Soft on Sudan?


One might consider the advocacy groups working to solve humanitarian crises overseas to be a fairly liberal bunch, but at least one such foreign policy lobby seemed happier with President George W. Bush than with his successor: the organizations aiming to halt the genocide and ongoing refugee crisis in Sudan’s Darfur region. Last week they launched an advertising campaign criticizing the Obama administration’s inattention to Sudan, where a war criminal wanted by the International Criminal Court was recently named president after a sham election.

Their exasperation with President Obama centers on the approach taken by U.S. envoy to Sudan Scott Gration, who mostly looked the other way as the Sudanese government and its ruling party intimidated opposition figures and independent journalists in the run-up to the April elections. After Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir, who as Sudan’s unelected president orchestrated the slaughter in Darfur, retained his seat with 68% of the vote, Gration acknowledged that the balloting was flawed but said it was a necessary step toward political transformation. Many advocacy groups believe that by coddling Bashir, Gration is only encouraging Sudan’s leaders to flout international law.

Last month’s elections were only the prelude to a much more important vote in January, when a referendum will be held on secession by southern Sudan. The north and south ended a vicious 22-year civil war in 2005, and the fighting could be reignited if anything interferes with the referendum. Gration appears to have made a trade-off: give Bashir his bogus election if it prevents Khartoum from blocking the secession vote. But Gration’s critics think his tacit acceptance will embolden Bashir to tamper with the referendum.

Who’s right? It’s a tough call, but perhaps not the most relevant question; we doubt that Bashir cares one way or another about Gration’s stance on Sudanese elections. Yet it’s true that the Obama administration has been unpardonably lax in pursuing its own policy goals for Sudan, such as holding the country’s leaders responsible for their repressive or murderous actions and proposing incentives or sanctions to influence their behavior. A multination diplomatic drive focused on Sudan should be at or near the top of the priority list for Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Few places in the world present such an imminent danger of devastating conflict, and although the United States might have little sway in Khartoum, it has a lot of influence with countries that do, notably Egypt. The administration has only a few months to try to head off a war that would inflame not just Africa’s largest country but the surrounding region.