By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 27, 2008
Sometime in the next few weeks, a special envoy of President Bush plans to meet with Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, whose government sheltered Osama bin Laden and pursued a scorched-earth policy in southern Sudan that resulted in more than 2 million deaths.
Bashir's government has been accused by Bush of participating in a "genocide" in Darfur, the only U.S. government use of such a strong accusation. Yet Richard S. Williamson's visit to Khartoum follows a series of direct contacts by senior Bush administration officials with the Sudanese president, including Secretaries of State Colin L. Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Rice's deputies, and several special presidential envoys.
Bush has spoken to or exchanged letters with Bashir on numerous occasions, underscoring how White House policy has departed from his pointed public call to shun talks with radical tyrants and dictators. His appointees have also pursued aggressive diplomacy with North Korea and Libya and have even conducted limited business with Cuba, Syria and Iran.
In the case of Sudan, experts are deeply divided about how much the administration's engagement has improved conditions in a country beset for decades by mass violence and famine. It has at least provoked charges of hypocrisy, because Bush recently accused those advocating talks with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other radical figures of "appeasement."
"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," said Susan E. Rice, who handled Africa policy in the Clinton administration and is a top adviser to the presidential campaign of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).
White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said the administration has been willing to talk with both Sudan and Iran -- though in the case of Iran, only if it halts uranium enrichment. "We enter into discussions with countries where we have leverage to achieve results," he said. " In the case of Sudan, they want better relations with the United States and we want to stop a genocide."
Those who have dealt with Sudan for the Bush administration say they have helped secure a peace deal between the Sudanese government and southern rebels and have taken other steps to avert a worse humanitarian disaster. But Williamson acknowledged a certain unease over negotiating with Bashir and other top Sudanese officials to allow U.N. peacekeepers into the country and fulfill other U.S. objectives.
"When you are dealing with people who have done really bad things, there are difficult moral and political issues that keep you awake at night," he said. "But if you see a way where you may be able to save lives and ameliorate humanitarian suffering, you test the opportunity."
He added: "My job is not to litigate what they have done."
Bush's Sudan policy has relied more heavily on diplomacy than that of the Clinton administration, which tried to isolate Sudan because of its ties to Osama bin Laden, imposed stiff sanctions against the government and placed it on the official list of state sponsors of terrorism.
One of the Bush administration's first initiatives was to try to broker a peace to the two-decade-long civil war between north and south, partly at the behest of evangelicals in the United States, who complained to the president about the persecution of Christians in southern Sudan.
Former senator John C. Danforth (R-Mo.), who was appointed as Bush's first special envoy to Sudan, said Sudanese officials badly wanted to normalize relations with the United States but were unsure whether it would be worthwhile. Danforth said he took the question to Bush, who sought to assure Bashir's government that cooperation would pay off.
"He said if they entered into a peace agreement, and if they provided full access for humanitarian workers throughout the country and if they cooperated on fighting terrorism, then the president wanted to move towards normal relations," Danforth said.
Bush was personally involved in trying to move the peace talks along, calling Bashir on a number of occasions, according to a former official, and even dangling an invitation for a seat of honor at his 2003 State of the Union address. By 2005, the diplomacy had paid off with a comprehensive peace agreement giving the south a formal role in the Khartoum government and the right to secession down the road.
By that point, however, violence had broken out in Sudan's western region of Darfur, and Bashir's government responded by arming Arab militias for a brutal crackdown that resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths, according to human rights groups and international monitors. In 2004, Powell described the events in Darfur as "genocide."
Human rights advocates have alleged that Bashir was responsible. "The Sudanese government policy of 'ethnic cleansing' was strategic and well-planned," Human Rights Watch stated in a 2005 report, adding: "Ultimate responsibility for the creation and coordination of the policy lies in Khartoum, with the highest levels of the Sudanese leadership, including President . . . Bashir."
Even so, Bush and his aides continued to pursue a policy of engagement with Bashir, dispatching then-Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick to broker a peace deal between the Sudanese government and Darfur rebel groups. At the height of negotiations in 2006, Zoellick carried with him a personal letter from Bush -- not previously disclosed -- assuring Bashir that they "share a common goal of achieving a peaceful, stable Sudan."
The Sudanese government agreed to a peace deal, but the agreement fell apart after key rebel groups refused to go along. Bush imposed new sanctions last year to put more pressure on the Sudanese strongman, but so far Bashir has slowed the deployment of U.N. and African Union soldiers as peacekeepers to protect civilians in Darfur.
Roger Winter, a former senior official at the Agency for International Development, said he does not object to talking to Bashir but says the administration has dangled out carrots without enough stick. "I don't understand how this can be happening. It wasn't that long ago that the president said genocide is happening in Darfur, and we're trying to normalize [relations]," he said. "What's wrong with this picture?"
Andrew S. Natsios, who preceded Williamson as Bush's envoy, said Bashir thinks the United States has twice reneged on a promise of normalized relations and thus is understandably cautious about the current round of talks. But Natsios sees few good alternatives to engagement.
"If we think we can protect people who are being abused, we ought to be talking with him," he said.
Staff writer Glenn Kessler contributed to this report.