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Obama's Sudan Policy Imperative

Nina Shea & Leonard Leo

Ret.General Scott Gration, President Obama’s new special envoy on Sudan, faces baptism by fire. He visits Sudan this week in the hope of resolving an aid crisis in which over a million Darfur refugees are being brought to the brink of death by the expulsion in March of a dozen international relief agencies. Sudan’s President Omar Bashir is holding these western Sudanese hostage in retaliation for an International Criminal Court indictment against him for war crimes against those very same tribes.

But while Gration tackles how to get food and medicine back into Darfur, he confronts an even larger imperative. Sudan’s crucial Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005 (CPA) is now also endangered.

The ICC arrest warrant has been a “game changer” but not in quite the way international law proponents intended. Instead of strengthening Khartoum’s moderates, it has backfired with the ruthless Bashir winning over friends through his army’s control of rich oil fields in South Sudan and his open identification with Islamist extremism. Powerful UN blocs—the Arab League, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), the Organization of African Unity (OAU)—and China side with him. Confidence renewed, Bashir seems poised to break the historic peace agreement that ended a long civil war between that country’s north and south. Should this agreement fall apart, Sudan will once again become a nation-wide humanitarian catastrophe and an international security threat.

At her confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that ensuring implementation of Sudan’s CPA would be for her a “top priority.” This obscure accord in an African backwater may seem an odd choice, but, in fact, Mrs. Clinton laid down a critical marker for the administration.

The product of four years of intense international diplomacy led by the United States, the CPA advances American interests on many levels. The North-South peace agreement is of paramount importance, not only for the South but the entire country because of the political restructuring it entails. It mandates national and regional elections in mid-2009 and a referendum in the South on independence in 2011.

Undeniably, the CPA has been a signal humanitarian victory. The toll of what was then Africa’s longest running conflict had been staggering. Two million—mostly Christian and animist Southern civilians—had been killed, four million, displaced, and hundreds of thousands, enslaved. Renewed war would result in a humanitarian crisis that would dwarf Darfur’s by several orders of magnitude.

Apart from Darfur’s current aid crisis, there’s also the conflict in Darfur that has taken some 300,000 lives and displaced 2.5 million. During the Bush years this was a passionate, rallying cause for liberal activists, some of whom now are well-placed in the Obama administration. The need to resolve it remains.

Persuading Darfur’s parties to agree on peace would be inconceivable were Khartoum to discard the CPA.

The CPA is in addition a bulwark against the spread of Islamist extremism. The agreement recognizes the South’s autonomy, thus freeing it from Islamist courts. It was Khartoum’s imposition of sharia, replete with stonings and amputations, that sparked the South’s rebellion in the 1980s. Bashir prosecuted the North’s fight by calling for “jihad.” When Nuba Muslims refused to heed the call, he solicited a fatwa pronouncing them apostate and authorizing their slaughter. South Sudan now embraces religious freedom and pluralism, and aspires to Western-style democracy.

The South—the site of 85 percent of Sudan’s oil—is now jihad-free, in contrast to the North. Formerly a bin Laden refuge, the North today reportedly sponsors ten other jihadist training camps and remains on the U.S. list of terrorist states. In the wake of the ICC action, Khartoum hosted a solidarity visit by a senior delegation of Iranian, Syrian, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah officials. American and Israeli analysts revealed last week that a 17-truck convoy that had been bombed in northern Sudan in January was apparently transporting arms to Hamas from Iran and was bombed by Israel. Sub-Saharan Africa’s vulnerability to terrorism had been a special concern of Susan Rice’s before becoming Obama’s UN ambassador. As she must know, the CPA curbs the spread of Islamist terror across Sudan’s southern border, and limits Bashir’s terrorist state from having total control of the country’s oil revenues.

The best way of reining in Bashir is by supporting the CPA and the best way of doing that is by bolstering the still-shattered South.

The Obama administration should immediately establish security guarantees for the South, and strengthen its defensive capacities to raise the costs of any relapse into aggression by Khartoum. In a recent meeting, South Sudan’s President Salva Kir expressed his anxiety over the population’s vulnerability to air strikes. He pleaded for such basics as radar—lacking even in southern airports—and communications equipment.

Voting on independence rings hollow if the South cannot stand on its own. America generously provides humanitarian aid. It should now help it develop the basis of a modern economy. On a recent visit, amidst the squalor, Juba’s marketplace could be seen bustling with women and children whose expressions and cadence reflect that resilient people’s determination and optimism. Without an elementary banking system to foster capital formation and extend credit, however, development beyond the vegetable market will stall.

The South’s infrastructure, especially its educational and legal systems, is in dire shape. The reopened Juba University is the region’s sole institution of higher learning. With instruction now in English instead of Arabic, the university has no books published within the last decade, no computers, and a dearth of teachers. There are no law schools and a visit to the Supreme Court “library” reveals a solitary, dog-eared legal handbook relied on by both judges and lawyers.

South Sudan’s needs are great but it is in American interests to ensure the CPA fulfills its promise of a durable and just peace. The ICC decision is a strategic blunder that exponentially complicates Gen. Gration’s job. He deserves the full support of the Obama administration. Before her confirmation, Secretary Clinton unequivocally prioritized the CPA. Her seriousness and that of the administration’s is now being put to the test.

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