For pictures of the brutal regime in Khartoum, click here.
South Sudan, is one of the few places in the world where American
bipartisanship seems to be alive and well. One year ago today, President Barack
Obama's envoy to the United Nations, Susan Rice, sat near former Republican
Secretary of State Colin Powell as Rev. Franklin Graham, a harsh evangelical
critic of the U.S. president, cheered what White House officials were
claiming as a major foreign-policy success -- the birth of an independent South
Sudanese nation. Diplomats and African heads of state took turns
congratulating the new government from a podium overlooking tens of thousands
of sweating South Sudanese gathered under the midday sun for the occasion.
was the miracle of South Sudan, a U.S. foreign-policy darling welcomed onto the
world stage in a burst of optimism on July 9, 2011. The new country's birth was
the crowning achievement of one of Washington's most effective campaigns of the
past 20 years. The campaign to support the Sudan People's Liberation Movement
(SPLM) -- a rebel movement founded in 1983 in Sudan's marginalized southern
lands by John Garang, a U.S.-educated officer who wanted to transform Sudan's
minority-ruled northern government into an inclusive democracy -- began with
Rep. Donald Payne, an African-American Democrat from New Jersey, and Frank
Wolf, a conservative evangelical Republican from Virginia.
described to me on that hopeful day a year ago how he first visited southern Sudan
in 1989 and met South Sudan's now-president (then rebel commander) Salva
Kiir for the first time in the field in 1993. He worked across party lines ("many
of the members I had very little in common with") to
build the SPLM's fan base. Its ranks grew in Washington
every year, expanding beyond the Congressional Black Caucus-evangelical
alliance to three consecutive presidential administrations. "We
were able to get a bipartisan effort. That's really what made this sustainable,"
said Payne, who died in March.
the United States' heavy-handed engagement, it is doubtful South Sudan would
today be its own country. But Washington's love affair with the SPLM looks
likely to end in heartbreak.
year on, the jubilation that accompanied South Sudan's independence has
vanished. Its first year as a nation has been a disaster by all but the lowest
of standards. Sure, worst-case scenarios of sustained full-blown war with Sudan
or a complete implosion of the state have not yet materialized. But good luck
finding many other silver linings: South Sudan is already the target of a sanctions threat by the United Nations for
military aggression along its border with Sudan; its internal strife has already resulted in
thousands of civilian casualties; and the country's oil -- its sole source of
revenue -- stopped pumping in January as part of
dangerous brinkmanship in negotiations with Sudan. The country desperately
needs visionary leadership: It has only one paved highway, three-quarters of
its adults are illiterate, and extreme poverty is widespread.
SPLM isn't directly to blame for the dire conditions it inherited in South
Sudan, but its dismal governance has stopped most progress before it even had a
chance to begin. South Sudan has been run mostly autonomously -- with its own
budget revenue and standing military -- since 2005, and the SPLM used that time
to loot its way to personal riches, leaving development projects penniless. In
May, South Sudan's government acknowledged that South Sudanese officials had
"stolen" $4 billion of missing funds that were supposed to go to
developing the war-torn state -- the equivalent of roughly two entire years of
official revenue. Worse, this money was looted directly under the noses of the
international community, which agreed to supervise the peace process and even
provided consultants to do South Sudan's own bookkeeping.
officials are quick to pay lip service to the problem of corruption, but there
is so far no bite behind the muffled whimpers of protest. Unlike the tough,
targeted U.S. actions against leaders in countries such as Kenya, Washington
has not threatened travel bans or publicly frozen bank accounts of leading
government officials, U.S. officials say. Despite providing military support --
to the tune of about $300 million in taxpayers' money -- since 2005, the United
States does not seem to have a strategy in place to induce South Sudan's
leaders to reform their ways.
