Obama and Darfur: The Futility of Mere Hopefulness

Obama and Darfur: The Futility of Mere Hopefulness

E. Reeves: Obama and Darfur

IN APRIL 2008, candidate Barack Obama expressed “deep concern” that the Bush administration was making an unseemly deal with the Khartoum regime as a means to bolster the fledgling but already failing UN/African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID).

This reckless and cynical initiative would reward a regime in Khartoum that has a record of failing to live up to its commitments. First, no country should be removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism for any reason other than the existence of verifiable proof that the government in question does not support terrorist organizations. Second, the Bush Administration should be holding the Government of Sudan accountable for its past promises to let UN peacekeepers operate within its borders—Khartoum’s record of inaction and obstruction when it comes to the deployment of the AU-UN force must not be rewarded. Third, the Bush Administration should be holding Sudan accountable for failing to implement significant aspects of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) [between North and South Sudan], imperiling the prospects for scheduled multiparty elections in 2009….

The Government of Sudan has pursued a policy of genocide in Darfur. Hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children have been killed in Darfur, and the killing continues to this very day. Meanwhile, lasting peace will not come without implementation of the CPA. The Bush Administration and Congress have imposed sanctions in an effort to change Khartoum’s behavior; to suddenly offer to normalize relations before that change takes place, particularly without close consultation with Congress, makes no sense. Washington must respond to the ongoing genocide and the ongoing failure to implement the CPA with consistency and strong consequences.

For those of us who had pushed for years for an honest recognition of the dangers the Khartoum regime posed to both Darfur and the fragile CPA, these were precisely the words we wanted to hear. But less than three years later, this language stands revealed as electoral bluster—an unprincipled and expedient trading on the potency of one of the most impressive American grassroots constituencies ever to grow up around a foreign policy issue, and an African issue no less.

The temptation on the part of some, including myself, has been to focus on how Darfur and Sudan have been betrayed by other members of the Obama administration—chiefly special envoy Scott Gration, but also Senator John Kerry, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and other officials at the National Security Council (NSC) and State Department who have offered weak or misguided counsel. But the policy that has unfolded over the past two years is President Obama’s policy, and he must take full responsibility for the demonstrable error, expediency, ignorance, and mendacity that has defined it. He has chosen to keep Gration, to continue to deploy Kerry as an ad hoc envoy, and to allow key members of his administration to equate the actions, threats, and responses of the Khartoum regime to those of rebel groups in Darfur and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) in the South. President Obama, despite the enormity of his responsibilities at home and abroad, cannot slough off responsibility for what he has himself called a “policy of genocide” in Darfur. The previous administration indeed refused to “hold Sudan accountable for failing to implement significant aspects” of the CPA. But Obama’s policies, no less than Bush’s, are “reckless and cynical”; and the Southern referenda, however impressive and jubilant the voting has been, remain imperiled. (Abyei’s did not take place at all.) It is time for a reckoning.

Humanitarian Response to Darfur

Obama appointed former Air Force Major General Scott Gration as his special envoy to Sudan in March 2009, shortly after Khartoum had expelled or shut down international and domestic humanitarian organizations that together represented approximately half the total humanitarian capacity in Darfur. Following that egregious violation of international humanitarian law, Obama’s appointment of a special presidential envoy was welcomed by many as a sign of seriousness. Gration had Obama’s full confidence, we were told. Yet he had no experience in Sudan, no relevant linguistic skills, and—most consequentially—no diplomatic background. He lacked the experience necessary for tackling the immensely complex and challenging issues involved in the negotiation of a just peace for Sudan.

