How Susan Rice Bungled Sudan

June 6, 2013 Topic: Human RightsGlobal Governance Region: Sudan

How Susan Rice Bungled Sudan

The new national-security adviser has a long history of poor judgment in east Africa.

President Obama’s decision to nominate UN ambassador Susan Rice to head the National Security Council is drawing howls of protest from Republicans over her role as an administration mouthpiece in the controversial days after Benghazi. Yet emails released by the administration suggest she was not involved in the development of the controversial talking points she’d deliver. She seems to have simply drawn the short straw. Thus it’s unfortunate that scrutiny of Rice will focus primarily on Benghazi, as her new position will give her immense influence in setting the direction of U.S. foreign policy in the next three-and-a-half years. She has a long track record, having spent many years at the highest levels of foreign-policy decision making, and served in both the Clinton and Obama administrations. This record deserves examination.

There’s one country where Rice’s influence has been most constant: Sudan. U.S. relations with Khartoum have been complex, to put it lightly. Sudan harbored bin Laden during the Clinton years and launched a genocide in Darfur; it also signed a U.S.-brokered peace in the south during the Bush years and under Obama allowed the south to secede. Such mixed results would seem to demand mixed policy. Yet Rice has fought consistently against engagement with Khartoum, regardless of circumstances. This repeatedly put U.S. interests and initiatives at risk.

The Clinton Era

In the Clinton Administration, while Rice was in the National Security Council and then assistant secretary of state for African affairs, she allegedly repeatedly pushed for the rejection of Sudanese offers to cooperate against terrorism. The potential prizes for cooperation were significant. Former Sudanese and Egyptian intelligence officials told Vanity Fair’s David Rose that Sudan had closely monitored the activities of Osama bin Laden and his family, who were in the country at the time. The Sudanese claim they found two Al Qaeda operatives camped out in a building across from the U.S. embassy in Khartoum and that they tracked several plotters around the region before the 1998 embassy attacks. There was some reason to take them seriously—they’d apparently aided the French in plucking the notorious terrorist Carlos the Jackal from a Khartoum hideout in 1994.

So why didn’t Rice and other opponents of cooperation budge? At the time, Washington was awash with intelligence reports suggesting that Sudanese agents were planning a wide range of terrorist activities around the world, including a brazen attack on national-security adviser Tony Lake. (The reports would turn out to be unreliable.) Distrust of Sudan was deep enough to lead to military action in the wake of the embassy bombings. The Sudanese government had risen to power in an Islamist coup, and was waging a brutal internal war against rebels in the south.

Sudan was hardly a trusted actor, and indeed later was involved in a range of regional conflicts, with its president indicted for war crimes. Moreover, bin Laden was one threat among many, and while some in the intelligence community were increasingly concerned, actions against him did not have the urgency they would take on in 1998. It would not have been madness to think that the Sudanese were sacrificing a pawn to reduce international pressure, rather than genuinely pursuing positive relations with the United States.

Yet Rice’s critics charge that the root of her opposition to the Sudanese initiative came from a different place—that, in the words of David Rose, Rice and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright “apparently preferred to trust their instincts that Sudan was America’s enemy, and so refused to countenance its assistance.” The origins of these instincts might not have been worries about Sudanese terror. An in-depth Reuters report notes that Rice associated with “The Council,” a clique of human-rights activists that pressed for the United States to change its Sudan policy: instead of dealing exclusively with officials in Khartoum, they advocated it talk to the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, the southern rebels.

In 1996, Rice brought John Prendergast, a key figure in the Council, into the administration. Soon, Rice had successfully pushed for sanctions on Sudan, and the United States began providing arms to Sudan’s neighbors with the goal, Prendergast told Reuters, of helping them change the regime in Khartoum. After a highly controversial U.S. attack on an alleged chemical-weapons plant in Khartoum in the wake of the embassy bombings, cooperation was off the table. The United States has a long history of working with otherwise-unfriendly countries against terrorism. Yet thanks in no small part to Rice’s principled opposition, we’ll never know if Sudan’s offers on bin Laden and Al Qaeda were genuine.

