Republicans seems unable to mount a convincing and coherent case for engaging the world.

I first need to amend something I wrote a few weeks ago. After the first Republican presidential debate in New Hampshire, I concluded that the "neo-Reaganite" ethos in foreign policy -- uncompromising rhetoric, intervention in the name of "values," democracy promotion -- had no followers among the GOP candidates. I should have said that the candidates have calculated that Republican primary voters don't have much of an appetite for that language (nor do many Democrats). In fact, three of the more likely candidates for the nomination -- Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman, and Pawlenty -- all offer some variant of conservative internationalism.

Among them, Pawlenty is most ardently channeling the neo-Reaganite vision. "When you're flying in the clouds," he said in his speech to the council, "you want to make sure your compass is set to true north." Pawlenty's true north is "moral clarity." He used this Reaganesque expression as often as possible. He contrasted the clarion call of his own press releases on events in the Arab Spring with President Barack Obama's "murky policy" of engagement. He criticized Obama for being too slow to demand that Hosni Mubarak step down in Egypt, too hesitant to use force in Libya, too equivocal about Bashar al-Assad's brutality in Syria. And -- this was the less predictable and more striking part -- he took on those in his own party (no names mentioned) who "shrink from the challenges of America's leadership in the world." The very fact that Pawlenty chose to deliver the speech in the sanctum sanctorum of the foreign policy establishment rather than at, say, the Heritage Foundation, constituted a rebuke to the yahoos in the party -- though also, of course, a message to moderate Republican donors looking for an alternative to Obama.

"Moral clarity," then, is the alternative both to the heartless realism of engagement and to the short-sightedness and penny-pinching of isolationism. But Pawlenty's moral clarity didn't feel as clear as Reagan's or Sen. John McCain's. Theirs' was rooted in life experience and was consistent with a broader worldview, just as "engagement" is rooted in Obama's own experience and his intuitions about the world. Pawlenty's views sounded as borrowed as T-Paw, his NBA-style nickname. It felt like he had rummaged in the closet of Republican policy options and come out with whatever seemed to fit. (Of course Mitt Romney seems to do this with almost everything.) And the hat turns out to be a little too big for his head.

It may be that at this moment in Republican history, isolationism is going to sound more persuasive than muscular internationalism, both because that's where the party's base is at and because it fits so comfortably with the GOP's obsession with the evils of government and with the imperative to cut spending. It was telling that during the New Hampshire debate, Mitt Romney answered a question on Afghanistan by saying, "It is time to bring our troops home as soon as we can," and that Newt Gingrich took Michele Bachmann's side in opposition to the military deployment in Libya.

In fact, as the party moves further in that direction, Pawlenty runs the risk of sounding more like a hawkish Democrat than a mainstream Republican. He's positioned himself to the right of Obama on Afghanistan, criticizing the president for withdrawing troops faster than Gen. David Petraeus would like. But it's a lonely outpost, since both Huntsman and Romney favor -- or at least wish to be seen as favoring -- a rapid withdrawal. Pawlenty said that he wants to "redirect foreign aid away from efforts to merely build goodwill" in the Middle East in order to help forge "genuine democracies governed by free people according to the rule of law." It's not clear what he's against -- flood relief in Pakistan? --but simply by using "foreign aid" in a non-pejorative context he's ranged himself against his own party's leadership, which seeks drastic cuts in foreign assistance and in the U.S. Agency for International Development, which delivers it. The next thing you know, he'll be saying something nice about France.

And the new right-wing internationalism doesn't hang together very well. "Moral clarity" dictates absolute judgments rather than nuanced ones. Pawlenty presented his own true-North convictions in very stark terms: Arab Spring totally good, Iran totally evil, Israel totally right. This presented some problems. For example, Pawlenty accused Obama of destroying the relationship with Saudi Arabia by failing to stand up to Iran, the Saudis' Shiite rival. "Engagement" has only emboldened the mullahs; the United States must work with the Saudis to bring about the fall of the regime. But since the United States also needs to unequivocally support "freedom's rise" in the Arab world, a President Pawlenty would tell the Saudis that "they need to reform and open their society." Candidate Pawlenty tried to square that circle with the implausible claim that America could gain "a position of trust" with the ruling family by standing up to Iran. The plain truth is that if the United States needs Saudi Arabia to counterbalance Iran -- and of course to stabilize global oil supply -- it will keep the conversation about reform polite and ineffectual.

The actual true North of Republican foreign policy is Israel. Here Pawlenty would not be outbid by the right, or perhaps he simply assumed that his establishment audience would share his views. He accused Obama of harboring an "anti-Israel attitude," and of blaming Israel for "every problem in the Middle East." A President Pawlenty would "never undermine Israel's negotiating position." He would bring peace to the Middle East by "cultivating and empowering moderate forces within the Palestinian society," identity unspecified.

Leaving aside the absurdity of that last proposition, Israel's ability to insist on maximalist terms for peace is plainly endangered by "freedom's rise," which is likely to sweep anti-American and anti-Israel forces into power. A questioner -- me, actually -- pointed out that one reason Obama had hesitated to call for Mubarak to step down was that Israel viewed the autocrat as an indispensable ally and interlocutor, and feared the alternative. Did Pawlenty have reason to believe that a democratic Egypt would not pose a danger to "our great friend"? Pawlenty responded by saying that since Mubarak-style autocracy was no longer sustainable, American policymakers should push for orderly change now rather than a cataclysm down the road. That's a perfectly fair answer -- but not if you are prepared to protect Israel from any and all forms of pressure.

Pawlenty was asked what he would do if a democratically elected government in the Middle East opposed the U.S. and its interests. He laughed off the question as an absurd hypothetical. But it's not; Iran, after all, while very far from a democracy, has an elected president who almost certainly represents the will of the majority of citizens. What does moral clarity have to tell us about that?

Spencer Platt/Getty Images