Gration’s inexperience and general ignorance of Sudan led him to look for ways to accommodate Khartoum rather than press for a reversal of the expulsion that over the past twenty-two months has cost many thousands of Darfuri civilian lives—lives lost for lack of adequate primary medical attention, clean water, immunizations, sheltering materials, and food. Gration did not challenge the pretext for humanitarian expulsions—the preposterous charge of “espionage”—but rather sought to make the most of the painfully small concessions Khartoum made toward restoring humanitarian capacity. Here he followed the lead of Senator Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and on several occasions an intermediary between the Obama administration and Khartoum’s génocidaires, who declared a month after the expulsions, “We have agreement [with Khartoum] that in the next weeks we will be back to 100 percent capacity.” This was not simply a lie, but a consequential distortion that worked to let Khartoum off the hook for what was arguably a massive crime against humanity—the deliberate denial of humanitarian assistance to a needy population of millions of civilians.

Gration echoed Kerry several months later, arguing that “as we have four nongovernmental organizations in, the capacity of the UN is increased, the capacity of the other NGOs still remained….There has been a positive trend.” This was more hopeful posturing, as even the timid and deferential UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was obliged to note in a report on Darfur to the Security Council that November:

[T]he sustainability of these initial [humanitarian] actions remains a critical issue. In remote locations, international presence has been reduced by 50 per cent, as compared to pre-March 2009 levels. The kidnapping of international aid workers has also contributed to this situation, which has led to a serious shortage of residual implementing capacity and a dramatic reduction in monitoring and evaluation capabilities in Darfur.

The four replacement organizations mentioned by Gration were really just smaller national sections of the organizations Khartoum had expelled (for example, the small Save the Children/Sweden replaced the expelled Save the Children/USA, the largest humanitarian actor in West Darfur). They did not have the capacity or skills required in Darfur’s harsh environs, and none of the essential institutional memory and monitoring experience.

Kerry and Gration’s claims about restored humanitarian capacity were expedient mendacity, motivated by the misguided hope that Khartoum would become more tractable. To the regime, it spoke volumes that Americans would meet an act as outrageous as expelling critical humanitarian resources from one of the world’s greatest scenes of human need with soothing words of accommodation. A well-informed representative from one of the expelled humanitarian organizations said, “the view from within the aid community is that Gration has been a disaster for Sudan generally, and Darfur in particular.” And yet Obama, the State Department, and the NSC continued to support Gration.

Similarly, Gration received no criticism within the administration for suggesting in July 2009 that millions of Darfuris—displaced from their homes by more than six years of devastating genocidal counterinsurgency warfare—should begin the process of returning to their lands and villages. No matter that the lands were often occupied by the very Arab militia that had originally driven these people from their lands; no matter that many villages had been burned to the ground, with all means of livelihood systematically destroyed; and no matter that the two key aid agencies responsible for overseeing safe returns as defined by international humanitarian law—the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR)—were quite unprepared to undertake this extremely challenging task.

In an extraordinary rebuke of the Obama administration’s excessive desire for signs of “progress” in Darfur, an ad hoc group of humanitarians in South Darfur (the “Inter-Agency Management Group” [IAMG]) assembled in late July 2009 to declare its views of Gration’s visit to the region:

The [United States] mission was of a political nature more than humanitarian focused. The [U.S. Special Envoy] was exposing his political plan rather than seeking feedback from the humanitarian community and/or looking into the facts presented….Given the message sent by Scott Gration to the Humanitarian Community and the beneficiaries, i.e. peace will prevail in Darfur by the end of the year, and returns have to happen, the IAMG felt it has to take a common position.

An “end of the year” (2009) peace agreement was of course an absurd prediction, and as we begin 2011, peace seems no closer. Moreover, in the summer of 2010, Khartoum expelled senior officials of both the IOM and UNHCR, making returns for displaced persons even more unlikely.

Gration’s failures of insight were widely reported, including in the Washington Post. The Obama administration cannot pretend that it was unaware of Gration’s disastrous initiative, or his ineffectual response to Darfur’s humanitarian crisis.

Gration’s record in Darfur has been one of complete failure. He failed to establish a meaningful ceasefire, to unite the most important of the fractious rebel groups, to present a credible outline for a peace agreement, to bolster the beleaguered UNAMID (still badly hamstrung by Khartoum), or to improve humanitarian conditions and capacity.

