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“Is President Obama’s Sudan Policy Becoming One of Capitulation?”

By Eric Reeves,
April 28, 2009

In April 2008 candidate Barack Obama described the Bush administration’s move to normalize relations with the Khartoum regime in Sudan as a “reckless and cynical initiative,” rewarding a brutal junta with a “record of failing to live up to its commitments.” Yet in April 2009 President Obama is engaged in an effort precisely to normalize relations with these same men---men he and his advisors have repeatedly described as guilty of ongoing genocide. We can’t know what precisely was agreed upon when newly appointed special envoy Scott Gration traveled to Khartoum in early April, but we learn a good deal about the tenor of discussions from Gration’s words on arrival: he declared that he came “with my hands open,” hoping Khartoum would “respond with a hand of friendship.” Like all Americans, Gration continued, Ana ahib Sudan, or “I love Sudan.”

Here we must hope that Gration would distinguish sharply between the long-suffering people of Sudan and the cabal of génocidaires who rule Sudan and last month (March 4) expelled thirteen international aid organizations from Darfur, representing over half the total humanitarian capacity for a desperate population of some 4.7 million conflict-affected civilians. The UN estimates that of 2.7 million internally displaced persons, over 1 million will have no access to food, clean water, and primary medical care by May. Conditions have already deteriorated badly in some camps for displaced Darfuri civilians, particularly water and sanitation, and the hunger gap and rainy season loom ever closer. Numerous reports from the ground suggest that the stop-gap measures mounted so far have still left effective humanitarian capacity at only slightly more than 50 percent of pre-March 4 levels.

Faced with the first critical challenge posed by Darfur, Obama has capitulated, deciding that “normalized relations” with Khartoum aren’t such a bad idea after all. We are still missing many details of this new policy, but most notable is its timing, coming at the very moment in which the international community, preeminently the US, must decide whether to resist Khartoum’s latest effort at blackmail. For the regime has turned to advantage the March 4 announcement by the International Criminal Court of an arrest warrant charging regime President Omar al-Bashir with war crimes and crimes against humanity. Long anticipated, though with far too little planning by the Obama administration and its Western allies, the ICC announcement has served as the perfect pretext for Khartoum to expel aid organizations it had long wished to see gone. Predictably, even further expulsions are the blackmailing threat against robust actions by international actors.

Following Gration to Khartoum, and clearly representing the Obama administration, was John Kerry, Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Kerry went even further in signaling that the US was prepared to grant Khartoum more of what it has sought for many years---including a removal from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism:

“Kerry, who says a new dialogue has been brought about by Obama's special Sudan envoy Scott Gration, suggested diplomacy could eventually result in a lifting of sanctions against Sudan and its removal from a US list of state sponsors of terrorism. ‘Absolutely. That is entirely on the table. I can't tell you when, that's a decision President Obama makes,’ said Kerry.” (Reuters [dateline: el-Fasher], April 17, 2009)

This was precisely the feature of Bush administration overtures that so exercised candidate Obama.

In order to sell what will be for many Americans a betrayal of Darfur, Obama, Gration, and Kerry have in public commentary elided or ignored Khartoum’s brutal record of the past twenty years and finessed the question of how to provide aid to millions of people on the very cusp of survival. Moving from declaring in early March that the expulsion of aid groups was “not acceptable,” Obama now speaks nebulously of “find[ing] some mechanism whereby we avert an enormous humanitarian crisis." But as Khartoum has made plain, this “mechanism” will not include the expelled organizations, with their substantial resources (including Sudanese personnel) and their invaluable institutional knowledge of Darfur. The measures so far proposed are short-term and wholly inadequate in nature.

The deepening humanitarian crisis facing the people of Darfur is obvious to all who will honestly look, and so it is either cynicism or willful ignorance that led Kerry to declare on April 17, “We have agreement [with Khartoum] that in the next weeks we will be back to 100 percent capacity.” In fact, the text of the agreement is shockingly glib, consisting of little more than exhortations and general ambitions; there are no mechanisms of enforcement or assessment, no articulation of consequences for non-adherence.

Even ignoring Khartoum’s long history of reneging on agreements, the time-frame specified in the Kerry agreement (dated April 10, 2009) is simply impossible, as all in the aid community recognize---even with a complete re-admission of all expelled groups. And despite various commitments made by the regime in the agreement document, evidence points to Khartoum’s continuing restriction of humanitarian access and compromising of working conditions. Many expelled aid workers, on leaving Sudan, speak of Khartoum’s “extortion” of humanitarian assets; Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres went so far as to declare Khartoum was holding aid workers “hostage” (UN Integrated Regional Information Networks [dateline: Cairo], April 24, 2009). For his part, Gration baldly declared, “We have to come up with a solution on the ground within the next few weeks” (Agence France-Presse [dateline: Khartoum], April 4, 2009). But a “few weeks” later it is clear that there is no “solution” in sight for Darfur. Instead, it has become obvious that the Obama administration doesn’t recognize that the problem is not “on the ground,” it is in the genocidal politics in Khartoum---politics that have now been given much freer reign as the regime senses that it will face no effective pressure to restore fully the previous humanitarian capacity.

Nor is anyone in the Obama administration addressing the disastrous consequences of the humanitarian expulsions from Eastern Sudan or the marginalized areas close to the north/south border (Southern Blue Nile, Abyei, Southern Kordofan, including the Nuba Mountains). Several of the thirteen expelled organizations had a disproportionately important role in providing assistance to these extremely needy areas, and many of the critical projects---providing food, water, education, primary medical care, and livelihood assistance---have been shut down. Little reported, this “other catastrophe” has received no meaningful attention from the Obama administration, a fact not lost on Khartoum.

The change in the Obama policy is an expedient substitute for the hard diplomatic work that should have begun during his transition. Forceful negotiations with China, Khartoum’s enabling ally; securing more support from a fitfully engaged European Union; vigorously pressuring Egypt, which dominates Sudan policy in the Arab League; engaging with sympathetic countries in the African Union (e.g., Senegal, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, possibly the new president of South Africa). There is no substitute for concerted, intense diplomatic pressure on Khartoum because at this point in the crisis there are no military options available that don’t pose unacceptable risks to civilians, humanitarians, and peacekeepers on the ground. But this does not dictate the easy course of capitulation. The diplomatic energies required are certainly daunting. But in their absence, Khartoum will have prevailed by outwaiting and finally blackmailing the international community. This development bodes ongoing catastrophe throughout Sudan.

[Eric Reeves is author of A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide]

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