is true despite President Kiir's estrangement from
Obama, which one source close to U.S. policymakers described as "probably
irreparable." In September, Kiir kept Obama waiting for over a half-hour for their first meeting on the sidelines of the U.N. General
Assembly session, according to several sources with knowledge of the meeting. Then,
over later phone calls, Kiir personally denied to Obama that South Sudan was
providing support for rebels across the border -- despite U.S. intelligence
that clearly established otherwise. Relations turned even more sour in early
April, when Kiir promised Obama that South Sudanese forces would not strike
north and capture Heglig, a disputed Sudanese oil field, sources briefed on the
conversation said. Several days later, South Sudanese forces -- working in
coordination with the Sudanese rebels Kiir denied links to -- did just that, sparking international outcry.
even if U.S. policy errors are partly to blame for the country's mishaps, don't
expect the White House to take a tougher stance on South Sudan anytime soon. Why?
Because Obama has little to gain from upsetting the SPLM's friends.
a sea of foreign-policy realism, Sudan has survived as a foreign-policy issue grounded
not in national security interests, but moral idealism. In the aftermath of the
Rwandan genocide, Sudan became a rallying cry for religious activists and human
rights proponents enraged by the Sudanese government's atrocities. But the activists
made a critical mistake: They seemed to think the SPLM rebels represented a virtuous
mirror image of Khartoum's evils.
conventional wisdom has shielded the SPLM from U.S. wrath, despite its
corruption and increasingly questionable decision-making. It boasts a
bipartisan, election-proof lobby that not even money can buy -- a network
of true believers in Congress, the White House, think tanks, and the media.
This influential network of friends is all the more striking because it has
stayed intact despite the 2005 death of Garang, the SPLM's U.S.-educated founder, whose personal charisma and political instincts made the SPLM the
best-connected rebel group in Africa.
of President Bill Clinton's Africa hands, John Prendergast and Gayle Smith, who co-founded
the Enough Project at the Center for American Progress, have arguably been the most
effective of the SPLM's friends in Washington. By branding the organization as anti-genocide,
the Enough Project often gets a free pass from the mainstream media, which frequently
cites its version of events in Sudan as objective independent analysis. But the
morally charged and culturally hip do-goodism helps disguise a clear political
agenda: Even while it acknowledges South Sudan's poor
record on human rights and "transparency,"
Enough's policy papers are filled with calls for
punitive measures toward Khartoum and greater engagement with Juba. Last year,
Prendergast and Enough publicly advocated for arming South Sudan with
air defense weapons. When Enough advertised for a job opening of "Sudan
policy analyst" last year, they hired one of the SPLM's legal advisors for the
Smith moved back
into the White House in March 2009 as a special assistant to the president and
a senior director of Obama's National Security Council, where she joined Rice as the key SPLM advocates in the administration. But Prendergast has
turned into a media phenomenon, an activist-cum-celebrity whose specialty is
recruiting celebrity-cum-activists. Prendergast's biggest catch of late is
George Clooney, who has made Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir something of his
own personal white whale. Clooney has swooped through Juba at least three times
in the last two years to advocate for South Sudan's cause, meeting personally with Kiir,
and has even invested his own money in a satellite service that publicly spies on
Sudan. This sounds a lot like journalism on steroids, and there is definitely overlap. Clooney's eyes in
the sky have visually confirmed several events on the ground. But, its satellites
also have a clear agenda: Read through the group's reports, and while regularly
publishing about Sudan's troop mobilizations near the border, it does not offer
comparably critical scrutiny of South Sudan's forces, guilty of its own troop buildups,
sometimes in violation of international agreements as well.
star power provides multiple benefits: He dominates news coverage -- his visit to South Sudan during the January 2011
referendum headlined news coverage of the event -- thereby ensuring that
Prendergast's narrative of events carries the day. He is also a powerful
lobbying force inside Washington who can secure personal meetings with the
president, and he uses those meetings to talk about Sudan. In March, Clooney and
Prendergast were arrested protesting outside the Sudanese Embassy in
Washington. It also doesn't hurt that Clooney is a major surrogate for Obama in
Hollywood: This year, he hosted the largest single fundraising haul, $15 million, for the Obama campaign.
Enough Project isn't the only effective advocate for the SPLM in Washington.
