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The Obama Administration Finally Has an Official Darfur Policy. But Where’s Obama?

For months, the White House has been saying that President Obama would personally roll out the results of his administration's long-delayed Sudan Policy Review, which will officially set the direction of U.S. policy for Darfur and South Sudan, a region that will soon decide whether to become an independent country. (Update: Click here to read the text of the actual policy and my analysis.)

Now, the review is finally here. It will be announced by Hillary Clinton, UN Ambassador Susan Rice, and the U.S. envoy to Sudan, General Scott Gration. Obama does not plan to attend, most likely because the president's political handlers don't want to further associate him with a policy that has been an ongoing public-relations disaster. That's a shame, because it signals to the world and the government of Sudan that Obama himself is not particularly engaged on the issue, and it's a sad contrast to the deeply concerned speeches Obama gave in front of Save Darfur groups before he became president. (He even co-wrote an introduction to Not on Our Watch: The Mission to End Genocide in Darfur and Beyond, by Don Cheadle and John Prendergast.)

While we won't know the exact contents of the review until we hear today's announcement, the initial press leaks make it sound like a consensus document. It does not include many of the most dramatic policy prescriptions advocated by Scott Gration, who has often spoken about lifting sanctions as soon as possible and otherwise incentivizing Khartoum without applying much in the way of pressure. (He has described his preferences thusly: "We've got to think about giving out cookies. … Kids, countries--they react to gold stars, smiley faces, handshakes, agreements, talk, engagement.") For instance, the review does not provide for Sudan's removal from the list of designated State Sponsors of Terrorism, it does not call for an immediate lifting of sanctions without a quid pro quo from Khartoum, and it does not authorize Gration to negotiate directly with Sudan's president, who has been indicted of war crimes by the International Criminal Court (ICC). The review also does not adopt Gration's preferred description of the violence in Darfur—he wants to call it "the remnants of genocide," but the policy review is said to maintain that genocide "is taking place" in Darfur.

Beyond those hawkish-sounding details, which may have been leaked early in order to stave off criticism by Darfur activists and the press, the report sounds quite ambiguous. It speaks of using both penalties and incentives to push Khartoum towards a negotiated settlement in Darfur and a constructive stance on implementation of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) with South Sudan. But, according to the initial press leaks, it does not say what those penalties might be—indicating that they "remain classified." That might actually be true, or it might be code indicating that the White House hasn't figured out what steps it is willing to take in order to change the Sudanese government's behavior.

That means much will depend upon the language that Clinton, Gration, and Rice use in the actual announcement. How will they characterize Khartoum's recent sponsorship of proxy violence in South Sudan, aimed at softening up the regional government before the vote on South Sudan's independence? How cooperative will they say Khartoum has been on readmitting aid to Darfur's refugee camps, implementing the CPA, and providing the United States with help against terrorists? How, if at all, will they speak about President Al Bashir's ICC indictment for war crimes?

It also means that a lot will depend on how the policy is implemented. No matter how evenly balanced between engagement and pressure the announcement turns out to be, actual diplomacy on the ground will continue to be performed by Gration—who has shown a deep disinclination towards applying sticks to Sudan’s government, and whose approach has so far been unable to elicit meaningful cooperation. So even if our policy lays down some ground rules for Gration to follow, in practical terms, we may continue relying on gold stars and smiley faces. As a result, real people will continue to suffer.