On Wednesday, Barack Obama appointed retired Air Force Major General J. Scott Gration as his special envoy to Sudan. In 2001, when the envoy position was first created, the job entailed brokering a peace deal between Khartoum and rebel groups in the south. It subsequently mutated to include halting Darfur's genocide and reversing President Bashir's expulsion of humanitarian aid workers. So, what does Gration's appointment mean for Darfur policy now?
The Sudan experts I spoke to were cautiously optimistic. Gration himself has usually been caricatured in the press as the ultimate Obamanaut--"the most mystic believer in Obama-ism" prone to "hero-worship." While serving as an attaché during Obama's trip to South Africa, Chad, and Kenya in 2006, he was taken by Obama's ability to speak transformatively about problems with tribal and nationalistic roots, and Gration has been an Obama adviser ever since. (Early in his senate career, Obama's foreign policy brain trust consisted almost entirely of Gration, Samantha Power, Richard Danzig, and Tony Lake.) Since the effectiveness of any special envoy depends wholly on access to the president--since it determines his ability to deliver on threats and promises flows--Gration's history with Obama may bode well.
Additionally, Gration has history with General James Jones, whose NSC has been asserting increased control over the foreign policy process. When Jones was running the United States European Command, Gration served as his plans and policy director--so it's hard not to see Gration's appointment as an assertion of the NSC's power over Sudan policy. Furthermore, the administration's biggest Darfur hawks--Gayle Smith of the ENOUGH project and Samantha Power--also work in the NSC.
Gration's military past is also a plus. While a senator, Obama derived significant street cred from Gration's martial gravitas. Now, Sudan experts tell me that Khartoum will respect the appointment of a military man--especially one like Gration, who ran Iraq's northern no-fly zone during the late 1990s--because President Bashir is himself a colonel and his government will see it as a signal of Obama's forcefulness.
But there are also a few reasons for Darfur interventionists to worry. Significantly, Gration originally had his heart set on running NASA. Obama tried to put him there until defense lobbyists scotched the idea. This raises questions about whether this new assignment is an afterthought for both Gration and the administration. If Obama sees the Darfur envoy simply as a patronage job for loyal supporters--like the multilateral affairs job that went to Power--then he may not be that ambitious about Darfur. That would certainly fit the widespread perception that Obama has so far been ineffectual about Sudan, only rushing to appoint Gration after an uproar from advocacy groups.
And Gration's diplomatic experience is thin--not a good thing for someone about to parachute into the middle of a diplomatic crisis with hundreds of thousands of lives at stake. (Most profiles of Gration emphasize that he knows about Africa by emphasizing how he was born in Congo and speaks Swahili--a language that is of course totally useless in Sudan.) Like previous envoys, it's likely he will spend nine months bringing himself up to speed on the issues; meanwhile, the U.S. will continue on its current blithe course, driven by entrenched players at the State Department.
Finally, Gration's personality and institutional mandate are only so important. Ultimately, it's policy that matters--and we have little idea what policy Gration himself would prefer. In October, he spoke about Darfur, Israel-Palestine, and Georgia to reporter Nick Lemann, telling him that: "We've got to fix the basic issues here. ... What doesn't work is forcing a solution. Create an environment, give people the opportunity to air their differences, and see if they can come together. We don't tell them what the solution is, but we do have an obligation--let's get people in here, find out the needs, see if you can come up with a plan. Don't try to freeze conflicts!" Not necessarily the germ of a coherent Sudan policy.