Finally! A sense of urgency about Sudan. In a major foreign policy address on September 8, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the country as a "ticking time bomb." Yet it may already be too late. The “bomb” has been ticking for over five and a half years, and neither the Bush administration nor the Obama administration has been willing to devote the appropriate attention to defuse it.

Self-determination referenda are scheduled for early January 2011, in both Southern Sudan and the contested border enclave of Abyei. There is precious little time to avert a return to civil war in the next 120 days, as unresolved issues between the Khartoum regime and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in the South threaten to derail the voting process spelled out in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). A host of important electoral mechanics and procedures remain to be agreed upon, and Khartoum gives every sign that it is trying to run out the clock, thereby forcing Southern Sudan either to delay the referenda or to make a unilateral declaration of independence. Either could easily become a casus belli, as could Khartoum’s blunt refusal to honor the results of the referenda—or an attempt to preempt those results militarily.

So how can we maximize the chances of a peaceful separation within Africa’s largest, and ethnically most diverse, country? How can we deal with the perverse fact that Sudan’s oil reserves lie so near the North/South border, as do vast quantities of arable land? The question is made especially difficult by the fact that these oil reserves are chiefly in the South—80 percent is a common figure—while Chinese-constructed oil infrastructure lies mainly in the north. Moreover, the border regions, including Abyei, are among the most populous in Sudan, and ethnic tensions are close to boiling. How can we resolve the various disputes that have festered for so many years?

Clinton’s answer to these questions received too little attention, obscured as it was by her media-friendly “ticking time bomb” metaphor. In her reply to a questioner, she laid out the core of the Obama administration's approach:

“The reality is that this [an 'inevitable' Southern vote for secession] is going to be a very hard decision for the north [the Khartoum regime] to accept, and so we’ve got to figure out some ways to make it worth their while to peacefully accept an independent South, and for the South to recognize that unless they want more years of warfare, and no chance to build their own new state, they’ve got to make some accommodations with the North, as well.”

Behind the equanimity of these words, Clinton's statement is little more than an upgraded diplomatic version of U.S. Special Envoy Scott Gration’s declaration that the way to “engage” with Khartoum is by means of “cookies”: "Kids, countries—they react to gold stars, smiley faces, handshakes, agreements, talk, engagement." Yet in the year since Gration made these notorious remarks, and set the course of U.S. policy, the regime has accelerated violence in Darfur, restricted humanitarian access even more severely, blocked reports on humanitarian conditions, and become even more hostile to the UN peacekeeping force (UNAMID). For good measure, the regime oversaw its continuation of power by engineering a massive electoral travesty in April. In dealing with the South, far from responding positively to the inducements the Obama administration has offered, the regime has refused to engage in good faith on many of the outstanding issues between Khartoum and Juba, capital of the provisional government of South Sudan. This is hardly a record of diplomatic success or a validation of Gration’s theory about how to induce good behavior.

Based on this misconceived diplomatic theory, Clinton is offering the following prescription: reward Khartoum (“we’ve got to figure out some ways to make it worth their while to peacefully accept an independent South”) and squeeze the South (“the South [must] recognize that unless they want more years of warfare, and no chance to build their own new state, they’ve got to make some accommodations with the North”).

Translation? On the many contested issues that Khartoum has refused to address in any serious fashion for five and a half years, the regime is nonetheless to be offered concessions; and since most of these issues involve zero-sum resolution, this means the South, which has generally acted in good faith, must be prepared to make sacrifices. This is obduracy rewarded, a pattern of Western diplomacy with which Khartoum is all too familiar.

But the leadership in the South can be pushed only so far, and even it has its red lines. For example, in Abyei—the most likely flashpoint for renewed conflict—Khartoum is moving many tens of thousands of nomadic Misseriya Arabs into the northern part of the enclave so that they might vote in the referendum, which will in turn determine whether Abyei remains with the north or becomes part of an independent South Sudan. If the traditional residents of the region—mainly Ngok Dinka—make the decision, the region will choose overwhelmingly to side with the South. But if the Misseriya are moved in sufficient numbers (many are heavily armed), and Khartoum again engages in electoral manipulation, the results could easily go the other way. The Sudanese government is also keeping a heavy military presence in and near Abyei, in order to ensure its ability to control or threaten the region. (The way it does so is brutal: In May 2008, Khartoum’s notorious Thirty-First Brigade burned Abyei town to the ground and displaced perhaps 100,000 civilians). It is hardly accidental that the Abyei Referendum Commission, a key feature of the CPA, has yet to be formed, despite repeated complaints by the leadership in Juba.

The story of Khartoum’s obduracy is repeated again and again: unsettled disputes over five key border delineations; a refusal to settle issues of post-secession citizenship (key for the almost 2 millions southerners in the north); unreasonable demands about oil revenue-sharing and the portion of the huge external debt ($38 billion) that will be foisted upon an independent South Sudan; an unwillingness to engage in discussions about military disengagement; and an ominous silence on the role that will be played by the U.N. peacekeeping force in the South (UNMIS) in monitoring a demilitarized zone along the border.

It is a scandal that the United States and its partners in the Sudan peace process have allowed five and a half years to pass without solving what have long been known to be the fundamental obstacles to a peaceful vote in January 2011. Secretary Clinton’s expedient response to this belatedness is myopically one-sided; it will alienate the Southern leadership, embolden Khartoum, and make it all too likely that the “bomb” will explode.

Eric Reeves, a professor of English Language and Literature at Smith College, runs sudanreeves.org

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