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Hillary Clinton’s Embarrassing, Disingenuous Equivocating on the Crisis in Sudan

In a recent op-ed in The Washington Post about the independence of South Sudan, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered a conspicuous example of the Obama administration’s policy of equivocation when it comes to the world’s newest nation and the country it split from last weekend. Namely, the op-ed disingenuously equated the Khartoum regime with its adversaries in South Sudan, in the embattled regions of South Kordofan and Abyei, and in Darfur.

The evident logic of such false equivalence is that it’s necessary to keep Khartoum engaged in negotiations: If “both sides,” as Clinton refers to them repeatedly, are equally responsible for violence and for the failure to resolve outstanding issues like the North-Southborder delineation, then diplomacy will be able to exert pressure to compromise. Never mind that compromise—indeed, many compromises—have already been made by the South; the real problem here is that President Omar Al Bashir’s regime has refused to live up to the agreements.

The disputed region of Abyei is a perfect example. Despite the compromises already embodied in the Abyei Protocol from 2004 and a “final and binding” ruling in 2009 by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, both Clinton and Scott Gration, the former U.S. envoy to Sudan, pushed last fall for South Sudan to “compromise” further on Abyei. This had the effect of convincing Khartoum that there was more to gain from further intransigence in negotiations, and the ultimate consequence was the May 2011 invasion of Abyei by Al Bashir’s military. Although the U.N. has said it will deploy Ethiopian peacekeepers to Abyei, Khartoum now exerts de facto military control over the region, and the population of indigenous Ngok Dinka has been forced to flee to South Sudan. The prospects for long-term security are bleak.

Clinton’s take? “The violence that has flared in Abyei in recent months cannot be allowed to return and jeopardize the larger peace.” No assignment of responsibility, even though the violence was clearly instigated by Khartoum and culminated in the seizure of the region in a period of just two days. This only works to encourage Khartoum’s conviction that, when the Ethiopian force leaves (assuming it effectively deploys in the first place), it will retain control of the region. President Al Bashir more or less confirmed this in a much-noted interview with the BBC on July 10. He said Abyei will always belong to the North, unless there is a referendum—long-promised to the region’s people, but denied because of newly contrived arguments over residency—in which voters choose to be part of the South. Of course, he said this referendum must include migrating Arab tribes who are loyal to the North and would thus almost certainly skew the vote in Khartoum’s favor.

Clinton also erred when she wrote, “One urgent step both sides must take is agreeing to a cessation of hostilities in the northern border state of Southern Kordofan, which started in early June.” This is wildly misleading. The reality is that, after signing a vague framework agreement that had such cessation of hostilities as its key agenda item, Al Bashir disowned the commitment, saying the “cleansing” of South Kordofan and the Nuba Mountains would continue. Those to be “cleansed,” of course, are the African Nuba people. The leaders of South Sudan and the chief negotiator for the Nuba, former deputy governor Abdel Aziz El Hilu, are desperate for a true ceasefire and commitment to resolving underlying issues, but Khartoum has formally withdrawn from the talks.

We’ve seen plenty of previous examples of the Obama administration’s policies and rhetoric of equivocation. For instance, after the devastating assault on Khor Abeche (South Darfur) in December 2010 by Khartoum and its janjaweed allies, National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer noted the many civilian casualties and thousands of displaced persons, but then went on to declare:

This attack comes at a time that we are also seeing increased evidence of support to militant proxies from the Governments of Sudan and Southern Sudan. All Sudanese leaders have a responsibility to protect civilian populations—to do otherwise is unacceptable.

In other words, Hammer was flatly comparing more than eight years of genocidal predations by Khartoum-directed militias to actions that, while troubling, were of relatively little consequence. This is outrageous distortion—and an apparent effort at a soothing even-handedness meant to placate Khartoum. (It’s also not clear that South Sudan has ever supported rebels in Darfur.) Given the U.S. response, it shouldn’t be surprising that the North’s military campaign that began in Khor Abeche continues today.

Clinton and other U.S. diplomats should understand that being an honest broker does not necessitate accommodating genocide or other violence. Yet disingenuousness and diplomatic equivocation continue to be the hallmarks of the Obama administration’s Sudan policy. Tragically, the consequences of this policy are coming into exceedingly grim focus.

Eric Reeves is a professor at Smith College and author of A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide.