Shadow Government

Regarding hoisting and petards and Sudan

By Peter Feaver

Will's measured analysis of Team Obama's Sudan policy is kind. Perhaps too kind. From my vantage point, today's Sudan rollout has all the feel of a group being hoisted with their own petard, in this case the bombast of their campaign rhetoric. And precisely because it was all so foreseeable, perhaps this counts as a teachable moment.

The two protagonists, U.N. ambassador Susan Rice and Sudan czar Scott Gration, had key roles during the 2008 presidential campaign. In particular, their job was to peddle the meme that Barack Obama could be trusted on national security because he was going to be even tougher than George W. Bush or John McCain when push came to shove. Gration, a retired Air Force general, was trotted out to participate in one of the more remarkable attacks on Senator McCain -- a series of retired military people floating the notion that McCain was temperamentally unsuited to be commander in chief, a not-so-subtle effort to play off of the notion that McCain's time as a PoW may have left him unhinged. Gration put it this way: "I have tremendous respect for John McCain, but I would not follow him."

Ambassador Rice, for her part, was especially barbed on the issue of Sudan: "The Bush administration has spent years not only talking at very senior levels with one of the world's worst tyrants, who is responsible for genocide, but also reportedly offered the regime major concessions in exchange for minor steps and rolled out the red carpet for some of its most reprehensible officials." She didn't mention "gold stars and cookies," but she might as well have.

The notion that President Obama was going to be more hawkish on Darfur than President Bush should have been easy to dismiss from the outset. For years, President Bush was the single person in his administration most passionately committed to the Sudan issue (first the North-South civil war and then the Darfur genocide). If memory serves, he would raise it in his bilaterals with other world leaders even when his staff had not included it in the briefing materials. He regularly pressed the staff to come up with viable ways to move the Darfur issue along. Yet we were unable to make as much progress as the president wanted for several reasons: (1) our nonmilitary coercive diplomacy toolkit was already heavily utilized on Sudan; (2) our military coercive diplomacy toolkit was fully extended in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere; and (3) the global balance of resolve heavily favored those backing the Khartoum regime (what we called Khartoum's "heat shield") and not our weakly committed allies.

The Obama campaign made it sound like the problem was with President Bush. With today's roll-out, the Obama administration is conceding that the problems actually lay elsewhere and they have proven just as insurmountable for President Obama as they were for President Bush. Perhaps it is time for a different kind of apology tour.

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