Deals with the Devil: Thorny Diplomacy in Sudan

Only negotiating with a war criminal can stop war crimes.

Violence permeates Sudan—in Darfur, the Nuba Mountains, and on the border between North and South Sudan. At the same time, diplomatic efforts have intensified in an attempt to ensure that the division of North and South Sudan is peaceful. Just recently an agreement, yet to be implemented, was reached to have a UN force inserted to separate the warring parties in the contested area (Abyei) between North and South. While both sides have a real interest—oil revenues—in an accommodation, shared interests do not necessarily produce peace—and certainly not in Darfur. A lengthy, difficult American diplomatic effort in Sudan is at a critical decision point. Because force has been ruled out despite continuing large-scale war crimes, it’s time for the United States to take its diplomatic approach of engagement, but this time by the secretary of state, to Sudan’s highest level—an approach the U.S. has resisted because of the International Criminal Court (ICC) indictment against President Bashir. Navigating between the moral and legal obligations of accountability and the need to fully utilize American diplomatic capabilities to end massive human suffering is very difficult, but it is a course President Obama must now pursue.

More specifically: the decade-long Darfur crisis has grown even uglier, but media attention has mostly evaporated. The camps of millions of displaced persons are increasingly endangered, and humanitarian organizations find it harder to carry out their mission. Reduced Western attention is largely a result of the effort this past year to achieve a peaceful North-South separation, as provided for in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) worked out by American negotiators. The government in Khartoum is now wreaking major havoc on its own citizens in the Nuba Mountains, which is not a contested area but does have a large non-Arab population oriented to the South. Meanwhile, along the North-South divide, Khartoum keeps trying to create new facts on the ground in its pursuit of oil-rich territory.

The response of Washington and its allies has been to continue a carefully crafted approach of threats, inducements and accommodation. One cannot presume that this approach will ultimately produce a reasonably stable settlement between North and South or a return to normalcy in Darfur. So far, evidence of that is at best uncertain. The ability of the United States to normalize its relations with Sudan has been precluded by the North’s massive violence to achieve political objectives in its own fractured country. Nor is the time frame for realizing the agreed division of the country open-ended; indeed, if success is not achieved soon, a cycle of violence could ensue, possibly leading to the destabilization of the frail South.

At this difficult stage the diplomatic playbook for all of Sudan calls for the deployment of America’s most senior diplomat—Secretary Clinton—to speak with the voice of the President. She needs to make clear to Bashir and his top associates that future positive engagement with the United States is seriously on the table, and that a failure to abandon massive force as a political tool will result in a return to a U.S. policy of coercion, characterized by a renewed, intensive regime of sanctions and international isolation. These changes must apply not only to an accommodation with the South but also to treatment of its own citizens. No other U.S. diplomat can effectively or credibly make this case.

President Obama needs to make the politically difficult decision of whether to take the risk of launching what is sure to be a highly controversial diplomatic initiative or return to a policy of whatever coercion and sanctions we can execute. Clearly, the muddled middle approach is no longer tenable. The violence throughout Sudan is escalating even as hostilities in Darfur show no signs of ending after almost a decade.

Deploying the secretary of state does not guarantee that negotiations with Bashir will be successful. The United States has not had much success dealing with an increasingly fractious Northern leadership. On the other hand, President Bush was heavily involved in the successful negotiations to end the original North-South conflict: he called Bashir numerous times before settlement was achieved. Washington does not possess the leverage or the power of persuasion it once did (absent a credible threat of force), but given the extent and duration of the human tragedy, a new intense American diplomatic effort is essential.

On the face of it, it appears as if the ICC—to which the US is not a signatory—effectively limits the ability of President Obama to engage at the highest levels with President Bashir. The truth is that the inducements laid out before Bashir already run counter to the moral directive of a tribunal that has indicted him for genocide. Moreover, the ICC operates in reality and understands that its role is to bring perpetrators to justice in order to end violent conflict and not inadvertently to prolong the violence. Nevertheless, many will be aghast at this effort, and if it fails there will be a huge political cost. Negotiating with even worst monsters, however, is not outside the experience of American leaders.

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