The volatility of this East African nation from the Darfur conflict to the threat of renewed civil war in the south is becoming a test of how President Obama will reconcile a policy of engagement with earlier statements blasting a government he said had “offended the standards of our common humanity.”
Top administration officials are scheduled to meet today to discuss a major review of the United States’ Sudan policy. But even as that document is being finalized, US diplomacy has remained mostly in the hands of Obama’s special envoy to Sudan, retired Air Force Maj. Gen. J. Scott Gration, who is pushing toward normalized relations with the only country in the world led by a president indicted on war-crimes charges.
Although Gration describes the approach as pragmatic and driven by a sense of urgency, his critics here and in the United States say it is dangerously, perhaps wilfully, naive.
During a recent five-day trip to Sudan, Gration heard from southern officials, displaced Darfurians, rebels and others who complained uniformly that he is being manipulated by government officials who talk peace even as they undermine it.
Still, at the end of the visit, Gration maintained a strikingly different perspective. He had seen signs of goodwill from the government of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, he said, and viewed many of the complaints as understandable yet knee-jerk reactions to a government he trusts is ready to change.
“We’ve got to think about giving out cookies,” said Gration, who was appointed in March. “Kids, countries they react to gold stars, smiley faces, handshakes, agreements, talk, engagement.”
Gration’s approach has supporters, including Eltyeb Hag Ateya, a Sudanese professor and critic of Bashir’s ruling party. He said Gration is “completely different” from previous envoys, who succeeded only in alienating the people who hold the levers of power in Sudan.
Gration’s detractors say his approach is based on a misunderstanding of how Bashir’s ruling party works. John Prendergast, co-chairman of the Enough Project, a human rights group advocating tougher, multilateral sanctions against Sudan, said Bashir and his top advisers respond only to pressure.
“They do not respond to nice guys coming over and saying, ‘We have to be a good guest,’ ” he said.”They eat these people for dinner.”
Adam Mudawi, a Sudanese human rights activist who has seen envoys come and go, put it more bluntly: “In six months, he’ll find out,” he said. “They are liars.”
But in interviews during the trip, Gration said that Sudanese government officials have not lied to him. He spoke of new realities in Darfur, where a brutal government campaign has given way to banditry and fighting among rebel factions and tribes.
Although many say the government has orchestrated the chaos, Gration spread the blame. Rebels have turned into criminal gangs and have not unified for peace talks, he said. And many displaced Darfurians are dealing with “psychological stuff” that is leading to unhelpful mistrust of the government, he said.
Gration said that in his view, the ruling party deserves credit lately for allowing some foreign aid groups to return after Bashir expelled others following his March indictment by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes in Darfur.
Gration said economic sanctions, first imposed in 1997, have thwarted development that would help marginalized parts of Sudan.
And as distasteful as it may seem, he said, engaging the ruling party is the only way to get a settlement in Darfur and to avert a potentially devastating war ahead of the semiautonomous southern region’s 2011 vote on independence.
Ghazi Salahuddin, a close Bashir adviser, praised Gration for “trying to be evenhanded.” During a stop in El Fasher, capital of North Darfur state, Gration was greeted like a rock star by hundreds of cheering Bashir supporters in a conference hall plastered with posters of Bashir and Obama, poorly photo-shopped together.
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