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A Sudan Policy Review with Life or Death Implications

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By John Prendergast

The Obama administration is in the midst of a contentious review of its Sudan policy, which was the subject of three hearings on July 29 and 30 on Capitol Hill. The outcome of the debate will help determine the future of millions of people from Sudan and the surrounding region.

At the July 29 Africa Subcommittee hearing, members heard a bipartisan critique of the current direction of U.S. policy towards Sudan. Rich Williamson, Roger Winter and I all have negotiated extensively with the regime in Sudan, have roughly a combined six decades in working on or in Sudan, and have a very clear idea of what is required for lasting peace to have a chance in that embattled country.

This hearing comes at a moment in Sudan's history fraught with danger and potential. There is no effective peace process for Darfur, but one could be built with U.S. leadership. The CPA is on the brink, but could be salvaged if U.S. engagement deepens. Next year's elections are at risk, but could become an important opportunity to strengthen opposition parties and democratic structures crucial for the referendum and for Sudan's political future. The referendum itself is doubtful, but its prospects could be enhanced with a credible international roadmap.

The major unknown variable that will help determine whether the dangers or the opportunities get maximized is the unresolved internal debate over the direction of U.S. policy towards Sudan. In the absence of any agreement on the policy, U.S. diplomatic engagement has been energetic, for which Special Envoy Scott Gration should be credited. But the substance of this robust engagement has been fraught with missteps, lack of internal coordination, and an overall aversion to pressuring the ruling National Congress Party (NCP). Sustained pressure leveraged by meaningful and focused sticks is the principal tool that has moved the NCP to change its behavior during the twenty years of its authoritarian rule. This substantial track record of empirical evidence of the value of pressure makes the direction of U.S. diplomacy all the more questionable.

In fact, Special Envoy Gration has stated that "right now we are looking at carrots and looking proactively." That is the wrong message to be sending the NCP. They will eat those carrots and continue with the deadly status quo in Darfur and the South.

There is also a broader inconsistency in U.S. foreign policy when it comes to Sudan. The Obama administration has resolutely worked to craft more formidable international coalitions to isolate North Korea and Iran for important U.S. policy objectives. However, the U.S. is not doing the same for Sudan, despite the existence of a regime there that is responsible directly or indirectly for the loss of two and a half million lives in the South and Darfur.

A Better Way Forward for U.S. Policy

In the context of its policy review, President Obama should spell out a clear path forward for U.S. policy, consistent with the positions that he has taken previously as a senator and presidential candidate, and also consistent with positions taken in their previous incarnations by Vice President Biden, Secretary Clinton, and Ambassador Rice.

1) U.S. leadership in constructing a more effective Darfur peace process, using as a model the process that led to the CPA involving a lead role for the U.S. and a multilateral support structure that provided international leverage, expertise, and support;

2) U.S. leadership in supporting the implementation of the CPA, continuing the trend of deeper engagement over the last few months but structuring clear penalties for non-implementation of any of the key provisions;

3) U.S. leadership in supporting the democratic transformation of Sudan by supporting the electoral process, providing institutional support to opposition parties and civil society organizations, and building the capacity of the Government of Southern Sudan;

4) U.S. leadership in preparations for the South's referendum in 2011, which will be a make-or-break process for the future of both North and South.

5) U.S. leadership in support of accountability. The ICC indictment of President Bashir is a crucial opportunity to address the cycle of impunity that has fueled some of the worst war crimes in the world. Sweeping violent history under the rug ensures its continuation.

The essential word that repeats throughout all these goals is "leadership." U.S. leadership - multilaterally and when necessary unilaterally - will be an enormously influential ingredient in a successful transition to peace and democracy in Sudan.

But success will require greater leverage than that which presently exists. The debate internally within the U.S. government in part rests on the degree to which incentives or pressures ought to be favored instruments for changing the behavior of the Sudanese regime, the Darfur rebels, and the GOSS. It is the view of this panel and the activist organizations that comprise the Darfur movement that the way forward should involve deeper diplomatic engagement that is rooted in multilateral pressures and the credible threat of significant consequences for policies or actions by Sudanese parties that undermine peace efforts and lead to worsening humanitarian conditions. In the absence of these pressures, and if incentives are all that are put forward, then failure is guaranteed. For example, the U.S. appears more interested in negotiating the implementation of the provisions of the CPA that have already been painfully negotiated, rather than marshalling the international coalition necessary to pressure the parties to implement what they have already agreed.

Success will also require the construction of credible and effective processes that allow for the achievement of U.S. policy goals. First and foremost, the glaring lack of an effective peace process for Darfur calls out for greater U.S. leadership in constructing from the existing elements a revitalized process that has the chance of ending Darfur's war. Secondly, the U.S. should intensify its early efforts to revive the CPA and back these efforts with the construction of clear multilateral consequences for violations or non-implementation of key elements of the deal.

The bottom line is that there must be consequences for committing atrocities and for undermining peace. An incentives only strategy will guarantee failure.