By Stephanie McCrummen and Colum Lynch
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 8, 2008
NAIROBI -- If the election of Barack Obama has been greeted with glee across much of Africa, there is at least one spot where the mood is decidedly different.
In the Sudanese capital of Khartoum these days, political elites are bracing for what they expect will be a major shift in U.S. policy toward a government the United States has blamed for orchestrating a violent campaign against civilians in the western Darfur region.
"Compared to the Republicans, the Democrats, I think they are hawks," said Ghazi Suleiman, a human rights lawyer and member of the Southern People's Liberation Movement, which has a fragile power-sharing agreement with the ruling party. "I know Obama's appointees. And I know their policy towards Sudan. Everybody here knows it. The policy is very aggressive and very harsh. I think we really will miss the judgments of George W. Bush."
While the Bush administration most recently advocated the idea of "normalizing" relations with Sudan as a carrot approach to ending a crisis it labeled a genocide, Obama's foreign policy appointees have pushed for sticks.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, the nominee for secretary of state, has called for a NATO-enforced no-fly zone to "blanket" Darfur in order to prevent Sudanese bombing of villages. The appointee for U.N. ambassador, Susan E. Rice -- a key Africa adviser to the Clinton administration during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, when President Bill Clinton was sharply criticized for failing to act -- has pushed for U.S. or NATO airstrikes and a naval blockade of Sudan's major port to prevent lucrative oil exports. Rice has vowed to "go down in flames" advocating tough measures.
Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., who was chosen for his foreign policy experience and pressed early for U.S. intervention to stop the fighting in the Balkans, was blunt during a hearing last year: "I would use American force now," he said.
But it remains unclear how those pre-election views will square with the president-elect, who has outlined a pragmatic, coalition-based approach to foreign policy, while also speaking of America's "moral obligation" in the face of humanitarian catastrophes of the sort that are plentiful in Africa.
Heading off potential genocide is the focus of a task force report to be released today in Washington. The group recommends, among other things, that the Obama administration create a high-level forum in the White House to direct the government's response to threats of mass violence.
So far, Obama has been more cautious on Darfur than some of his appointees, advocating tougher sanctions against Khartoum and a no-fly zone that might be enforced with U.S. "help." He has not called for direct U.S. intervention.
Obama intends to keep Bush's defense secretary, Robert M. Gates, who has already suggested that the United States will not provide much-needed helicopters to a struggling peacekeeping mission in Darfur because U.S. forces are stretched too thin in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama has also nominated as national security adviser retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones, a former NATO supreme allied commander who has suggested that NATO's role in Darfur should be training and support to the current peacekeeping mission rather than direct intervention.
And specialists close to Obama's presidential campaign said that more generally, the new administration sees a need for diplomatic approaches to security crises across the continent.
"We don't have the capacity to pacify these places militarily," said John Prendergast, a Darfur activist and former White House aide during the Clinton administration, citing Sudan and the worsening conflicts in Congo and Somalia. "We need political solutions."
Sudan's U.N. ambassador, Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem Mohamad, dismissed the calls for military action as "only election slogans."
"You cannot claim to be disengaging from disasters like Iraq but creating a new disaster in one of Africa's biggest countries," he said.
The crisis is in many ways a far more complex conflict than the one the Bush administration confronted. The violence in Darfur began in February 2003 when two rebel groups attacked Sudan's Islamic government, claiming a pattern of bias against the region's black African tribes. Khartoum organized a local Arab militia, known as the Janjaweed, to wage a scorched-earth campaign against the three ethnic groups -- mostly farmers and traders -- thought to be the rebels' political base.
Some analysts estimate that as many as 450,000 people have died from disease and violence in the conflict. About half the population of the Darfur region -- about 2.5 million people -- are now displaced.
But most of that damage occurred during the first two years of the conflict.
Since then, the rebel factions have splintered into dozens of groups who have so far been unable to translate their anger at the government into a political platform for negotiations. And the sides are more fluid now, with fighting among various Arab tribes and rebel factions displacing more people this year than government bombings.
Some analysts and Sudanese observers with no love for the government of Omar Hassan al-Bashir worry that Obama's administration may try to impose a military solution that might have worked at the height of the killing in 2004 and 2005, but not anymore.
"Things have changed dramatically since 2004," said a senior U.N. political officer in Khartoum, who asked not to be identified so that he could speak more freely. "The kind of conflict we have now is really a low-intensity conflict with high-intensity political ramifications. So all of this posturing of a military solution, or a no-fly zone, it's not going to work."
"But," he said, "Obama is going to be pragmatic in Iraq and other places, and Sudan will be the place he shows his toughness. It's not necessarily good for the strategic outcome of the situation."
The U.N. official and others said that military intervention could have dangerous consequences for Sudan as a whole, as well as the nine countries bordering it.
As venal as many consider Bashir's government to be, it did sign a landmark peace deal that ended a long and bloody civil war between the north and south. If Bashir's government is destabilized, that deal could fall apart, plunging another huge swath of the country into war.
Military intervention could also run the risk of inflaming the Islamists who have been key supporters of Bashir's government, which once hosted Osama bin Laden. In 1998, the Clinton administration bombed a pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum in part because its owners were thought to have ties to bin Laden.
"Any destabilization of this government and all these Islamist elements will certainly turn into a dangerous force," said Saswat Fanous, a political science professor in Khartoum and ruling party lawmaker. "They will be driven underground, and they will invite in a flood of radical Islamists coming from the region into Sudan."
The U.N. official shared that concern. The conflict in Darfur is just one of many over the past 20 years that essentially pit those in the center against those in the marginalized periphery, he said. The problem at hand is how to build a politically stable, democratic Sudan that shares power broadly among southerners, Darfurians and residents of other regions.
"As revolting as this government may be, they are indispensable to solving the problem of Sudan," the official said. "They are part of the problem and part of the solution. If the Obama administration is going to be driven by anger, then really, really it is going to be tragic, naive politics."
But an Obama campaign adviser who worked closely on the candidate's Africa positions said the naive move would be to think it is possible to trust Bashir's regime, which has a long history of broken promises and is highly unpopular across much of Sudan.
The adviser noted that the government only signed the deal with the south after the U.S. helped push it into a corner by indirectly arming the southern rebels. Eventually, the government realized it could not win.
Accountability should also be part of any long-term political settlement in Sudan, the adviser said; the leaders who orchestrated the campaign in Darfur must face their misdeeds, he said, even if that comes several years late.
"If we accept the notion that the brutality we've witnessed from this regime over the past two decades is acceptable to bring about temporary stability, then shouldn't we have done the same for the Nazis in Germany?" said the adviser, who was instructed not to speak to the news media.
Obama is likely to face choices on Sudan soon, as judges at the International Criminal Court are expected to decide whether to issue an arrest warrant for Bashir on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Obama has pledged to increase U.S. cooperation with the Hague-based court and is expected to honor an arrest warrant for Bashir.
But the adviser said that military options, including covert operations and regime change, are likely to remain under serious discussion in the new administration.
"These people have been in power for almost 20 years " the adviser said. "I doubt that the majority of Sudanese would cry if they were ousted."
Lynch reported from New York.