A Birth Defect in the Heart of Africa

Could anything have prevented the tragedy that is now befalling South Sudan?

For today's bitter draught of curdled ideals we turn, not to Egypt or Libya, not to Ukraine or Russia, but to South Sudan, not so long ago a beloved newborn in the world of states. Earlier this week, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the United States was imposing sanctions on military leaders of the government and the opposition, both of whom, he said, had perpetrated "unthinkable violence against civilians." Then, the U.N. mission in South Sudan released a report describing in detail systematic campaigns of rape and murder carried out by both sides.   

Like Egypt, South Sudan was baptized in euphoria. After 50 years of an intermittent civil war that took the lives of 2 million people finally ended with a 2005 peace treaty with Sudan, southerners voted for independence in a delirious referendum in January 2011. At the celebration of that nation's birth that summer, Susan Rice, then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, proclaimed that South Sudan had demonstrated that "few forces on Earth are more powerful than a citizenry tempered by struggle and united in sacrifice."

One thing we learn from watching citizens united in sacrifice tear one another to bits is the brevity of the binding moment of togetherness that reigns at a nation's birth, or a movement's triumph.

"The people and the army are one hand!" the protesters in Tahrir Square chant. So, briefly, were the Dinka and the Nuer, the major tribes and immemorial rivals of South Sudan. Sometimes the sense of common purpose endures, as it did in Israel and India or, more recently, in East Timor. Far more often, the warriors who emerge from the hills or the bush discover in politics a new form of warfare, to be waged against their tribal or ethnic or simply political rivals. Then the bloodletting begins.

The South Sudanese calamity feels almost inevitable in retrospect -- "foreseeable, but maybe not avoidable," in the words of  Cameron Hudson, the former  chief of staff to Scott Gration, President Barack Obama's special envoy to Sudan. South Sudan's leaders had spent their entire lives fighting a grinding, brutal war. When it came time to work out a series of compromises with Sudan, recalls Hudson, "They kept saying, ‘If we don't get what we want, we'll just go back to war.'" A favorite expression, meant literally, was, "My military uniform is still hanging in the closet."

What's more, John Garang, the closest thing South Sudan had to a founding father, died in a helicopter crash in July 2005. His place was taken by Salva Kiir, a fighter who, as Hudson puts it, "has no vision for the country" beyond his hatred for Khartoum. As a gesture of inclusiveness, Kiir, a Dinka, gave the deputy's job to a Nuer, Riek Machar, a notorious turncoat who had spent years fighting for Khartoum against the southern rebels.* The two finally turned on one another last summer, when Kiir fired Machar and much of his cabinet. After tensions rose to the surface at a party gathering in December, both sides sent their supporters into battle. A contest over political spoils then descended into the ethnic killing which spurred the Obama administration to declare a pox on both houses.

Could timely intervention by South Sudan's many Western friends have prevented the mayhem? Perhaps not. One such Westerner, who has worked closely with the government, concludes that South Sudan's leaders lived by a code of "kill or be killed": Fearing a coup by Machar, Kiir mounted a pre-emptive coup of his own. South Sudan is now divided between a government led by Kiir and a wide array of semi-coordinated and well-armed forces fighting to control key cities and regions.

The category to which the South Sudan mess belongs is less Naïve Self-Delusion than Circumstances Beyond Our Control. What is true, however, is that policymakers like Rice, national security official Gayle Smith, and others who had a long history with the rebel movement, shared the euphoria of the moment, and were outraged by what they saw as the cool realism of newcomers like Gration, who pushed the southerners hard to compromise with the government in Khartoum. Hudson says that the attitude of the unimpassioned pragmatists, which very much included Obama, was, "We're about to guarantee the birthing of a basket case in the heart of Africa." In this case, the skeptics were right.  

Hudson says that Kiir and others consistently ignored whatever advice they received, thus bringing home how little leverage Washington had -- despite years of unflagging support and billions of dollars in aid. It seems paradoxical to conclude that the United States, the United Nations, and other major international actors can do so little to shape the destiny of a powerless country. In fact, outsiders can do much more in a country like Tunisia or Ukraine, which has the capacity to help itself, than in a place like South Sudan, which has few roads in its endless hinterland, few educated people, almost no economy beyond oil and hardly anything outside of the capital city of Juba which deserves the name of "government." South Sudan belongs in the category of Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo -- epic undertakings in state-building into which billions of dollars seem to disappear like torrents of water in the desert.

Is the moral of the story that state-building, at least on an ambitious scale, is a contradiction in terms, best abandoned lest one raise expectations which cannot be satisfied? The only alternative conclusion is that halfway measures won't work.  A recent report by the International Crisis Group sharply criticizes the vast U.N. mission in South Sudan  for focusing on "the extension of state authority" rather than the tougher and more confrontational job of demanding accountability for state abuses and protecting civilians. Of course, the regime would have resisted, and U.N. headquarters might have ordered the mission to back off.