Inheriting a Complicated Peace

A decade later, the Obama administration was running into trouble as it attempted to consummate the U.S.-brokered north-south peace—2005’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA)—with a referendum on South Sudanese independence. The north’s ruling National Congress Party was dragging its feet on implementing the deal, and several key issues remained unresolved. Counterterror cooperation finally had opened up after the September 11th attacks—the Sudanese were reportedly terrified of being next on Bush’s list—but attempts to restore relations had made little progress. And at the same time as it played nice with the south, Khartoum was waging a genocidal counterinsurgency campaign to the northwest, in Darfur, attracting scathing criticism from human-rights advocates, including the members of the “Council.”

This complex and volatile setting was fertile ground for policy disagreement. Some in the administration, most notably Special Envoy to Sudan Scott Gration, pushed for allowing a “reset” with Khartoum in return for cooperation on peace in the South, arguing that otherwise the northerners “had no incentive to let the southerners vote on independence.” Those in his camp feared that attacking Sudan on all fronts would prompt it to compound its misbehavior, risking an end to the CPA. However, Rice, now U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, “maintained vocal skepticism, believing that Khartoum's treatment of troubled areas outside the south, like Darfur, warranted continuing condemnation.”

A 2009 cable highlights the tension that Rice’s position created with the South Sudanese rebels she had once backed. A delegation of Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) officials told Rice that

the potential for war between the north and south was high. In addition to obstructing CPA implementation, the NCP was arming Arab tribes, sending troops to border areas and encouraging tribal conflicts within southern SUDAN. The GOSS [Government of South Sudan] also faced an economic crisis and had lost seventy-five percent of its revenues. [One official] said this had serious implications for GOSS survival . . .

Rice noted their worries, and then complained that the SPLM “had failed to present a plan that encompassed the genocide and killing in Darfur.” She quizzed them on their contacts with the Darfur rebels and on Sudan’s expulsion of NGOs from Darfur. She told the delegation that “the United States strongly supports CPA implementation and wanted to prevent collapse in SUDAN but that ‘we can't implement the CPA at the expense of Darfur.’” In other words, Rice was telling the southern rebels that America wouldn’t put its weight behind the treaty it had brokered unless they could help deliver peace in areas hundreds of miles beyond their control. 

The War Comes to Washington

Meanwhile, human-rights activists Rice had associated with on the “Council” were going after special envoy Gration. His push for carrots, not just sticks, in dealing with Khartoum was heavily criticized, drawing particular ire from Council “Deputy Emperor” Eric Reeves. There’s certainly a case to be made that Gration was simply naive, as Rice’s clique charged. His public remarks frequently created difficulties for the administration, coming off as tasteless as best, cartoonish at worst. He complained that the Sudanese leader’s war crimes indictment by the International Criminal Court “will make my mission more difficult.” Explaining his support of engagement with Khartoum, he said, “We've got to think about giving out cookies. Kids, countries—they react to gold stars, smiley faces, handshakes, agreements, talk, engagement.” The New Yorker had even branded him “the most mystical believer in Obamaism” while he was assisting the then Senator’s 2008 presidential campaign, after he told Nicholas Lemann that

People are more alike than their cultures and religions. When Obama talks about global citizens, it’s the same framework. You see, religion and culture—they’re the way people communicate their values. They want stability, order, education.

As envoy, his assessments of Khartoum’s behavior were similarly rose-colored.

Still, wherever Gration was coming from in his dispute with Rice and the human-rights hawks of the Council, he seemed to be getting something right. Sudanese officials appreciated his softer approach, and a regime critic told the Washington Post that “Gration is ‘completely different’ from previous envoys, who succeeded only in alienating the people who hold the levers of power in Sudan.”

Washington's internal dispute over Sudan continued for months, with Rice’s proposal more or less prevailing—the U.S. gave “equal priority” to the South, Darfur, and counterterror. There was little progress until Obama intervened, fearful that the civil war could reopen if diplomacy stalled. The result was a policy that hamstrung Gration’s ability to freelance, but incorporated many elements of his incentive-centered approach. (Gration would eventually be drummed out of the State Department over security irregularities.)