Sudanese National Elections

Candidate Obama rightly worried that U.S. inaction was “imperiling the prospects for scheduled multiparty elections in 2009.” In the end, the elections were not held until April 2010, and were by all reasonable accounts a travesty. This was widely foreseen; already in Obama’s first year in office, an absurd “census” was conducted that grossly distorted Sudan’s demographic realities in ways both conspicuous and of obvious benefit to the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party (NIF/NCP) regime in Khartoum. And yet shortly before the elections, the Obama administration, again in the person of Scott Gration, declared that they would be “as free and fair as possible.”

Gration was joined in his assessment by former President Jimmy Carter—a notorious fool in all his political assessments of Sudan—and by Russia, China, the Arab League, and the African Union—hardly a group of democratic stalwarts. The U.S. actions helped confer undeserved legitimacy on a regime that benefited from massive vote and registration fraud, ballot-box stuffing and theft, an untenable census, ruthless security forces, and a monopoly on broadcast media. The White House itself took part in the charade, issuing a press release expressing “regret that Sudan’s National Elections Commission (NEC) did not do more to prevent and address such problems prior to voting.” The press release disingenuously failed to note that the NEC was entirely a creature of the regime and acted throughout the electoral period precisely as instructed.

Despite the fiasco of U.S. efforts to secure meaningful Sudanese elections, Gration kept the support of President Obama and senior foreign policy officials at the State Department and NSC. And publicly, no dissent was permitted to be aired, even though more than one administration official strenuously objected, including U.S. ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, a former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. Tensions between Rice and Gration had festered for some time, certainly since Gration had declared very early in his tenure that only “remnants of genocide” could be found in Darfur. Rice was furious at such a characterization from the inexperienced Gration; and although the Obama administration did not accept Gration’s characterization, he was not rebuked either, and he stood stubbornly by his comments. Gration and Rice clashed again in an August meeting, this time when Gration belatedly realized that the self-determination referenda for South Sudan and the Abyei region were deeply imperiled by an excessively compressed electoral calendar. At the meeting, Gration pushed for a “de-emphasizing of Darfur,” and a re-focusing on the South. The decision had been made inevitable by the ineptitude of the Obama administration. Khartoum was seeking to run out the clock on the referenda, and preparations were in some cases literally years behind schedule. (Abyei, the most likely flashpoint for renewed war, did not see its promised referendum and experienced serious violence during the first days of voting in South Sudan, with many casualties—a possible prelude to wider fighting.)

Unsurprisingly the Obama administration has recently appointed a seasoned and knowledgeable diplomat, Dane Smith, to take on the Darfur file (though without officially removing Gration from his role). At this point, however, the vast majority of Darfuris—both civilians and rebels—despise Gration and the Obama administration; Gration’s security has become so great an issue that he can travel only to the camps most fully secured by Military Intelligence. Darfuris have even risked staging anti-Gration demonstrations and demanding his resignation. Ambassador Smith’s chances of success have been badly compromised.

But Gration’s determination to “de-emphasize” Darfur was accepted by senior administration officials—including Hillary Clinton—and was among the recommendations presented to the president this past August (Susan Rice was reportedly given the opportunity to present a “dissenting view”). A transcript of a November 8, 2010 briefing provided by the State Department shows the consequences of the decision: “[A] senior administration official” declared that in order to secure cooperation from the Khartoum regime on the referenda, “the US is prepared to accelerate the removal of Sudan from the state sponsor of terrorism list” by “decoupling the state sponsor of terrorism from Darfur and the Darfur issue.” This comes despite reports that Khartoum has recently served as a conduit for Iranian arms bound for Hamas in Gaza. Although Obama administration officials pointed out that other sanctions remain in place, they have lost the leverage of what is certainly the biggest carrot the United States has to offer Khartoum. And still, armed conflict persists in Darfur, and humanitarian conditions continue to deteriorate, affecting more than four million civilians, the vast majority of them displaced from their homes, many very recently.

