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Now We Need Presidential Leadership

Now that the dust is settling from the release of the Obama administration's Sudan strategy we can begin to assess the landscape. The greatest virtues of the strategy are that it lays out the path the administration intends to follow and provides a basis for the advocacy community to hold the administration accountable. At the same time, it makes clear that the U.S. policy can take different paths depending on the actions of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) and other actors. Although it provides principles for deciding what path to take, the decisions themselves have yet to be made. Our advocacy role will be to push President Obama and the administration to make the right decisions.

The basic guidelines for deciding which path to take seem right. In U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice's words, the focus will be on "concrete and tangible progress" before any incentives are provided. Moreover, the new U.S. policy provides clarity that not only will there be no rewards for the status quo, there will be consequences if it does not change for the better.

A huge open question is how engaged the President will be in implementing this new policy. His absence from the public roll-out was not encouraging. It sent a message to Khartoum and key heads of state around the world that he has delegated Sudan to others and that he does not plan to personally lead the effort to end the crisis in Darfur and promote peace in all of Sudan. A critical test of his commitment will be whether he makes Sudan a priority when he meets with Chinese President Hu Jintao in a few weeks. I for one will be watching closely, and calling him out if he doesn't.

As for the new strategy, one thing we should be clear about is that the issue has never been engagement or non-engagement with the NCP. Rather, it has been the terms of engagement, which for nine months have been totally unclear, even worrisome. Now the terms are clearer on paper; we will have to see in practice.

Another misunderstood issue has been the role of Special Envoy Scott Gration. Before release of the strategy, there was an understandable tendency to try to infer the terms of engagement from his public statements. Because many of those statements expressed optimism about Khartoum's responsiveness to incentives, the public was left to wonder if the Obama administration was focused only on incentives without requiring real change on the ground. We now know the store will not be given away unilaterally; the U.S. will "verify, then trust."

Although General Gration will play a leading role in implementing this strategy, it is clear that he does not have carte blanche. The strategy is a product of the interagency process and reflects the policy views of a range of officials. Going forward, progress on the ground (or lack thereof) and decisions on incentives and disincentives will be reviewed quarterly at a senior level.

Within that context, General Gration should be given the chance to implement this policy. Having heard him explain his views in greater detail than is conveyed in the media, I believe he has the potential to succeed in what is an enormously difficult mission. That is not to suggest that we always see eye-to-eye - we definitely do not. But he is clear-eyed about the dangerous characters he is dealing with. And he is committed to pursuing the policy set by the President.

Some have called for General Gration to be fired. The reality is that if he were suddenly dismissed, it could be months before a new special envoy took his place. A void in the special envoy position would hobble any implementation of U.S. policy, and Sudan would hurtle toward the scheduled elections and the southern referendum with little diplomatic involvement or influence from the United States.

While the new administration policy has many of the right elements, there are concerns, many of which were recently raised on the Save Darfur blog. The biggest strategic level concern is that those elements of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) focused on opening up political space in Sudan not be traded away for conflict resolution in Darfur or conflict prevention in southern Sudan.

The most important long-term need facing Sudan is the creation of a political space in which Sudanese can resolve the country's issues without the use of extreme violence. The CPA presents a framework for creating that space, but the CPA elements crucial to that framework are the ones whose implementation is most seriously lacking. Now, elections are six months away and there have been no meaningful steps toward permitting freedom of the press, freedom of association, and freedom of movement or curbing the arbitrary powers of the security services. Judging from the travesty of the census, the ruling NCP does not intend to fulfill its CPA obligation to open up political space. This is a status quo that must be changed if peace is to be promoted.

Tactically, the biggest concern is how much of a priority Sudan is for President Obama. He said all the right things while he was in the Senate and during the campaign, including pledging to bring "unstinting resolve" to Sudan policy if elected.

For the new policy to work, General Gration can't go it alone. The President must lead in creating a real coalition of key heads of state to support the strategy laid out last week and push for concrete and lasting change in Sudan. Now is the time for him to show the resolve he promised.

Jerry Fowler is the president of the Save Darfur Coalition, an alliance of more than 180 faith-based, advocacy and human rights organizations committed to raising public awareness about the genocide in Darfur.

Cross posted from Save Darfur's blog.