South Sudan shows what Obama can do when he leads

Deputy editorial page editor July 3, 2011

After two decades of war, years of exhausting negotiations and a last-minute burst of bloodshed, the new nation of South Sudan will be born this week. Some 8 million Africans, many of them Christian, will be freed from the Muslim Arab dictatorship based in Khartoum. For this considerable breakthrough, substantial credit should go to the Obama administration — which has demonstrated what can be achieved when U.S. power and influence are fully engaged under the president’s direction.

In Sudan, as nowhere else in the Middle East, President Obama has chosen to lead from the front. Starting last summer, when U.S. officials realized that a fragile 2005 peace accord between the north and south was in danger of crumbling, Obama and his top aides have pursued a concerted, coherent and hard-headed campaign to preserve the south’s long-anticipated move toward independence.

Jackson Diehl is deputy editorial page editor of The Post. He is an editorial writer specializing in foreign affairs and writes a biweekly column that appears on Mondays.

Obama appointed not just one but two special ambassadors to shuttle between the Khartoum government of Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the southern administration, rebels in the province of Darfur and the numerous other interested parties; he attended a special meeting on Sudan at the United Nations, thereby attracting many other world leaders, and delivered a strong speech. He dispatched Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) to lay out a detailed “road map” for Bashir’s regime: If it would allow the south to go peacefully, it could earn a release from sanctions, debt relief and diplomatic recognition from the United States.

The result was a successful referendum on independence in the south in January, which will trigger the country’s declaration of independence this Saturday. South Sudan will immediately become one of the least developed nations in the world — though it is blessed with substantial oil reserves — with only a few miles of paved roads and a largely illiterate population. If its government has a chance for success, it will be due in large part to some $300 million in U.S. aid, which has gone into building a basic infrastructure of government.

Of course there are still big problems — foremost among them the military offensives launched by the north last month in the disputed area of Abyei and the Nuba Mountains of southern Kordofan state, a northern territory where rebels allied with the south are dug in. But again the Obama administration has responded aggressively. It backed a deal in Abyei under which the north agreed to withdraw its troops and allow refugees to return, and it wrote the resolution passed by the U.N. Security Council authorizing the deployment of 4,000 peacekeeping troops from Ethi­o­pia.

Over the weekend, special envoy Princeton Lyman headed for Addis Ababa to join talks on a cease-fire in South Kordofan. He’s also trying to broker accords between the north and south on two other crucial issues: the demarcation of the border and the sharing of revenue from oil. “The president has been very involved, as has the secretary of state,” Lyman told me last week before he left. “Getting that kind of high-level involvement has been very important.”

Of course, others have played a big role in Sudan, including the African Union; even China, the biggest consumer of Sudanese oil and a longtime patron of Bashir, appears to be behaving constructively.

U.S. leadership has nevertheless been crucial. Above all, the north is desperate to free itself from sanctions and attract investment from the West. Lyman says that “there is a great deal of skepticism in Khartoum that the United States isn’t really serious about normalization.” But the administration’s “road map” has been a powerful incentive for Bashir, who visited the south in January to announce that he would accept independence.

All of this raises an interesting question: Why does Obama not apply his approach in Sudan to Syria, Bahrain, Libya or other Arab states where people are fighting for freedom — and looking to the United States for support? Why take the lead against the dictatorship of Bashir while insisting on a back seat in the fight against Moammar Gaddafi and Bashar al-Assad? Though the administration rightly views the Arab Spring as a momentous opportunity, Obama has appointed no special envoys, prepared no road maps, made no personal appearances at summit meetings.

Part of the explanation may be internal and domestic politics: The cause of southern Sudan (and Darfur) has galvanized liberal interest groups and Hollywood stars, not to mention prominent administration officials such as Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Democracy in the Arab world, in contrast, was largely written off by Obama’s team as a fantasy of George W. Bush before the Arab Spring.

Still, policy on Sudan was cautious and confused until last summer, when Obama decided to take the lead. It’s not too late for him to show how concerted American diplomacy can make a difference elsewhere in the Arab Middle East.

diehlj@washpost.com

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