Bashing Bashir

Although it’s easy to blame Darfur on Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, the problem will continue even if he’s gone. Instead, we need to focus our efforts on helping the refugees.

If the Sudanese were teetering on the precipice of crisis before, they are hanging on by their fingertips now.

International involvement in Sudan's Darfur region has done nothing to solve the underlying political problems, but it has kept millions alive-no mean achievement. Now, despite the high decibel count of international protests, even that achievement is in dire peril.

So far, the result of the International Criminal Court's (ICC) issuance of an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity has worsened Darfur's precarious situation. In defiant retaliation, Bashir expelled thirteen international aid agencies and declared he would kick out the rest by year's end. He may hope that the worsening humanitarian situation will persuade the UN Security Council to defer the indictment. The ICC's actions ignited furious debate within the Security Council, between Western states and the Arab League/African Union, and between human-rights advocates and humanitarians. But arguments for or against the ICC decision don't address the issue at hand-how to pick up the pieces in Sudan. A million people are in dire straits.

Obama's appointment of retired-Air Force General Scott Gration as a full time special envoy is an indispensable measure toward establishing a policy to help stabilize Sudan. Even so, the humanitarian crisis in Darfur requires immediate restoration of the lifeline for the mass of internally displaced, and realistically must be separated from the longer-term political effort.

It's a distasteful strategy to uncouple a humanitarian disaster from its cause. Ending a crisis requires eliminating its source-in this case, the Bashir government. Unfortunately, that option, whatever our rhetoric, is not now available.

The Bashir indictment has pitted African and Arab countries against the West on grounds of imperialism, racism and religious bias. Even a Western ally, Turkey, has embraced Bashir. Further attempts at undermining Bashir's regime will more likely drive a deeper wedge between West and East, North and South. Even if Bashir is somehow removed, we can not be sure when that will happen or that it will produce better humanitarian results. Nor do we have what it takes to remove him. No administration has been willing to commit the U.S. militarily in Sudan, even after we've called a crisis "genocide." Most important, time is not on our side; a humanitarian emergency can't wait for regime change.

For the moment, Bashir isn't going anywhere-least of all to The Hague. Consequently, we will have to hold our nose and shake hands with the devil or his minions. We need to determine now how to quickly assist a million people amidst the Sudan's uncertainties and volatility. Distinguishing the political mandate of the special envoy from those of humanitarian emissaries is a vital step.

We urgently need to dispatch high-level humanitarian emissaries to follow up on Secretary Clinton's phone efforts and vigorously press concerned African, Arab and other states who have embraced Bashir to intervene with him to guarantee that maximum help is provided to displaced Darfuris and the expulsion of major international aid agencies reversed. Like-minded countries should follow suit where they have influence. A favorable result is not certain, but the effort in the end may stimulate more forceful measures towards resuming the flow of necessary assistance.

While Darfur has held center stage in Sudan's unfolding drama, Special Envoy Gration's work includes that troubled region, but extends far beyond. Specifically, he needs to address escalating tension between North Sudan and South Sudan, which has the potential to lead to massive violence.

Darfur advocates rightly argue that back in 2003-2004, international attention on North-South negotiations distracted everyone from the crimes in Darfur. Now the opposite is occurring, while the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of 2005 between North and South Sudan grows increasingly fragile. Both sides are enhancing military capabilities and the prospects for keeping the country together grow tenuous.

There are two provisions of the CPA which loom large on Sudan's timeline: the presidential elections scheduled for this year and the 2011 referendum on independence for South Sudan. Gration needs to help ensure that elections occur in a timely and reasonably fair manner, which means walking a precarious diplomatic line. Antagonizing Khartoum could compromise the U.S. ability to encourage democratic processes in Sudan, but capitulation also has severe costs. As for the referendum, many warn it will inevitably lead the South to vote for secession. If the ruling party obstructs the referendum because of its fear of losing the region, full-scale war will engulf the entire country.

In focusing on preserving Sudan's unity and stability, a task that grows harder by the day, Gration will need the support of the UN and of special envoys of other nations, who, indeed, may be better suited politically to lead a protracted peace building effort. Full-scale engagement with Sudan's government and other regional actors, especially those engaged in proxy warfare, will be required. South Sudan's participation in Darfur peace efforts are an acknowledgment of the stake that the entire country and region has in resolving the interrelated conflicts. The spillover of refugees, the proliferation of arms and the potential for domino-effect mass conflict demands a country- and region-wide response.

In Sudan, the lines between humanitarian space and politics are fuzzier than ever. All the same, given the West's decreased influence in the country, the best hope for generating positive outcomes will be to distinguish the urgent from the longer-term. We should not delude ourselves: the going will be hard even if Bashir exits the scene.