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The TNR Roundtable Part 7: What Should Obama Do About Darfur?

Click here to read Part 6: No Option But to Negotiate.

Click here for links to each part of the conversation.

From: Andrew Natsios
To: Alex de Waal, Richard Just, Eric Reeves, Elizabeth Rubin, Alan Wolfe

Editor's Note: We are pleased to welcome Andrew Natsios to the discussion. Natsios served as U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan in 2006 and 2007.

I agree with nearly all of Alex de Waal's comments on the centrality of the North-South peace agreement in any U.S. policy toward Sudan. If war resumes, Sudan may collapse as a state with terrible humanitarian consequences. The Darfur civil war has evolved from a massive ethnic cleansing campaign, with widespread atrocities by the Sudanese government and their Arab militia allies, to a low-level insurgency. Alex is correct that the best data is that about 150 people were killed a month in Darfur last year, of whom about a third were Arabs killed by other Arabs. Civilian deaths in any conflict are deplorable, but U.S. policy must be based on future risk not past history. The risk of massive deaths and atrocities has moved from Darfur to the North-South axis.

I have one caveat: If the Sudanese government attempts, in retaliation for the ICC arrest warrant decision, to expel all aid agencies from the IDP camps in Darfur, thus making them eventually uninhabitable, or tries to forcibly disperse the people in the camps using their military or allied Arab militias, then Darfur would require a swift response by the U.S. to avoid a large-scale loss of life. One of my many concerns with the ICC arrest warrant is the consequences to the humanitarian relief operation in the Darfur IDP camps. As we write, the Sudanese government has announced the expulsion of nine NGOs from the camps because of the ICC action, which may just be the beginning.

Having said that, I think the ICC arrest warrant was a serious mistake even beyond these risks because it makes any set of political arrangements to resolve Sudan's ongoing governance crisis even more remote than they already were before the decision. President Bashir and his party are much less likely to negotiate on Darfur or implement key provisions of the CPA if they think the mediators' disguised agenda is regime change, which is how they see the ICC actions.

I think any discussion of U.S. policy toward Sudan must ask one central question: What is the objective of the policy? If it is regime change, the Obama administration should follow one set of actions. If the objective is to support a process negotiated by the Sudanese themselves, which will address some of the political problems that have repeatedly led to large losses of human life and terrible suffering since independence, then you follow a very different process. We do have recent experience with attempts by the U.S. government at regime change in North Korea, Iran, and Iraq, the latter of which may be one reason the Obama administration is properly proceeding with caution in Sudan. Sudan is larger geographically and far more complex than these three countries, the risk of further bloodshed on a large scale is very real if the dissolution of the Sudanese state occurs, and the risk of future chaos in a collapsed Sudan engulfing some of the nine neighboring countries is very real. We don't do regime change very well, nor is any potential policy to remove the regime likely to be successful without unleashing forces that could lead to much greater levels of violence. We will have virtually no allies if we pursue a policy of regime change, not in Europe, not in the Arab world, and not in Africa, even though governments in all of these regions despise the Bashir government. I have spoken to many of them over years and I don't believe any amount of persuasion or leadership by the United States is going change their views on this.

We have two examples of how external pressure on the Sudanese regime has backfired. When the Bush administration announced plans for an aggressive new sanctions regime (which I helped design and urged President Bush to approve) against Khartoum in March 2007, President Bashir retaliated against our friends and allies in Southern Sudan by stopping oil payments (under the North-South peace agreement, oil revenues are split 50-50 between the North and South) to the Southern treasury, canceling the withdrawal of thousands of Northern troops (who were required to leave the South by a fixed date), rejecting a very generous offer by Southern Sudanese leaders to settle the dispute over the status of Abeyei (the Kashmir of Sudan--a disputed area between the South and North--which is a tinderbox), and remobilizing Arab militias that committed some of the worst atrocities against the South during the 1980s and early 1990s. This was not what we had in mind when we designed the sanctions regime, but that is what followed its implementation.

In late December 2007, Congress passed and President Bush reluctantly signed the divestiture legislation which protects from lawsuits certain retirement and investment funds that divest themselves of securities from companies doing business in Sudan. Within a few days of his decision, a USAID democracy and governance officer whose job was to help with the preparation for the election in 2009 was assassinated with his Sudanese driver. Within a month, the worst bombing of Darfuri villages in three years by the Sudanese military took place, Sudanese proxies attacked Ndjamena, the capital of Chad, and tried to overthrow President Deby (who was seen by Bashir as an ally of some of the Darfuri rebels), and the Sudanese military brazenly attacked African Union peacekeeping troops, killing more than 20 soldiers. Again, this was hardly the desired outcome of the divestiture legislation.

We constantly overestimate our own influence over events inside Sudan (and other countries as well), misunderstand the internal political dynamics we are dealing with, and simultaneously pursue contradictory strategies toward the country, alternating between engagement and regime change. When we go after them, they respond in kind. That is why I think the U.S. should pursue an aggressive diplomatic strategy geared toward achieving a political settlement that can bring some stability back to the country, and arrest slide toward state failure.

Some advocates argue the Obama administration should use military force to expel Bashir from power. What is the likely human cost of the military option? Bashir and his allies believe if they lose power they will be at risk of execution by their own people or arrest and trial at the ICC if they leave the country. One of the most powerful figures in the government has said they will "make the country ungovernable" if they are forced from power. I believe they are not only capable of it, but will do it. The regime was about to begin arming Nile River Arab populations in greater Khartoum to help security forces massacre the two million displaced Southerners who live in the city in late 2007 when SPLA troops seemed to be massing for an attack on Khartoum.

I think an Obama administration policy of confrontation, military action or threats of it, and regime change may well result in a worst-case scenario of a collapsed state, more bloodshed, and human suffering on a grand scale--and certainly no political settlement to stitch the country back together again.

What is the alternative? It is to pursue a detailed road map with the central government first and foremost on the North-South issues that Alex de Waal enumerated in his commentary. If the rebels can form a united political and military front, which they have failed thus far to do (a failure which has been exacerbated by the interference of neighboring countries supporting several of the rebel movements at once), a Darfur peace agreement might be worked out.

While some provisions of the CPA have not been implemented, many have. More importantly, there is no war--and, having traveled to Southern Sudan for twenty years, I have never seen improvements in people's lives like this before. A nearly autonomous Southern government has been set up, people are returning to their homes from displaced and refugee camps, business is flourishing in Southern cities, schools, roads, and health clinics are being built, almost four billion dollars in oil revenue has been transferred to the South, and the U.S. government is helping to transform the SPLA from a guerilla force into a conventional army capable of defending the South against a Northern attack should it take place in the future. The CPA is the one model that has changed the dynamic in Sudan, and it has the best chance of doing so in the future; but it faces critical hurdles, which must be the focus of U.S. policy between now and the referendum in 2011 on secession.

Click here for links to each part of the conversation.

Andrew Natsios is a professor at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service. He was U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan in 2006 and 2007.

By Andrew Natsios