How do you deal with a genocidal dictator who says he wants to reform?
For more than a decade, Sudan has been the quintessential pariah state. Its armed forces carried out a campaign of genocide in Darfur, killing more than 300,000; its president, Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir, has been indicted for crimes against humanity. The Khartoum regime waged a long and unsuccessful war to prevent its non-Arab south from seceding; now that the new nation of South Sudan is independent, the regime is still attacking suspected separatists in areas under its control. Sudan even landed on the official U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, in part because it sheltered Osama bin Laden during the 1990s.
That's why it might have seemed a little jarring last week to hear the top U.S. negotiator with Sudan express a degree of sympathy for the Khartoum regime.
"The government has a legitimate complaint" about rebel groups in Darfur that have refused to talk peace, envoy Princeton Lyman told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "You can't expect the government to come to the table to talk about [rebel demands for] overthrowing the regime."
The committee's chairman, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), agreed. The United States can't hold Khartoum solely accountable, he said, "if the players in Darfur aren't choosing to be part of the process."
Kerry and Lyman weren't defending the Khartoum government across the board; far from it. They both insisted that the array of U.S. sanctions on Sudan should remain in place until Bashir has done more to make peace, beginning with resolving his government's remaining disputes with South Sudan.
Here's the U.S. dilemma: No one likes dealing with Bashir or his regime; they'd prefer to see him gone. But as a practical matter, they don't have much choice, for a lot of reasons. Economic sanctions have squeezed the regime but haven't come close to bringing it down. No Western power has been willing to consider military intervention. So to bring peace to South Sudan and Darfur, the Obama administration has had to offer Khartoum positive incentives — promises that sanctions could be lifted if Sudan's behavior improves.
Besides, Bashir isn't the only threat to peace. One of the Obama administration's worries is that the strongest rebel group in Darfur, the Justice and Equality Movement, backed by Libya's Moammar Kadafi, hopes to form an alliance with southern separatists and launch a wider war. That's why Lyman and Kerry were willing to take Khartoum's side on the issue of the Darfur negotiations.
Bashir, who seized power in 1989, is no liberal; he's a wily survivor. He says he wants to normalize his relationship with the United States and the outside world, and under pressure from international sanctions he's taken halting steps toward moderation. But every step has come slowly and painfully, and often with actions that diluted their impact.
Bashir didn't want to grant South Sudan its independence, but once secession was inevitable, he accepted the outcome and even attended last weekend's independence ceremonies. At the same time, he escalated conflicts along the new nation's border, moving troops into the disputed region of Abyei and stepping up attacks on separatists — and civilians — in the Nuba Mountains.
He has presided over a de-escalation of the Sudanese military campaign in Darfur and participated in peace negotiations with rebel groups there. But he has also pursued a divide-and-conquer strategy to prevent the rebels from unifying. His regime signed a peace agreement last week with one small rebel faction, but it simultaneously increased military pressure on larger groups like the Justice and Equality Movement.
Apparently rattled by the Arab Spring revolts in neighboring Egypt and Libya, and defensive about his loss of South Sudan, Bashir has proclaimed that Sudan must now become a "second republic," complete with a new constitution, a "guarantee of citizens rights" and "a commitment to the rule of law." But he hasn't loosened the grip of his security forces or taken any concrete steps toward liberalization.
He has, however, broken Sudan's ties with Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. U.S. officials say Sudan has become an active partner of the United States in counter-terrorism, providing help not only inside its borders but elsewhere in the Arab world.
These moves helped earn Bashir a promise that the Obama administration would review Sudan's place on the terrorism list — and presumably remove it as long as Khartoum carries out the terms of its peace agreement with South Sudan.
Bashir claims he's already kept his side of the deal by allowing South Sudan to achieve independence. The administration says it's waiting for the two Sudans to settle their unresolved disputes. At some point, however, the administration will have to decide whether Bashir has reformed enough to merit a partial relaxation of U.S. sanctions.
There is an alternative.
Instead of pursuing continued piecemeal negotiations with an unpalatable regime over its many regional disputes, the administration could focus instead on changing the regime itself.
"It's time to move in a more radical direction," urges John Prendergast, a former Clinton administration official who works on the issue at a Democratic think tank, the Center for American Progress, and advised film star George Clooney during his travels to Darfur. "The problem is the regime in Khartoum. We've taken action in Egypt, Libya and now Syria; the next target should be Sudan."
But regime change is a high-risk, high-cost strategy, and the United States is already stretched among three wars. This is a choice between the unpalatable and the impractical.
It makes sense to keep negotiating — and to take Sudan off the terrorism list as soon as U.S. conditions are met. As a factual matter, it no longer belongs there. The administration promised to review the issue if Bashir fulfilled the peace agreement with South Sudan; failure to deliver would convince Sudan's leaders that U.S. promises are empty. Even if Sudan comes off the terrorism list, other sanctions, stemming from the war in Darfur, will still apply.
It's true that Sudan needs a new and better regime. But as we've learned in Egypt, Libya, Syria and Iran, regime change isn't a goal that outside powers can force. For now, negotiations with Bashir, difficult and frustrating as they are, are the only path available.