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The Obama Administration’s Naively Even-Handed Response to a Crisis in Sudan

When Barack Obama released a video message to Sudan and South Sudan last Sunday, he urged the people of both countries to reject armed conflict and return to negotiations. Obama gravely warned that “heated rhetoric on both sides has raised the risk of war.” With the two countries once again on the brink of a full-scale armed conflict, the President’s message was well-intentioned. But it also revealed the key flaw in the administration’s policy towards the two Sudans’ collision course: a naïve even-handedness.

The current crisis began when South Sudan, in late March, invaded Heglig, a disputed oil-rich border town that has been controlled by the north for decades, pulled out, and then re-invaded on April 10. Khartoum responded with bombing runs deep inside southern territory. The south’s actions set off a wave of international condemnations: U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon stated that the seizure was illegal, and both the African Union and the European Union condemned the incursion. What’s somewhat more surprising is that the United States joined the chorus. State Department spokesperson Mark Toner “strongly condemned” the invasion on April 16; the next day, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. and current U.N. Security Council president Susan Rice told reporters that the Council had discussed sanctioning both countries for their actions over the previous week.

The White House thought that the best way to diffuse the conflict was to publicly insist that the South Sudan had ceded the moral high ground. But what the American and international condemnations ignored was what came before the south’s incursion into Heglig: repeated military provocations by the north. Last summer, just weeks before the south officially became independent, the northern military entered and then leveled the disputed city of Abyei. On March 26, the northern air force began to attack disputed territories currently controlled by the south, and on April 9, the northern military began shelling Teshwin, a town near Heglig. This was not unusual—the northern government had bombed oil fields inside of South Sudan’s Unity State just three weeks earlier, and had even bombed a refugee camp in the state back in November. These bombings were accompanied by Khartoum distancing itself from the peace process: On March 26, northern president Omar al-Bashir cancelled an upcoming meeting with his southern counterpart, Salva Kiir, in the southern capital of Juba. And on April 7, the northern government announced plans to begin stripping southerners who fled to the present-day north Sudan during the country’s 22-year civil war of their Sudanese citizenship, abandoning an informal agreement reached just days earlier. Juba’s response to such aggression from its neighbor had been commendably restrained, though its patience has received little international recognition.

To be sure, South Sudan’s recent seizure of Heglig did nothing to ameliorate the conflict. But as an effort to put a halt to the north’s bombing campaign, and to prevent the north from settling the border issue through violent blackmail, it should have been given a chance to succeed. Instead, the Obama administration, Juba’s closest international ally, demanded that it withdraw, then strongly implied that Juba and Khartoum were equally culpable for the conflict. The result was predictable: South Sudan retreated, and the pace of the north’s bombing campaign subsequently increased. On Monday, northern jets bombed a marketplace in Bentiu, the capital of Unity State; on Tuesday, a newspaper in Juba reported that South Sudanese border towns near Heglig had come under renewed ground attack.

By joining the U.N., the EU and the A.U. in condemning the southern incursion into Heglig, the U.S. government effectively validated Khartoum’s conviction that it is the victim in its conflict with South Sudan. The U.S. was in a position to stand up to a strategically and morally flawed consensus position—to argue that, after the northern invasion of Abyei and six months of air attacks inside of Unity State, South Sudan had a right to both defend itself and counter the north’s bad-faith approach to negotiation over their disputed border. Instead, by assigning equal blame for the conflict, the Obama administration handed a strategic victory to the same regime in Khartoum responsible for the worst atrocities during the Darfur conflict, while alienating Washington’s Western-leaning partners in Juba.

It is not too late for the administration to turn the situation around. Obama should make clear to Sudan, either through a public statement or through Sudan envoy Princeton Lyman, that the U.S. will steadfastly support South Sudan in its conflict with Khartoum. Bashir should know not to expect any more American diplomatic interventions on his behalf. 

This week, Southern President Salva Kiir was in Beijing meeting with Chinese premiere Hu Jintao. Obama should make sure that Kiir’s next international stop is Washington, D.C., where the president can reassure the South Sudanese leader that the United States’ top diplomatic priority in the region is an end to all northern hostilities in internationally-recognized southern territory. A Security Council resolution to this effect—one that condemns Khartoum for the perpetuation of the conflict—would further communicate to Bashir that the international community’s scrutiny has shifted north. Indeed, this is where Obama’s attention should have been from the start of the crisis. Failing an ally, while validating the strategic calculus of a belligerent, autocratic regime, is no way to prevent a war.

Armin Rosen is a freelance writer based in New York.