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The TNR Roundtable Part 6: What Should Obama Do About Darfur?

No option but to negotiate.

Click here to read Part 5: Obama Should Back the ICC.

Click here for links to each part of the conversation.

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

Let me try to steer the debate back to the question of what the Obama administration should do about Sudan during its first term.

A policy needs to be relatively simple (one or two priorities) with aims that are clear to all Sudanese parties. President Obama's starting point should be an explicit recognition that Sudanese problems will ultimately be resolved by Sudanese people, and that the United States can influence the outcome but neither can nor wants to determine it. He should avoid the trap of contemplating the ideal and thereby failing to do the essential.

Faced with the humanitarian access crisis in Darfur today, Obama should recognize that ad hoc escalation over the issues of the moment will not only undermine long-term objectives, but will damage the short-term aim of getting humanitarian programs back to where they were last week--that is, remarkably successful. Rattling a bigger saber runs the serious risk that the Sudanese government will respond in kind. (That's how wars can start--each side is so captivated by its own analysis and its own rightness that it takes a step, thinking that is an instrument of leverage, but which the other sees as an instrument of war, and then each blames the other for overstepping the mark.) The reality is that any effective humanitarian program has to be negotiated with Khartoum, and if that negotiation is to work, it needs to begin with some shared objectives that can be agreed on. Hence my emphasis on the issue of Sudanese national survival. Let's start with that and there is a chance that the rest will fall into place.

Obama should weigh the interests of retributive justice, peace, stability, humanitarian access, and the other goals that it avows in Sudan. He will surely find that it is a fool's errand to subjugate all other objectives to the pursuit of an arrest warrant that will probably never be implemented.

He should not be tempted to make threats he cannot enforce--or at least not enforce without the kind of commitment of money, armed force, and political capital that his predecessor did in Iraq. That's an obvious point but one that's often overlooked in discussions of Sudan. In particular, when using instruments of leverage, it's important to recognize their limitations--specifically that no amount of pressure will compel a government to commit political suicide; only a war can do that.

The arrest warrant has certainly done what Eric Reeves demands, namely change Bashir's calculations about how he will survive. A week ago, he had the option of surviving through negotiation. Today he can only survive through intransigence and, if necessary, fighting. The last week has amply demonstrated the fallacy of the idea that the more threats are made against the Sudanese government, the better behaved it will be.

The Islamist-security leadership in Khartoum was always collective, so deposing President Bashir is not attractive to his close colleagues (who don't want him to rat on them) nor to the rest of us. Nafie Ali Nafie, the man best-placed to take over if the cabal decides that Bashir is a liability who should be cast aside, has made it perfectly clear that he sees an international conspiracy aimed at regime change, and that at the end of the day either the NCP government will defeat this threat or it will be overthrown. He and his calculation about how he will survive have been strengthened by the ICC. Salah Gosh, the intelligence chief (whom the Enough Project recently endorsed as a potential putchist, on the grounds of his "willingness to work with the international community," as shown by his links with the CIA), has a more nuanced analysis, but knows equally that the leadership hangs together, or hangs separately.

A week ago, there was a degree of leverage. Today, there isn't. Tomorrow, there might be again--if we get back to the negotiating table.

The contributions to the debate thus far are interesting but I am hoping that the next round can be more constructive in making proposals for a workable policy.

Alan Wolfe wonders if the ICC should have thought more about the consequences of its actions. He is correct, but the problem is bigger than that. The prosecutor can argue that it's not his job to consider the political consequences of retributive justice, and he should only identify criminals and prosecute them. It's the UN Security Council that is the custodian of peace and security. But it has failed even to discuss the possible consequences of an arrest warrant for Sudanese politics and humanitarian operations, despite repeated entreaties by the African Union to do so.

Eric Reeves's contribution is rich in adverbs and leaves no room for ambiguity about where he stands. But I wouldn't want to characterize Darfur as "ongoing genocide." Having seen a number of wars and famines and massacres, I wouldn't count 150 fatalities per month (according to the Genocide Intervention Network data)--a number which includes daylight robbery, of which there is much, and inter-tribal fighting among the Arabs, of which there is more--as anything except a low-intensity conflict. (Slightly more than half of the fatalities are Arabs and members of government security services.) Much worse happened in 2003-04, which remains unremedied; our immediate concern should be what is "ongoing." If we use extreme language for these circumstances--and extreme policy instruments too--then we don't have much left when there's a real crisis.

Incidentally, to Elizabeth Rubin, I would point out that Julie Flint and I didn't describe Darfur as "slow motion genocide." (That was the title of Nicholas Kristof's review.) Chapter 6 of Darfur: A New History of a Long War should in fact be read as an alternative description of what happened after the end of major hostilities in January 2005. We entitled the chapter "Wars Within Wars" in reference to the fragmentation not only of the rebels but of the government-armed militia as well, whose internecine fighting has been a major contributor to the crisis over the last three years. I was not surprised when the ICC judges decided that the prosecutor had failed to make a case that President Bashir should be charged with genocide.

Click here for links to each part of the conversation.

Alex de Waal, co-author of Darfur: A New History of a Long War, runs the blog Making Sense of Darfur.

By Alex de Waal