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The Problem With Obama's Man in Darfur

I'm always skeptical when someone criticizes an Obama official for "naively favoring carrots over sticks" in our dealings with another country. Too often, such complaints are cover for demagogues who consider any negotiation appeasement. Yet it's becoming harder and harder to deny that this is a more or less undistorted description of the approach being taken by Barack Obama's Darfur envoy, Major General Scott Gration.

What Gration, and the United States, want Khartoum to do at this point is relatively straightforward: in the short term, to readmit the humanitarian aid groups that were expelled after President Bashir was indicted for war crimes (only a few with limited capacity have been allowed to return, under different names); and in the long term, to accept a peace deal that lets Darfur's refugees return home, and guarantees them physical security and political representation.

The question is how to persuade the Sudanese government to come around on these issues. And the general consensus among Sudan watchers is that sticks work better than carrots. As a joint statement by Sudan policy groups recently put it, "[T]he Sudanese government responds much more directly to pressures than they do to incentives."

Here's why I'm worried Gration is getting the balance wrong. First, everything we know about the envoy suggests that he is a "true believer" in Obamaism. Not necessarily the optimistic yet hard-headed realism that Obama himself prefers, but something more like a literal faith in the power of words to transcend international disagreement. As Nick Lemann wrote in The New Yorker last fall:

The most mystical believer in Obamaism whom I met was Scott Gration, the retired Air Force major-general—a burly, friendly, artifice-less guy who assured me that he had only recently begun to wear a tie regularly. … [h]e is more open than the other top Obama advisers in expressing a soaring optimism about the possibility of a less arrogant, more co?perative, more empathetic America leading the world in confronting its most intractable problems. “We’ve screwed up,” he told me. “We don’t really fix these things.” … He went on, “What doesn’t work, in Gration’s mind, 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!”

Gration was impatient with the idea that conflict is the natural state of the world, to be managed rather than resolved. “People are more alike than their cultures and religions,” he said. “When Obama talks about global citizens, it’s the same framework. You see, religion and culture—they’re the way people communicate their values. They want stability, order, education. This is just humanness. Then you add on your religion, your culture—that’s how you execute it.”

Second, when I speak to Sudan experts and former diplomats from across the political spectrum, they all tell me they are concerned Gration has put too large an emphasis on "carrots" at the expense of sticks. And they tend to regard Gration's approach as a genuine cause for worry.

Third, every one of Gration's public statements about Khartoum has emphasized this approach. During his April trip to Khartoum, for example, Gration said, in the video below, that "the United States and Sudan want to be partners, and so we're looking for ways to build stronger bilateral relations":

And in this recent television interview, Gration tells us he will use sticks and carrots. But when asked, "What are some of the sticks?" he responds, "Well, right now we (pause) are looking at carrots." He goes on to mention "sticks that have been put in place already, things like sanctions. But we would like to see if it's possible to incentivize." (See 0:40)

Fourth, as The Washington Post has reported, the Obama administration's comprehensive review of Sudan policy is deadlocked "as a result of differences over how to strike a balance between rewards and penalties to bring about Sudanese cooperation"--with Gration arguing for some key rewards.

Of course, it's certainly possible that Gration is offering conciliatory words in public while twisting arms and delivering threats behind the scenes. But, to all appearances, it seems like he is fashioning his Sudan policy around an ideological attraction to carrots and an aversion to sticks--when everything we know about Sudan tells us that this is precisely the wrong tactic.

Barron YoungSmith is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.