MAY 10, 2010: Split In U.S. Policy Threatens Peace

Split In U.S. Policy Threatens Peace
SOURCE: East African (Nairobi)
By Kevin Kelly
New York — Sharp differences inside the Obama administration over Sudan are producing a weak US response to the intensifying threat of renewed north-south warfare, a coalition of advocacy groups and a leading US lawmaker charged last week.

President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton must take full control of a strengthened US policy toward Sudan, the critics urge, charging that the president’s special envoy, Scott Gration, has been too soft in his dealings with Sudanese leaders in Khartoum.

A tougher approach promised months ago by the Obama administration has failed to materialise, the advocacy groups noted in a report.

“There are virtually no indications that the administration has held any of the parties to account for their actions since the policy review was announced, and senior administration officials appear badly divided on their approach to Sudan,” said the groups’ assessment.

Representative Frank Wolf, one of the US Congress’ leading voices on Sudan, added in a letter to President Obama that Mr Gration, “with your apparent blessing,” has misjudged the nature of the Khartoum regime.

Mr Wolf echoed the activist groups in suggesting that Mrs Clinton should take the reins of US-Sudan policy.
Mrs Clinton acknowledged during a television interview last week that she is “certainly not satisfied” with the Obama administration’s record to date on Sudan.

A more muscular American stance could include a warning that the US will “take out chunks of the North’s air force,” if Khartoum begins bombing villages in the South, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, a recent visitor to Sudan, wrote.

The US should strengthen Southern Sudan’s military capabilities, Congressman Wolf added in a May 5 press conference on Capitol Hill.

He also called on President Obama to reject the outcome of Sudan’s recent presidential elections, which many observers say were not free or fair.

The voting was won handily by President Omar al-Bashir, who stands accused of war crimes by the International Criminal Court.

Mrs Clinton had earlier said that Sudan’s election was “by any measure...flawed.” But, she added, the US goal had been in part to “try to empower opposition parties, empower people to go out and vote.”

The advocacy groups responded that the Obama administration’s muted response to complaints of rigging showed it was prepared to accept “practically any process at the ballot box” for the sake of facilitating the planned referendum early next year on independence for Southern Sudan.

These clashing perspectives reflect an underlying disagreement on how to deal with President al-Bashir.

Mrs Clinton offered a rationale for the American diplomatic approach during her TV interview. The Obama administration “could back off and say, ‘We won’t deal with these people, we’re not going to have anything to do with them, al-Bashir is a war criminal.’ I don’t think that will improve the situation. So along with our partners — the UK, Norway, neighbouring countries — we are trying to manage what is a very explosive problem.”

The Secretary of State added, however, with regard to President al-Bashir, “He is an indicted war criminal. The United States is very committed to seeing him brought to justice.”

All eyes are now turning to the likelihood that East Africa’s biggest country will split in two next year – if Southern Sudan is able to hold the referendum that is expected to produce an overwhelming vote for secession.

Times columnist Kristof took note of “a strong belief in the South that the North is planning to nurture tribal conflicts by handing out guns and encouraging grievances, so that the South will be too chaotic to hold the referendum on time.”

The Washington-based advocacy groups meanwhile cautioned that “the referendum is a ‘redline’” for Southern Sudan’s leadership. “Any delay in the holding of the referendum could immediately spark a return to war,” the groups’ report warned.

The focus on the referendum, due to take place in eight months, has distracted attention from the ongoing conflict in Sudan’s western region, Darfur.

Mrs Clinton said the Obama administration has helped make it possible for aid organisations to resume their services to displaced people in Darfur.

“We’re beginning to see some slight progress in Darfur,” she said in last week’s interview.

The advocacy groups, including the Save Darfur coalition, offer a more pessimistic assessment.

They say continued fighting between rebel forces and Khartoum’s troops — as well as within the rebels’ own ranks — make it unlikely that a lasting peace agreement will be reached any time soon.