Moral Equivalence

Candidate Obama seemed to see the Khartoum regime for what it is, and to recognize the penchant of these ruthless men for lies, reneging, dissimulation, and bad faith. But President Obama is guided by a secretary of state, NSC, and special envoy who are willing to see the actions and declarations on the part of the Government of South Sudan and the Darfuri rebels as “morally equivalent” to those of the regime. Although there are many examples of such destructive comparisons during the Obama administration, a recent example suggests just how extreme this distortion can become.

On December 16, 2010 the White House issued a press release concerning repeated attacks by Khartoum’s Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) on the South Darfur village of Khor Abeche, and on the forces of Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) faction leader Minni Minawi (formerly a partner in the regime). Deploring attacks that “left many [civilians] injured, some dead, and thousands displaced,” NSC spokesman Mike Hammer went on to say, “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.”

The implicit claim here is that the Government of South Sudan (GOSS) is giving “support to militant proxies” and irresponsibly putting civilian populations at deliberate risk. In short, more than seven years of savage, finally genocidal predations by Khartoum-directed “militant proxies”—Janjaweed militia, the Popular Defense Force, the Border Guards, the Central Police, and other paramilitary elements in Darfur—are here being directly compared to the actions of the GOSS.

This effort at soothing “even-handedness” deeply betrays the truth. It is the case that the GOSS has hosted in Juba some of the Darfur rebel leadership, including Minni Minawi. It is also likely true that the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) has provided some medical assistance to wounded Darfuri rebels who make their way into Western or Northern Bahr el-Ghazal. It may or may not be the case that some elements of the SPLA have provided limited supplies, on an ad hoc basis, to rebel elements in Bahr el-Ghazal, something the Obama administration has warned against, and which indeed would be ill-advised. But none of this is in any way comparable to Khartoum’s recruiting, arming, and deploying the Janjaweed and other “militant proxies” in Darfur.

Indeed, the nominal subject of this brief NSC press release—Khor Abeche—provides an example of the difference between the actions of the GOSS and what happens when real “militant proxies” are at work.

Following an April 2005 attack on Khor Abeche by the Janjaweed, UNAMID declared that the sustained assault on this civilian village was “savage,” “pre-meditated,” and ultimately a function of “deliberate official procrastination” by Khartoum, which prevented the deployment of AU observers who might have been able to forestall the clearly impending attack. During the attack, the “[Janjaweed proceeded to] rampage through the village, killing, burning and destroying everything in their paths and leaving in their wake total destruction” (“Joint Statement by the African Union Mission in Sudan and the UN Mission in Sudan,” April 7, 2005).

The “Joint Statement” was unusually explicit in assigning responsibility for the destruction wrought by “militant proxies”:

The African Union had been engaged in discussions with the Wali [Khartoum-appointed governor] of South Darfur and Nasir al Tijani Adel Kaadir [commander of the Arab militia/Janjaweed force] on several occasions in the past on how to maintain the security situation in the area. Indeed, the AU had prepared to deploy its troops in Niteaga and Khor Abeche since 3 April [2005], to deter precisely this kind of attack, but was prevented from acting by what can only be inferred as deliberate official procrastination over the allocation of land for the troops’ accommodation.

As voting in the South Sudan self-determination referendum concludes—with many critical issues unresolved, including the status of Abyei—the Obama administration continues to indulge a broad policy of “moral equivalence,” evident even in Obama’s recent op-ed in the New York Times. This can have only one effect: to encourage the Khartoum regime to remain intransigent while the United States does its diplomatic dirty work. Secretary of State Clinton has recently insisted that the Southern leadership “compromise” on the contested Abyei region, ignoring the very significant compromises that the SPLM has already made. Such pressure is deeply counter-productive at this point and makes clear just how dangerous “moral equivalence” can be in defining U.S. Sudan policy. And yet Gration, Clinton, and Obama himself seem incapable of rising above this disabling distortion. The consequences of coddling the Khartoum regime may well mean disaster for Sudan—in the South as well as in Darfur.

