The Obama administration's appointment of Major General (ret.) Scott Gration as Special Envoy for Sudan is a positive and serious step, and deserving of support. Gration has stature, experience, a unique background as a Swahili-speaking son of missionaries to Africa, and perhaps most importantly, a close relationship with the president who appointed him.
He takes his post at a grave moment. The news from Sudan in recent years has been so unremittingly negative that it is easy to become inured to the situation. But even by its own grim standards and suffering, Sudan is in perilous straits, most immediately from the humanitarian crisis in Darfur, but also as the fragile North-South Peace Agreement threatens to unravel, opening up the dire possibility of renewed civil war or even state collapse. President Omar Hassan al-Bashir is a genocidal despot, but he is also crafty enough to have kept internal rivals at bay and outmanoeuvred years of international efforts to induce him to change his behaviour.
Herewith a few questions for the Obama administration as they announce General Gration's appointment:
1. Don't confuse an appointment with action. Appointing a special envoy is a welcome move in beginning to pressure the Bashir regime in Khartoum. But this appointment by itself does not change a single fact on the ground or save a single life in Sudan. The real test will be what kind of concrete action, if any, follows.
2. Give Gration the access, authority, and resources he needs. Despite their media appeal, the besetting weakness of special envoys is that they have little if any statutory authority or resources at their disposal. An array of bureaus, offices, and senior officials at the State Department, Defense Department, Treasury Department, USAID, and NSC already work on -- and feud over -- Sudan policy. If Gration will have even a chance of succeeding, President Obama will need to ensure that he has direct access to the Oval Office, authority to chair Deputies Committee Meetings of every agency involved in Sudan policy, authority to set policy at that level, authority to speak for the president in negotiations with other governments, and the budgetary resources to carry out his mandate. Even if this list is promised to Gration, Obama will also need to police his own cabinet when agencies inevitably resist their diminished authority or seek to undermine Sudan policy decisions they don't like.
3. Don't let your rhetoric outpace your actions. The Bush administration should not be faulted for not speaking out enough on Sudan. Nor should the Bush administration be faulted for not doing anything on Sudan, as the United States under President Bush arguably showed more commitment on Sudan than almost any other nation. But the Bush administration can be faulted for not doing enough on Sudan, particularly on Darfur. Moreover, our stern words often raised expectations of serious action, and when such action did not follow it diminished our credibility. Khartoum's viciousness and Darfur's suffering are so appalling that people of conscience understandably want to speak out in the strongest terms. Before indulging in further denunciations, the Obama administration needs to ensure it is willing and able to follow through.
4. Bring the Pentagon on board. Any serious new policy needs to involve the Defense Department, especially if tougher measures such as a no-fly zone or blockade of Port Sudan (let alone the possible introduction of U.S. ground forces) are going to be credibly threatened or even implemented. But for several years the Pentagon resisted directives to even create planning scenarios for these types of operations. Gration's background and intimate knowledge of the Pentagon will equip him to bring the Defense Department to the policy table, even if military measures are not eventually used.
5. Be willing to upset China. The two most notable headlines from the Obama administration's China policy thus far consist of pleas to Beijing to finance more U.S. debt and obsequious promises not to press China too much on human rights. This is not an encouraging trajectory. While Beijing is not as much of a shameless heat shield for Khartoum as in recent years (likely from a combination of embarrassment over last year's "Genocide Olympics" campaign and plummeting oil prices), China still wields considerable influence over Sudan. Any road to increased pressure on Khartoum runs through Beijing, and the Obama administration will need to expend significant political capital to get any meaningful assistance from China.
6. Put the blame where it belongs. Though the recent move by the International Criminal Court to issue an arrest warrant for Bashir is debatable as a tactical move -- especially in light of Bashir's subsequent expulsion of humanitarian aid groups -- it has also elicited excessive criticism of the ICC for putting more lives at risk. The moral responsibility for the expulsion of aid groups and genocide against Darfur civilians lies squarely with the Bashir regime. More complaints and debates about the ICC run the risk of diverting international outrage away from where it belongs -- against Khartoum.
7. Keep Africa involved. One of the few bright spots in this otherwise grim recent history of Sudan policy has been the commitment shown by some African nations and the African Union to Darfur. First under AMIS and now under UNAMID, African countries such as Rwanda, Nigeria, and South Africa have committed peacekeeping troops -- 17 of whom have died -- to troubled areas in Sudan. Moreover, African leadership in UNAMID puts the lie to Bashir's pathetic demagoguery and cries of "neo-colonialism" anytime the West threatens to intervene. African nations do not have the resources or the capacity to carry out the mission on their own, but their very involvement speaks volumes about the willingness of many in Africa to take responsibility for their continent (in sad contrast to the neglect many African leaders display towards Zimbabwe).