Perhaps the only way outside powers could have prevented South Sudan's leaders from making ruinous choices is to have made the choices for them. A U.N. "transitional administration" might have offered the South Sudanese desperately needed training in governance and slowly introduced its fighters to the uses of political authority. That system worked quite well in East Timor, though not so well in Kosovo, which spent over a decade in what felt like an infuriating tutelage. It has never even been attempted on a scale as large as South Sudan. I wonder if the world has the stomach for a heroic exercise in benevolent neo-colonialism.

The goal right now, however, is to stop the atrocities. The mass killing and rape in the town of Bentiu last month was coordinated by rebel commanders using a radio station to urge Nuers to target Dinka and other non-Nuer civilians. That, as the U.N. report noted, is an ominous sign redolent of Rwanda. Kiir and Machar have agreed to meet in Addis Ababa, but both men have ignored past agreements. Right now, South Sudan faces the very real possibility of both mass sectarian killing and a famine which could rival that which killed millions in Ethiopia 30 years ago -- all less than three years from that blissful celebration of shared sacrifice. If anyone emerges a winner, it's Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.

The sanctions announced by Obama are unlikely to have much effect, though they may help galvanize the U.N. Security Council to impose more sweeping punishments. If anyone can intercede effectively, it's probably South Sudan's neighbors. An East African regional group, IGAD, played the key role in crafting the 2005 pact, and has worn out much diplomatic shoe leather since then trying to keep the agreement on track. IGAD officials have spoken of assembling a peacekeeping force, though that would be many months off.

South Sudan is not a story of neglect -- quite the opposite. The United States, Britain, Norway, the U.N., and a number of states in East Africa, have all done what they can to care for this feeble infant. It hasn't been enough. There may be no enough. Preventing mass starvation and mass slaughter in South Sudan may be the best the world can do.

Correction, May 12, 2014: South Sudanese President Salva Kiir is from the Dinka ethnic group. Former South Sudanese Vice President Riek Machar is from the Nuer ethnic group. An earlier version of this article mistakenly reversed the ethnic affiliations. (Return to reading.)



The Lies We Tell Ourselves

Six grand illusions of America's foreign policy.

Life is full of illusions. We all need them to survive: Hard work and honesty really do guarantee success, we tell ourselves; I really am indispensable at work. But illusions seem particularly abundant in politics, policy, and governments' behavior -- where they do more harm than good.

On the domestic side, illusions keep turning up like weeds in a flower garden. Hardcore Democrats and Republicans believe that their respective parties have all the answers to what ails America, Tea Partiers yearn to recreate an America that is no longer practical or possible, GOP ideologues hype a fiscal fix that can somehow avoid both tax increases and entitlement reform, and Barack Obama's supporters and detractors respectively think he's either one of the greatest American presidents or the latest manifestation of Satan's finger on Earth.

Idealized conceptions of reality have long characterized American foreign policy, too. Here is a collection of my favorites, which have marked Democratic and Republican administrations alike.

"American foreign policy must be principled and consistent."

It's not and rarely is. We have upheld our principles in the past, and we will do so again in the future. But the world is just too complicated, the need for flexibility is too imperative, and American interests are too diverse ever to imagine doing so all the time. Even consistently supporting a set of general principles -- freedom and democracy, say -- is a bridge too far. We support an Arab Spring in Egypt (at least in the beginning), but not in strategically located countries like Bahrain; we intervene in Libya and overthrow the evil Muammar al-Qaddafi, but won't intervene in Syria to get rid of the equally evil Bashar al-Assad. We can talk to jihadists in Iraq and Afghanistan who have the blood of Americans on their hands -- but we'd never consider engaging with Hamas or Hezbollah.

Contradictions and hypocrisy are part of the job description of every great power -- and many smaller ones too. We can try to iron out the bumps, but holding out hope for consistency and principle? Give me a break. I'd be happy if every Democratic and Republican administration would mean what they say, say what they mean, and think carefully about the consequences of America's actions before they acted.

"The key question for U.S. action is: 'Can we do it?'"

There are bigger questions to ask. Too many times we act because we can, without thinking through the consequences or the objectives of what we're doing. We embark on massive nation-building efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan and try to make peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. Because hey, why not? We're America, and we need to fix things.

But capacity is hardly the only variable, particularly when military force is involved. There are at least three other central questions that need to be debated before we launch ourselves into any endeavor -- political or military. What are we doing it for? Should we be doing it? And what will it cost?

These questions are the holy trinity of foreign policy. Answering them won't guarantee success, but we have a better chance of reducing the odds of failure if we ask them. For a country now emerging from its two longest -- and arguably among its most profitless -- wars, they are now more imperative than ever.

