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America's Obama and Sudan's Bashir: Let's Make a Deal

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Barack Obama and Omar al-Bashir seem unlikely bedfellows. At least I thought so when I voted for Obama in November 2008. As we all know, Obama is the President of the United States of America and the leader of the free world. Bashir is the President of Sudan and an indicted war criminal responsible for 300,000 deaths and the displacement of three million more in Darfur, and for the earlier deaths of two million people in South Sudan.

Obama's words on the campaign trail led me to believe that he would take firm and decisive action once elected to pressure Bashir and the Sudanese government to end the killing in Sudan and make reparations to the millions of people they had victimized. I, along with many voters, believed that the United States, under the leadership of Barack Obama and supported by Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, would work assiduously to ensure that both peace and justice would come to Sudan. All three leaders, as candidates, emphasized that the U.S. has a moral obligation to do what it can to end genocide and other mass atrocities.

However, since taking office, Obama's Sudan strategy appears to be based on appeasing Bashir rather than pressuring him to stop ongoing human rights violations or, better yet, bringing him to The Hague to face justice. While in other arenas Obama seems to carefully study history and seek the counsel of a wide range of experts, on Sudan he seems blind to the lessons of the past or unwilling to accept their implications.

Sudan experts like John Prendergast, Eric Reeves and Roger Winter all agree that using clear pressures to ensure strict accountability to established benchmarks is the only approach that has induced desirable behavior by Bashir in the past. However, the U.S. heralds every new agreement signed by this dishonorable actor as a show of progress. It remains a mystery whether this reflects official U.S. Sudan policy since the Administration has not disclosed clear benchmarks to measure progress in Sudan nor the pressures and incentives it will use to help influence positive change.

I was puzzled when Obama hand-picked Retired General Scott Gration as his special envoy to manage the Sudan portfolio since Gration had neither diplomatic experience nor knowledge about Sudan. My puzzlement soon turned to dismay as the General's personal diplomacy philosophy became clear. Gration believes that "cookies and gold stars" are the best approach to influence a war criminal and has repeatedly put talk of sanctions relief on the table even in the midst of ongoing killings in Darfur.

Gration's performance as envoy has understandably raised the ire of many who care about the future of Sudan and the fate of millions of displaced Darfuris. The New Republic has labeled him "an embarrassment." Roger Winter calls him "the Agent of this tragedy." A group of 38 US and Darfuri human rights groups have strenuously asked Obama to relieve Gration of his duties, following a highly questionable "off the record" meeting he had with Darfuri expatiates in which he reportedly told them that the government of Sudan had not intended to kill Darfuri civilians during the genocide.

Since Gration continues in his post and without any course correction, one must conclude that his conciliatory approach is in line with Obama's beliefs about the appropriate course of action in Sudan. Winter, a former State Department official, aptly states, "The internal disputes on Sudan policy at senior levels of his Administration guarantee that the President is fully aware of what the Special Envoy is doing. That is clearly a major factor in why Vice-President Biden, Senator John Kerry, Secretary Hillary Clinton, have all now all turned on their own public record on Sudan of years past."

Particularly worrisome is the latest "truce," heralded in the media and by Gration, which led Bashir to announce that the war in Darfur is over. There is a big problem with this "agreement." It cuts out most Darfuris, including more than three million trapped in dangerous and squalid camps. As Julie Flint, another Sudan expert, rightly asks in a recent post, "Where in all this brouhaha is the resolution of the conflict? The gains for the NCP and JEM are obvious. But where are the gains for the people of Darfur?"

It's hardly surprising that Bashir is anxious to "make nice" in advance of the April elections which he would hopes will legitimize his Presidency. His insincere performance seems to be convincing the United States and the international community that they should continue supporting clearly rigged elections in Sudan. Citizens across the United States have been coming together to call this election what it is, a sham, and call on the US to withhold support unless conditions are met for a free and fair election. Until a valid census is taken, Sudanese are properly registered, candidates can campaign freely, and all of Sudan's citizens are safe and able to vote without coercion or fear of reprisals, those conditions will not be satisfied.

If Bashir's motivation to make a deal is obvious, Obama's is not. Some have imagined that the US is trading off peace and protection for Darfur in a convoluted play to somehow support the interests of South Sudan and its referendum on independence coming up in January 2010. However, Sudan experts like Winter recognize that US support for Bashir is in fact "selling South Sudan down the river," as well. I cannot fathom why Barack Obama is allowing, or perhaps facilitating, this headlong rush toward appeasement and legitimacy for a man who he has said committed genocide. My only explanation is that he must be willing to sacrifice the fate of over three million Darfuris and perhaps millions of other Sudanese for some grand vision of improved relations with the Muslim world. Is that what he meant during the campaign when he spoke of extending an open hand? I never expected it would mean the betrayal of America's commitment to its Responsibility to Protect.

Like me, Gamal Adam, an Adjunct Professor at University of San Francisco also has many questions for Obama:

One wonders what will be written on the pages of history about Darfur. Will it be that the world abandoned innocent people to be slaughtered while a mockery of negotiations took place in Doha and Chad? Will it be that news-agencies reported on the so called elections while the Sudanese government carried out its plan to annihilate an entire ethnic group? Will it be that the international community facilitated peace talks for their own interests with the very same group of fundamentalists that it is fighting the war on terror against? Will it be that in the 21st century long after the hard fought campaigns to end slavery that a new form of enslavement of the people of Darfur is happening under the nose of the first African American President? These questions remain to be answered.

I hope that the President will answer our questions soon, and answer them as he promised he would before we elected him President.