By Roger Winter
February 28, 2010 — In an article published in the Sudan Tribune of May 27, 2009 I explained the American expression of ‘selling someone down the river’ and pondered rhetorically if that kind of betrayal was what the Obama Administration was doing to Southern Sudanese. I decided that, at the time, it was too soon to come to that conclusion, but there were reasons to be seriously concerned. That is now very ancient history. It has been for some time now very clear that, knowingly or not, selling-out all of Sudan’s marginalized people is exactly what President Obama’s Administration is doing. The Agent of this tragedy is President Obama’s Special Envoy to Sudan Scott Gration; his Controller is, obviously, President Obama himself.
As far back as last September 29’s Washington Post, journalist Stephanie McCrummen analyzed the charade the Obama Administration was performing regarding Sudan, purporting to be engaged in a serious Administration-wide policy review process because of disagreements with the preceding Administration’s Sudan policy, while all the time Obama’s Special Envoy on Sudan was already creating and actually implementing a entirely new policy on the ground and under the radar. The new official, written policy, once released, seemed to be a good policy; I and many others publicly said so in many fora. However, a written policy is only as good as the quality and faithfulness of its implementation. On neither count should anyone except Khartoum’s infamous National Congress Party be optimistic.
Special Envoy Gration has demonstrated on many occasions that he finds ‘those guys’ in Khartoum ‘so easy to deal with’. His NCP interlocutors have been in their roles in Khartoum for two decades; they know very well how to read American special envoys to Sudan. On the February 24, SE Gration is quoted in the Khartoum press after meetings in the Presidential Palace as saying, speaking of the ‘big men’ in the National Congress Party, “It is wonderful to be able to meet with the people that I have gotten to know as the leadership but also as friends”. In this statement he is praising a corrupt leadership cabal that came to power in Khartoum by coup, overturning an elected government; that provided the opportunity for Osama bin Laden to mature as an international terrorist; that is responsible for the deaths of two-and-a-half million ‘marginalized’ Southern Sudanese and the physical destruction of most of the South, Nuba Mountains, Abyei, Southern Blue Nile; that perpetrated genocide in Darfur with the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives; that has largely stolen control of the entire economy of Sudan; that has a 100% perfect record regarding the agreements it signs with others, that is, it never, ever keeps its word; and, finally, which is led by the only sitting head of state that has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for overseeing a program of mass killing of Sudanese people. The number of deaths at Khartoum’s hands is holocaustic.
Americans are beginning to understand the implications of SE Gration’s approach to the NCP. At first, many in the American population who follow Sudan were reluctant to criticize the ‘new’ U.S. Administration. That is changing. In the November 5, 2009 The New Republic, a magazine some have characterized as supporting ‘liberal social and social democratic economic policies’ said “Scott Gration is an embarrassment…Since taking over the job, Gration has gone about ingratiating himself to the Sudanese government—an odd choice given that the government is a genocidal one. He seems interested only in offering Khartoum incentives, even though it has provided him basically nothing in return.’ At the opposite side of the political spectrum the American Spectator on February 15 in an article entitled “Obama’s Dreadful Sudan Policy” said “Nowhere has the gap between Obama’s campaign talk and his administration’s actions been greater than on Sudan…Bashir and his cronies clearly do not see Obama as a credible threat. After Obama’s election, Sudan’s ambassador to the U.N. dismissed his promises of a tough Sudan policy as ‘only election slogans.’ Sudan advocates are slowly coming to the same conclusion”. On February 18 thirty-five organizations interested in Sudan in an open letter to President Obama called on the President to relieve Special Envoy Gration of his duties based on an ‘off-the-record’ meeting he held with expatriate Darfuris that some of the Darfur leaders said intimidated them and in which he seemed to be trying to pit Darfuris against Southern Sudanese (see http://allafrica.com/stories/201002181073.html).
America still has a strong active broad-based and bipartisan constituency on behalf of the ravaged people of both Darfur and South Sudan. That constituency has reluctantly but increasingly moved to a position of public criticism of General Gration’s naïve ‘candy, cookies and gold stars’ approach to Khartoum’s junta. But they are wrong to do so as Gration is just the flak-catcher. The real problem is President Obama. Gration reports to the President. Gration’s erratic pattern of making public statements and later denying he made those very statements, including in on-the-record Senate hearings, has been highly visible. The internal disputes on Sudan policy at senior levels of his Administration guarantee that the President is fully aware of what the Special Envoy is doing. That is clearly a major factor in why Vice-President Biden, Senator John Kerry, Secretary Hillary Clinton, have all now all turned on their own public record on Sudan of years past.
While the radical Islamists of Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party and the radical Islamist rebel leader of the Darfur-based Justice and Equality Movement are now moving toward collaboration, the clamor has now begun to postpone not only the already thrice-postponed national elections scheduled for this coming April but also ‘the Referendum’, the ‘Holy Grail’ for Southern Sudanese, won in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement(CPA) when it was signed on January 9, 2005. It is almost universally expected that, in a free and fair vote, the people of the South will vote overwhelmingly for independence. The CPA, in substantial degree the product of serious American diplomacy, sets the timing of the Referendum as January 2011, just over ten months from now.
Sudan has been at war internally for about 80% of the time since independence from the British on January 1, 1956, including twenty-one years of producing mass death in the South and allied areas such as Abyei, Southern Blue Nile and the Nuba Mountains. The two and a half million Sudanese who died were overwhelmingly people of ‘African’ ethnicity and heritage, in Sudanese terms meaning not ‘Arab’. Some northern Sudanese use the term ‘slaves’ for southern Sudanese.
The American phrase ‘selling someone down river’ is thought by many to derive from America’s tragic history of slavery. The concept was that slavery as practiced in the Deep South was often harsher than slavery elsewhere. ‘Uppity’ or otherwise problematic slaves might be punished by being ‘sold down river’.
In The New Republic article cited above, the editors posed and answered a key question; “Is Gration a cynic? A lightweight? We suspect worse: He is a man with an almost utopian theory about international relations.” It is my view that, through his naïve approach to Khartoum, he is essentially selling Southern Sudanese down the river. This time, though, the phrase does not refer to the south-flowing Mississippi, but rather the Nile which flows from Southern Sudan into the very heart of Khartoum in Sudan’s North. If that is where current Administration policy leads, the tragedy that results will necessarily have to be laid at President Obama’s feet and his failure to apply serious diplomacy to the Sudan portfolio. There is precious little time to change our policy course.
Roger winter is former USAID manager and former US State Department special envoy for Sudan assigned to follow Darfur dossier and implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement