Muslim Wire

O’s lame indecision

Posted in Politics, Society by muslimwire on October 22, 2009


IN recent months, the Obama administration has been agonizing over how to deal with Sudan’s genocidal government, trying to choose between soft diplomatic engagement and a hard set of punitive measures. On Monday, after months of deliberations, we finally got its answer: It’s trying both.

Indecision is a signature of President Obama‘s foreign policy. His failure to pronounce clear-cut American objectives regarding Russia, Afghanistan, Iran, Honduras and the Palestinian Authority, to name a few, will likely haunt his administration for years. But Sudan was supposed to be a special case for a president whose African roots are a source of world admiration.

Some of Obama’s top foreign-policy advisers hail from the front lines of Sudan activism. United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice headed the State Department‘s Africa desk in the Clinton administration. A senior foreign-policy adviser, Samantha Power, has advocated greater American involvement in Sudan, including the use of air power; her best-known book deals with America’s responsibilities in the face of genocide.

Nevertheless, like all administrations, the Obama White House ended up placing Sudan on the foreign-policy backburner — as it dealt with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and Arab-Israeli peace talks. No longer. On Monday, Rice and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton finally unveiled the administration’s new Sudan policy.

To achieve its goals, America will use a “menu of incentives and disincentives,” Clinton said — suggesting attempts at diplomacy, and sanctions as a fallback. She didn’t detail which new sanctions would be employed or whether negotiations with the regime of President Omar al-Bashir would immediately take place, and at what governmental level. More important, Clinton stayed fuzzy about the objectives the supposedly new “menu” was designed to achieve.

The awful situation on the ground changed quite a bit while Obama was taking his time formulating this Sudan policy. A year ago, the toughest issues there involved the Western province of Darfur, where 300,000 people had been killed since government-backed nomadic tribes launched a war in 2003, which America rightly termed “genocide.”

This year, the “troubles” also moved to the southern part of the country, where the Muslim Bashir government has for decades oppressed Christians and Animists, and where past agreements that put a temporary lid on the fighting are now unraveling.

Meanwhile, in another game changer, Bashir was indicted on war-crime charges by the International Criminal Court. That’s what happens when the Bush administration, busy fighting the War on Terror, deferred much of the Sudan decisions to Western European humanists.

Rather than making the tough choices needed to end the Darfur atrocities, they opted for the ICC. (Imagine launching the Nuremberg trials before the end of World War II to avoid the blood, sweat and tears necessary to defeat the Nazis.) Instead of being placed in custody, Bashir keeps a lid on his country from Khartoum. So, how do you deal with an indicted war criminal?

The new dynamics call for a new set of policies. But Monday’s much-awaited Sudan policy pronouncement contained no new ideas — beyond vague references to “incentives” for good Khartoum behavior. I’m told that advocates of tough policies, led by Rice, lost out to “realists” who favor diplomacy, like Sudan point man Scott Gration.

Oppressed southern Sudanese Christians, or Darfur villagers in refugee camps across the border in Chad, who aren’t well versed in the details of Washington’s infighting, could be forgiven for not jumping for joy. And Bashir can tell his lieutenants he’s out of the world’s doghouse.

North Africa, where al Qaeda and other terror organizations are strengthening their foothold, is a vital region for America’s interests. (Osama bin Laden found shelter in Khartoum in the 1990s.) Mostly, however, Obama’s Sudan policymakers must decide how to help victims of atrocities and prevent the next genocide. To do that, they must go beyond policy tools (“carrots and sticks”) and devise an actual policy, with goals that would be clear to all involved. Offering a “menu” — an Obama foreign-policy staple — isn’t enough.


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