Obama softens approach to Sudan

Has stepped back from tough talk; Some cite danger of gentler policy

The US special envoy to Sudan, J. Scott Gration (center), met with the special representative of UN-African Union peacekeepers in Darfur, Ibrahim Gambari (left), in Khartoum last month. The US special envoy to Sudan, J. Scott Gration (center), met with the special representative of UN-African Union peacekeepers in Darfur, Ibrahim Gambari (left), in Khartoum last month. (Mohamed Nureldin/ Reuters)
By Farah Stockman
Globe Staff / September 19, 2010

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WASHINGTON — On the campaign trail, Barack Obama pledged to get tough with Sudan, a regime accused of committing genocide in Darfur and waging a relentless war against its citizens in the south. He harshly criticized what he called the Bush administration’s “feckless’’ compromises with the regime.

But in the White House, Obama has adopted a far gentler approach.

His special envoy J. Scott Gration has called the regime in Khartoum his “friends’’ and has shied away from tough talk or new sanctions. This past week, the Obama administration announced a package of incentives for Sudan, including normalized relations, if Khartoum chooses peace. Gration said there would also be consequences if Sudan turns to war, but he didn’t detail what those would be.

The friendlier approach has alarmed some activists and former and current US officials who say the country could fall back into bloodshed and civil war unless the Obama administration strongly pressures Sudan to fully implement the peace agreement between Khartoum and the south brokered under former president George W. Bush.

The deal, one of Bush’s foreign policy achievements, man dates a vote in January on whether the southern half of the country will become an independent state. Khartoum has threatened to resume the war if the south breaks away.

State Department officials acknowledge that they have taken a softer approach but say that the administration is now intensifying its diplomatic efforts. Obama is expected to make a strong statement on Sudan at a UN meeting Friday.

But some human rights activists and former US officials are still skeptical, saying the administration has been too reluctant to consider harsh actions — such as additional sanctions, no-fly zones, or naval blockades — to deter bloodshed.

“Every envoy thinks they are going to be the one that the Sudanese government is going to deal with in a straightforward fashion,’’ said Jendayi Frazer, assistant secretary of state for African affairs under Bush. “But then typically they learn that the regime responds mainly to pressure — credible pressure.’’

The new incentive package immediately loosens restrictions on agricultural equipment and would lift non-oil-related sanctions on Sudan if the vote takes place on time. Sudan would get debt relief, the lifting of more sanctions, and the restoration of full diplomatic ties if it supports the outcome of the vote, and resolves the conflict in Darfur.

The softer line on Sudan has been surprising, given that Obama’s foreign policy team is made up of advocates of tough measures — even military action — on Sudan. Gayle Smith, cofounder of the Enough Project, which aims to end genocide, is the senior White House official on development; Susan Rice, who argued for airstrikes to protect people in Darfur, is ambassador to the United Nations; and Samantha Power, former head of Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy and winner of a Pulitzer Prize for a book about President Clinton’s failure to stop genocide in Rwanda, is a senior aide on refugees.

An exception was Gration, a retired Air Force major general with little diplomatic experience, as his special envoy. Gration has worked tirelessly, traveling 20 times to Sudan, but he has become a controversial figure. Those who favor a tougher approach accuse him of being too trusting of the Sudanese regime and veering off the course plotted by the previous administration.

“We were in the final stretch of a 10-year process . . . and they absolutely made a U-turn,’’ said Roger Winter, a former special representative on Sudan who now serves as an unpaid adviser to the southern Sudan leadership.

Rice, Power, and Smith declined to comment or did not return calls. Several US officials said privately that infighting between Gration and more hawkish officials had paralyzed the administration.

A State Department official who was not authorized to be quoted acknowledged that it had taken time to get on the same page but that all are now working together intensely to avoid the resumption of war in Sudan. He defended Gration’s approach, contending that building trust is more effective than threats.

“There is absolutely no question that the guy is a firm believer in the power of positive thinking,’’ he said. “That is just in his DNA. His primary interest is maintaining his access to the regime, because access equals results. That is the Scott Gration mantra.’’

He noted that Khartoum is already facing the prospect of losing a third of its territory and up to 80 percent of its oil revenue if the south breaks away, so there is little that additional US threats would accomplish.

Asked after a press briefing last week if his policy is all carrot and no stick Gration said: “We have a policy that gives the north a pathway to better bilateral relations. If they don’t take it, that’s already a stick.’’

US presidents have wrestled for decades how to handle Sudan, an oil-rich country that has been consumed by war since its independence in 1956. The conflict broke out when Arab Muslims in the north tried to impose Islamic law on the Christian and animist African tribes in the rest of country. They rebelled, sparking one of Africa’s longest civil wars. A 1972 peace agreement gave southerners autonomy, but the Sudanese government failed to carry it out, plunging the country back into war.

When President Bush came into office in 2001, he took a personal interest in the plight of the Christians in the south, a cause célèbre for his evangelical base. Bush met at least three times with southern rebel leaders at the White House and become a hero in refugee camps, where babies were named after him.

Bush appointed a series of special envoys who painstakingly midwifed the peace agreement in 2005. But making sure both sides follow through with the deal has been a challenge.

For instance, the peace deal stipulates that a commission would be appointed to determine the borders of a disputed, oil-rich territory known as Abeyi.

The Sudanese government allowed the commission to be set up, then refused to accept its findings. In 2008, government-backed fighters burned down Abeyi’s main city.

Richard Williamson, Bush’s envoy at the time, spent six days negotiating a new agreement on how the borders would be decided. This time, it would be by an international arbitration court. The court issued its ruling last year, and Khartoum said it accepted the ruling. But so far, it has refused to allow the new borders to be marked, a key step in the run-up to the January vote. The Sudanese embassy did not return a call seeking comment.

Gration told reporters on Wednesday that US diplomats were working intensely on the issue, but he did not call on Sudan to implement the court’s ruling.

That sparked anger from Williamson, who said: “The lesson . . . is that there is no cost to breaking commitments and doing things that cost lives.’’

Another complication has been a separate conflict in the western region of Darfur that erupted in 2003 when rebels demanded their own peace agreement. Khartoum responded by arming militias that are accused of exterminating villages, leaving some 300,000 people dead from attacks, starvation, or disease.

Last week, Gration praised the Sudanese government for its new plan to spend $1.9 billion on highways and other infrastructure in Darfur. “It’s impressive,’’ Gration said. “They really want this thing to succeed.’’

But Salih Osman Mahmoud, a human rights activist in Darfur who offers pro bono legal assistance to the victims of attacks, said the plan was another empty promise.

Mahmoud, who was in Washington lobbying for a tougher Sudan policy, said that government-backed militias opened fire in Darfur’s Tebra market two weeks ago, killing about 80 people.

“They will never spend that money’’ on development, he said. “The only person who believes it is Gration.’’

Farah Stockman can be reached at