Genocide in Darfur

In July 2010, the International Criminal Court issued a second warrant for the arrest of NIF/NCP President Omar al-Bashir—this one for three counts of genocide in Darfur. Gration responded to the announcement with extraordinary cynicism: the ICC decision “will make my mission more difficult and challenging.” And perhaps it will: dealing with génocidaires can be diplomatically challenging, and it is certainly not al-Bashir alone within the regime who will face indictment for atrocity crimes in Darfur. But are we and the ICC to remain silent about what has occurred and continues to occur in Darfur? Must impunity continue to reign, at terrible human cost, so that Gration’s fatuously hopeful diplomacy may proceed? This again is a formula for continued conflict, not peace, and signals to Khartoum that it may proceed with its exceedingly ominous “New Strategy for Darfur,” which is nothing less an effort to legitimize a renewed campaign of genocidal counter-insurgency. The plan has been “strongly supported” by Gration, who had expressed his general frustration with Darfuris last March by means of an implicit threat, saying that there is “not going to be a lot of [diplomatic] bandwidth to be doing Darfur and negotiations [after the April 2010 elections].”

With or without diplomatic “bandwidth,” the region’s agony continues. Humanitarian reach and capacity are more restricted than ever, chiefly because of Khartoum’s continuing expulsions of aid workers and organizations, bureaucratic obstructionism, and engineered insecurity. Fearing Khartoum’s response, UN officials don’t dare release figures for malnutrition, according to the senior UNICEF official for the region. And there has been a major upsurge in violence and displacement over the past year, again much of it ethnically defined. On September 2, 2010, for example, more than fifty Fur men and boys were executed by Arab militia forces in Tabarat village, North Darfur; scores more were wounded, and thousands fled their homes. There was no public comment from the Obama White House, nor a public report from UNAMID—and the silence was heard clearly in Khartoum. Radio Dabanga, the last source of real-time information from the ground in Darfur, reports constantly on the rape of girls and women; the deliberate destruction of crops in the fields; the torture, murder, and imprisonment of political leaders from the camps; and relentless aerial bombardment of civilian targets. Special envoy Gration and the White House are willing to “de-emphasize” and “de-couple” such events.

The headline atrocities reported by Radio Dabanga are numbingly familiar: “Armed group rapes six girls between the ages of 14 to 20 years old,” in the Dorma area near Tawilla, North Darfur (January 17, 2011); “Air strike in Darfur kills 10, including 5 children,” in Khazan Jadeed, South Darfur (December 28, 2010). In the latter case, there was no evidence of a military presence in the area, and the bombing took place at 2 a.m., when there was no light to guide the bombers to military targets (and in any event, the old Russian cargo planes that attacked the village have no real bomb-sighting capability). Reports Radio Dabanga, “Among the dead was the farmer Hamada Abdelrahman Dualbeit, 30 years of old, and with his wife and his three sons; and Muriam Ismail Abakr, student at the University of Nyala, in addition to her son; and Nasreddin Ahmed Bushara, and his wife and baby.”

Candidate Barack Obama professed to be outraged by such atrocities; President Obama has put in place and supported a special envoy who seems all too willing to ignore them—the real meaning of “de-emphasizing” and “de-coupling.” Candidate Obama professed to be distressed to see the CPA endangered by diplomatic lethargy, and the lives of millions of Southern Sudanese put at gratuitous risk; President Obama is guided by policies that have in many ways increased that risk, despite the widespread optimism that surrounds initial referendum voting. Whatever the failings of his appointees, too many in Sudan have died, too many suffer outrageously, and too many are in acute danger for overall responsibility to rest anywhere but with the chief executive—now a president, not a candidate.

Eric Reeves has published extensively on Sudan, nationally and internationally, for more than a decade. He is author of A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide.