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Obama opts for compromise on Sudan

By Kim Ghattas
BBC News, Washington

It has become a familiar refrain coming out of Washington - incentives for progress or threats of action if there is no movement towards peace, better human rights or de-nuclearisation.

Omar al-Bashir (209)
Mr Bashir has been indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal

Whether on Burma, Iran or now Sudan, the US government is taking a similar approach to widely different countries and problems.

The "carrot and stick" approach is not a novel foreign policy strategy.

But unlike the Bush administration - which in some cases used only sticks - Washington is now adopting this approach with varying degrees to tackle most foreign policy challenges, delivering on President Barack Obama's promise to engage with foes, if they unclench their fist.

However in the case of Sudan it actually comes in direct contradiction with what Mr Obama had said during the presidential campaign.

He used tough words, calling for a no-fly zone over the western Sudanese region of Darfur to protect civilians there and suggested harsher oil sanctions, while his running mate, Joseph Biden, said he did not "have the stomach for genocide".

'Rift'

But the lofty promises of a presidential campaign soon clashed with the harsh reality on the ground.

The horrors of Darfur caused a deep rift within the new administration, as idealists and pragmatists debated for months whether the genocide was continuing - a position strongly supported by the US representative at the UN, Susan Rice - or whether we were seeing "the remnants of genocide", in the words of the US special envoy for Sudan, Scott Gration.

I'm not saying genocide is over. What I'm saying is that my focus is on recovery
Scott Gration
US special envoy for Sudan

An estimated 300,000 people have been killed in the conflict since 2003, many at the hand of government-backed militias. Activists argue that genocide is continuing, even though there have been no mass killings recently.

But the debate went further, with some suggesting the US should impose tougher sanctions on the government in Khartoum and President Omar al-Bashir, a man indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court.

Others argued it was time to engage, saying sanctions were hurting the people, further destabilising Darfur, and endangering a peace agreement between north and south Sudan.

"I'm not saying genocide is over. What I'm saying is that my focus is on recovery," said Mr Gration told a Senate hearing in August.

"My view is that to get involved in a debate that is not required is not going to fix the situation, which is required."

'No option'

Nine months after Mr Obama's inauguration, the results of the battle between idealism and pragmatism were delivered as his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, the ambassador to the UN, and the special envoy to Sudan, stood side by side in an attempt to present a united front.

It was a compromise - a mix of pressure and engagement, the threat of sanctions but the promise of incentives if Sudan ended the violence.

Hillary Clinton: "Backsliding by any party will be met by credible pressure"

Mrs Clinton summed up the rationale behind the strategy when she said: "Sitting on the sidelines is not an option."

In a statement, President Obama said the US and the international community had to act with a sense of urgency to seek a definitive end to conflict.

The lists of incentives and potential political and economic sanctions are detailed in a classified annex of the policy paper.

When a state department official was asked whether those had been shared with the Sudanese government, he replied that Sudan knew what the US wanted and the US knew what Khartoum wanted.

This seems to indicate that the main incentive would be the eventual lifting of some sanctions imposed in the 1990s in response to Sudan's alleged support for terrorism.

Sudan would also seek its removal from the US state department's list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Mrs Clinton used tough language as well as the word "genocide", which will placate critics of engagement.

Susan Rice
Susan Rice says President Obama's strategy is smart, tough and balanced

"Backsliding by any party will be met with credible pressure in the form of disincentives leveraged by our government and our international partners," she warned.

But crucially, it is unclear what sort of pressure Washington would be willing to exert if the Sudanese government did not end the violence in Darfur.

Khartoum has reacted positively to the move, saying it is an improvement on past US policies, but a spokesman also said the use of the word genocide was "unfortunate".

Activists were divided between those who saw this as more effective approach and those who warned that Sudan only responded to tough pressure.

"President Obama's Sudan strategy is smart, tough and balanced," said Ms Rice.

"It takes a clear view of history, which reminds us that for years paths to peace have been littered with broken promises and unfulfilled commitments by the government of Sudan."

Fragile peace

But in some ways, because the details of the policy remain secret, it is difficult to assess exactly how much of it is new.

Towards the end, the Bush administration had moved in the direction of a more pragmatist policy as well. The main difference appears to be the tone of the Obama administration which is noticeably less strident.

[President Bashir] should get himself a good lawyer, present himself to the ICC and faces the charges that have been levelled against him
Senior US official

The administration also says its approach is more integrated, focusing not only on Darfur but also on the peace process between North and South.

It will seek to ensure the implementation of a fragile 2005 peace deal between Khartoum and the former southern rebels ahead of national elections next year and a 2011 referendum on southern secession.

"The strategy uses all elements of our nation's influence - diplomacy, defence, and development - to bring about stability, security, human rights, and opportunities for a better future in Sudan," said Mr Gration.

But the main pitfall of the strategy may be the approach to dealing with President Bashir. The Obama administration has said it will engage with the Sudanese government, but not with Mr Bashir directly.

One senior US official even said "he should get himself a good lawyer, present himself to the ICC and faces the charges that have been levelled against him".

This is an approach that appears to take into account possible internal divisions.

However, for now Mr Bashir remains the president and he could still refuse to allow progress without any rewards for him.



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