Since the late 1980s, a core group of government officials worked behind the
scenes to implement the policies that led to South Sudan's independence. Some
have left government to advise the government directly. For instance, Roger
Winter, the subject of a 2008 New York Times
Magazine piece, was an official with the U.S. Agency for International Development under Clinton and the State
Department's special Sudan representative under George W. Bush, and he still testifies
before Congress on Sudan issues. After retiring in 2006, he stayed behind to
serve as a volunteer advisor to the SPLM. "As one American that has had over 27
years of involvement in Sudan, it is my association with the SPLM and SPLA that
I am most proud of," he said in a speech to the SPLM national convention in May 2008.
In another example, Ted Dagne was an Africa specialist at the Congressional
Research Service who forged close ties with Garang. Today, he works as an
advisor to Kiir in Juba, where he labors in his prefab office and sometimes writes
press releases on behalf of the South Sudanese government.
heavy U.S. backing of the SPLM might be producing as many problems as it is
resolving. "It makes them reckless," said Alex de Waal, a top Sudan
scholar and an advisor to the African Union's mediation efforts between Sudan
and South Sudan. "They think the rules don't apply to them." That
behavior was most evident in April, when U.S. and African diplomatic officials told
me South Sudan seemed genuinely blindsided by the global condemnation of its military
offensive against Sudan.
South Sudan's partisans in Washington keep egging on the Obama
administration to take a more aggressive stance. "The Obama administration
has not pursued a policy of isolating the regime in Khartoum, as some on
Capitol Hill and in the NGO community have advocated. Neither has the
administration been terribly pro-South Sudan," Prendergast wrote to me in an
email last month. If the United States were really serious about backing South
Sudan, Washington "would perhaps be aiding Sudan's own rebels," he added.
With student-led protests continuing in Khartoum, expect the calls from SPLM advocates
to grow louder for a regime-change policy toward Sudan, presumably involving arming
South Sudan-backed rebels in the process.
matter who wins the U.S. presidential election in November, the SPLM has its bases covered -- like it always does.
If Obama loses, the SPLM has reason to hope it will receive even more slack from
Mitt Romney's administration. The Romney campaign website's
Africa policy page focuses disproportionately on Sudan and South
Sudan, devoting more than twice as many lines to Sudan and South Sudan than
all other countries combined. The words could have been written by the SPLM
itself: "While the initiative begun by the previous administration to help
South Sudan achieve its independence was completed during President Obama's
term," reads the website, Obama "has failed to strengthen a once
promising alliance with South Sudan."
backing of South Sudan should come as no surprise, since Rich Williamson and
David Raad, two Bush political appointees to Sudan, are now advisors to his
campaign. Williamson served as Bush's special envoy to Sudan. Raad worked on
the Sudan desk at the State Department, and then -- like some of his Democratic
peers -- served as an advisor to the SPLM government after the peace deal. He
then launched a business consulting firm (created at the request of Kiir himself,
to its website) specializing in facilitating access to SPLM leaders.
The website says Raad's clients have pursued business interests in South
Sudan's mining, timber, financial, and security industries.
the SPLM's faults becoming more and more difficult to dismiss, its advocates might
begin to face a more skeptical crowd in Washington -- though there are few
signs of that yet. Some of its non-American friends have already started to
turn. Gérard Prunier, a leading French scholar on Africa and fierce critic of
the Sudanese government, resigned as advisor to the South Sudanese government
because, he told me in a phone interview last month, he didn't want to be
"guilty by association," describing the country's leadership as a
"government of idiots" who are "rotten to the core." Prunier
is a respected author on Sudan and a frequent commentator on the region, and
his words have not gone unnoticed in Washington.
resigning, Prunier has done what U.S. opponents of Bashir have seemed unable to
do -- merge their hatred of Khartoum with any sort of similar outrage toward
South Sudan's leadership.
Washington hopes to right South Sudan's sinking ship, it would do well to
abandon the feel-good moralizing and consider ways to limit the damage wrought
by its friends, before it is too late.