Barack Obama was clear about the African leader who had turned his troops on his own people: The dictator was creating an unacceptable refugee and humanitarian crisis, Obama said. “When genocide is happening, when ethnic cleansing is happening somewhere around the world, and we stand idly by, that diminishes us. And so, I do believe that we have to consider it as part of our interests, our national interests, in intervening where possible.”
He went on to acknowledge that in a world full of violence, the United States cannot be everywhere. But it should be in certain places. “We could be providing logistical support, setting up a no-fly zone at relatively little cost to us, but we can only do it if we can help mobilize the international community and lead,” Obama said.
The year was 2008 and Obama was talking about the Darfur region of Sudan. Then a presidential candidate, he was pushing for the U.S. to do more to stem the humanitarian crisis in the Central African nation. His critics say he never enacted the policies he called for in the campaign -- a lapse that seems all the more glaring now that the U.S. is considering military action in Libya.
The crisis in Libya has once again highlighted the troubles in neighboring Sudan, which shares the country’s southeast border. Despite a much larger humanitarian crisis in Sudan—some 2 million people have died during a decades-long civil war between North and South -- it is Libya where the administration has gone from zero to 60 in three weeks with its threat to use force to protect the people. The death toll in Libya, while gruesome, is still just a few thousand people. Those who have been pressuring the administration to do more in Sudan wish that the administration was showing the same determination toward pressuring the regime in Khartoum that it is dsiplaying toward Qaddafi’s regime in Tripoli.
“I’m encouraged by his statements with regard to encouraging [Libyan President Col.] Muammar el-Qaddafi to step down,” said Elizabeth Blackney, a GOP strategist-turned-writer who is active in Sudan relief. “My concern is with the inconsistency in calling for dictators who perpetrate human-rights violence against their own people.”
She’s not alone. Sam Bell, the executive director of the Save Darfur Coalition and Genocide Intervention Network, two groups that recently merged, said that the Sudanese would be “scratching their heads” over the president’s decision to threaten to use force to carry out humanitarian assistance in Libya, but not in Sudan. “The [Sudanese President Omar] Bashir government has been as, if not more, brutal in terms of suppressing its people and perpetrating violence against them than Qaddafi has.”
As human-rights activists see it, one difference is that Libya’s disintegration threatens other Arab regimes; Sudan’s collapse has not caused a wave of instability. More important, Libya is oil-rich and Sudan is not. The Sudanese are “at the bottom of the geopolitical pecking order,” said Sudan researcher and analyst Eric Reeves. “And they’ve been treated accordingly.”
If the human-rights community had high expectations of Obama, it is not hard to understand why. As a candidate, he spoke of a national interest that included acting as a world policeman against ethnic violence. Sudan was ground zero for humanitarian assistance. A long war between the Arab Muslim North and the black Christian and animist South cost 2 million lives and ended on paper with the signing of a Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005.
During the 2000s, fighting in the western Sudanese province of Darfur led to massive ethnic cleansing that the Bush administration unabashedly dubbed genocide. Bashir faces an arrest order for war crimes. Earlier this year, the South voted overwhelmingly to succeed, but whether the dictator will allow the split remains to be seen.
Darfur was the central Sudan issue when Obama sought the presidency. In fact, as a candidate, he supported taking many of the same measures in Sudan that the U.S. has either taken or is considering for Libya. On his campaign website, he called on the international community to deploy a “large, capable U.N.-led and U.N.-funded force with a robust enforcement mandate to stop the killings.”
He also called on Washington to further pressure the regime in Khartoum – which was charged with supplying weapons to the Arab Janjaweed militias used to kill Southern Sudanese. Candidate Obama wanted sanctions, no-fly zones, and other forms of pressure brought to bear. In 2007 and 2008, he joined with then-Sens. Joe Biden and Hillary Rodham Clinton in criticizing the Bush administration for engaging with Khartoum. The trio called for the use of sticks, not carrots, in U.S.-Sudan relations.
The administration's policies, however, have been very different from what Obama promised during the campaign. The U.S. helps fund a minor military presence, the African Union/United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur, providing a $536.6 million estimated contribution in FY2011 to a force with a $1.8 billion budget. Of the 22,443 total uniformed personnel serving in UNAMID, zero are from the United States. If an international force goes into Libya, no one expects it to be free of Americans.