"Trying and failing is better than not trying at all."

Not necessarily. The notion -- to quote both former President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State John Kerry -- that there's nothing wrong with being caught trying really is in need of some serious work. The old college try is precisely that -- it's appropriate for the Michigan Wolverines (Go Blue), but it's not a substitute for the foreign policy of the world's greatest power.

Failure has costs. So does inaction, to be sure. The two have to be constantly weighed against one another, and a balance has to be found. There is no way to guarantee success -- but if you're basing your approach on a wing and a prayer (see: the Iraq war, the 2000 Camp David peace summit, the Geneva peace talks on Syria), you're headed for trouble. Even the Camp David and Geneva talks might have been OK if we had some sort of plan B. But we didn't, and left the kind of vacuum that leads folks to believe (correctly) that we don't know what we're doing.

"Domestic politics and foreign policy should never mix."

Sure they do, and they must. Diplomats are generally purists on this subject: They hate domestic politics, and many also can't stand Congress. They view politics as a dirty affair compromising the nation's true interests, which only the foreign-policy elite can understand.

This is ridiculous. Domestic politics matters even in authoritarian societies -- who are we kidding to think it doesn't matter in a democracy, particular one in which power is diffused? In a democracy, a sustainable foreign policy depends on a sustainable domestic consensus. And that consensus is in turn shaped by many factors in our system -- public opinion, interest groups, lobbies, and the media.

It's a competition, really -- and it's in the very nature of our system. Get over it. Whining about domestic lobbies (see: AIPAC) makes little sense, as does blasting presidents when they turn to domestic politics because they have other priorities other than Middle East peace. Indeed, strong and willful presidents pursuing smart policies can hold their own -- even trump domestic pressures.

"It's the 21st century: Doesn't the rest of the world get it?"

No they don't. And it's perfectly understandable why. When Kerry talks about Russian President Vladimir Putin behaving in a 21st century world as if he were still living in the 19th century, I wonder if we really get it. America may not pay attention to history and geography, but other nations are bound by them.

9/11 notwithstanding, we are detached from the cruelties of the world in a way no other great power has ever been. We may ascribe to the notion that all countries have a stake in one another's success in this newly globalized world, and that concerns over political identity, survival, national honor, and dignity are relics of some long-forgotten world when dinosaurs walked the Earth. But just ask the Iranians, the Palestinians, the Egyptians, the Israelis, the Turks, or the Chinese whether they've gotten over the past and feel as secure and upbeat as we do in this supposedly reformed world.

I think the world is actually getting better and that the present has been informed positively by the lessons of history. But that doesn't mean the transition is complete or that the past doesn't cast a long shadow over the behavior of other nations or leaders.

"American exceptionalism is dead."

No it's not. It's just not for export. Travellers to the United States in the 19th century, from  Alexis de Tocqueville to Lord Bryce, reported the obvious: America was different from Europe. It is unique, really -- and that's still true today.

Three elements define American exceptionalism: The detachment and physical security that two oceans and weak neighbors provide, our physical size and abundance of resources, and a political system based on the idea that individuals really do matter and that they can advance by virtue of their merit. No other democracy in the world today could have elected a man of color and made him the most powerful leader in the world. The Brits couldn't elect a man of color to lead them; nor could the French, the Australians, or the Israelis.

None of this makes us morally superior, nor the keepers of good governance. But it can position us well to be a force for good in the world. What we need to understand is that our exceptionalism is idiosyncratic: It cannot be shipped abroad as a model for others to follow. We get ourselves into trouble when we lecture the rest of the world about how they should try to be like us and follow what has worked for us. The best we can do is to use our power to help create an environment in which countries are free to make their own choices consistent with their values, history, and geography. And as we now see with Ukraine and Syria, that's easier said than done.

* * *

I'm under no illusion that we're going to give up our illusions anytime soon. Most of these flow from the most basic of conditions -- who we are, or at least who we think we are, and our own conception of America. These kinds of things don't change easily, or sometimes at all. We're preternaturally optimistic, hypocritically principled, convinced we're morally superior, incredibly judgmental, and at times quite pragmatic. This mix can make us insufferable, endearing -- and quite influential, too. Indeed, when we articulate a clear foreign-policy objective, get the means and ends right, are risk-ready, and don't allow our aims to exceed our capacity, we can actually accomplish quite a bit (see: Jimmy Carter's mediation for an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, or Bush 41's Iraq war).

But who are we kidding? Those are the exceptions not the rule. Most of the time, we're flapping around and just trying to get by -- caught up in a world that's largely beyond our capacity to control. We may wish it weren't so, but I think many of us are secretly relieved that our days of trying to save the world are over -- at least for a while.

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