National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor says that the current situation in Libya is more akin to the situation in Darfur before the UNAMID forces were deployed in 2007. By that reasoning, the administration continues to support peacekeeping forces in Sudan. But some, like analyst Reeves, say that the United States refuses to provide the forces with the kind of equipment and supplies they would need to be effective.
That’s not to say that Washington has done nothing. The administration was active in critical negotiations to ensure that a referendum allowing the South to vote on independence would take place on time. Against a number of odds, it did, and the people in the South voted overwhelmingly to secede from the North.
Mark Schneider, a senior vice president at the International Crisis Group, which does conflict-prevention analysis and resolution, said that those negotiations may have prevented the country from falling back into the civil war from which it had barely emerged in 2005 with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which the Bush administration helped negotiate.
“The referendum itself was a major achievement. That was a surprise. The outcome was not a surprise,” Schneider said. “But the acceptance of it was also a very positive step.”
That’s also how the administration sees its efforts. “Regional governments, including the government of South Sudan, asked that the United States assist in the last stages of negotiating the referendum by demonstrating to the Sudanese government that there was a path toward normalization if they lived up to their international commitments outlined in the CPA,” Vietor said. By the administration's estimation, getting Khartoum to agree to a separation – not an easy task – was just one step on the way to normalization. To get all the way there, violence in Darfur must end, and the administration says it will continue to press the issue.
It was the road to referendum, however, that has left many activists angry at the administration. In order to get the North to come to the negotiating table, the U.S. had to decouple the issue of peace in Darfur, where an estimated 450,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million displaced. Obama also sent Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., to tell Sudanese authorities that if they allowed the referendum to occur, the State Department’s could remove Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, a major step toward normalization of relations between the two countries.
Reeves, the scholar, argued, “That’s absolutely shocking that you would decouple an issue that you have described as genocide.”
But Vietor said that the president is by no means reversing the policy he proposed as a candidate. “Since the very beginning, he has been clear that we will engage even with those with whom we disagree if doing so allows us to get results. We have provided the Sudanese with a road map for normalization of relations, but only upon the satisfactory completion of the CPA, and, specifically, resolution of the Abyei issue, as well as peace in Darfur.”
It’s true the president pledged to engage with dictators such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran and Kim Jong Il in North Korea; Obama believes that direct, aggressive diplomacy is better than no diplomacy. But as a candidate, he spoke of using sticks in his Sudan policy. As a president, he’s been using carrots. Libya is all about sticks.
The next big test is whether the secession of the South from the North will occur peacefully in Sudan. It is scheduled for July 9, but a host of issues must first be resolved. Chief among them is what to do about Abyei, a city in central Sudan that bridges the North and the South and sits atop a number of the country’s oil fields. It is still unclear whether Abyei will join the North or the South or how oil revenues from the region will be split.
Violence has broken out in the city in recent weeks as the two sides' forces clash. According to reports, at least 100 people have been killed and thousands displaced. Photos from the Satellite Sentinel Project - a group conceived by George Clooney that works with the Enough Project to document violence in Sudan with satellite imagery – confirmed that three villages in the region were burned in a targeted attack.
On Wednesday, the White House called for peace. “This dangerous standoff is unacceptable for the Sudanese people, and we condemn the deployment of forces by both sides,” said a statement that was issued not by the president – who would issue a statement decrying violence in Cote D’Ivoire later that day – but by White House press secretary Jay Carney.
“The type of statement issued by President Obama’s White House today confirms to the South that we’re not being robust against those in the North who are the sponsors of this violence,” said Richard Williamson, who was a special envoy to Sudan during the Bush administration.
John Prendergast of the anti-genocide Enough Project, said that his group is not advocating for the use of U.S. force to deliver humanitarian assistance in Sudan. But the group is monitoring the situation closely. “If the Khartoum regime undermines peace between the North and South, and continues to escalate in Darfur, the [U.S.] administration will have no choice but to alter its present policy,” he said. In Libya, “the swift consequences the U.S. was able to cobble together in the U.N. Security Council was indeed an important precedent, one which we will draw on if the situation deteriorates further in Sudan.”
For now, the administration is safe. As long as military intervention in Libya remains a hypothetical rather than an actuality, human-rights advocates have less to demand. But they’ll be keeping watch.
“I would ask," Reeves said, "why it is that Libyan civilians are more valuable, command more attention, more military commitment than the civilians of Darfur?”
He’s waiting for the Obama administration to prove that such is not the case.
This article appears in the March 14, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.