In Shift for Obama, U.S. Settles On Modulated Policy for Sudan

By Colum Lynch and Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, October 17, 2009; A01

After lengthy debate, the Obama administration has settled on a policy toward Sudan that offers a dramatically softer approach than the president had advocated on the campaign trail -- but steers clear of the conciliatory tone advocated by his special envoy to the country.

The new U.S. policy, which will be formally unveiled Monday, calls for a campaign of "pressure and incentives" to cajole the government in Khartoum into pursuing peace in the troubled Darfur region, settling disputes with the autonomous government in southern Sudan and providing the United States greater cooperation in stemming international terrorism, according to administration officials briefed on the plan. It also provides Khartoum with a path to improved relations with the United States if it begins to address long-standing U.S. concerns.

The public rollout of the policy brings an end to months of contentious internal debate on how to confront a government headed by an indicted war crimes suspect, President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, and blamed in the deaths of more than 300,000 people in Darfur, according to U.N. estimates.

In what is intended as a show of unity for the new policy, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, will announce it at the State Department with President Obama's special envoy to Sudan, retired Air Force Maj. Gen. J. Scott Gration. Rice and Gration had battled fiercely over the direction of the new policy, with Rice pressing for a tougher line and Gration calling for easing U.S. sanctions.

In an interview last month with The Washington Post, Gration said he wanted to give "cookies" and "gold stars" to Khartoum, infuriating human rights advocates and congressional officials. Under the new policy, Gration will not be authorized to negotiate directly with Bashir, and Sudan will not be removed from the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism in the immediate future, officials said.

The administration officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the policy ahead of Monday's announcement.

The review also addresses a long-standing dispute between Rice, who has argued that there is an "ongoing genocide" in Darfur, and Gration over how to characterize the violence in Darfur. From now on, the United States will maintain that genocide "is taking place" in Darfur, officials said. The agreement on genocide represents a setback for Gration, who argued publicly in June that Sudan is no longer engaged in a campaign of mass murder in that region. "What we see is the remnants of genocide," he told reporters.

But the administration's policy also marks a significant evolution for the president and close aides such as Rice. During last year's campaign, Obama and his top advisers had advocated a more confrontational approach to Sudan -- including tougher sanctions and the establishment of a no-fly zone that would prevent Sudanese fighter jets from bombing Darfurian villages. "There must be real pressure placed on the Sudanese government," Obama said last year. "We know from past experience that it will take a great deal to get them to do the right thing."

For her part, Rice last year accused the Bush administration of offering "the regime major concessions in exchange for minor steps."

Clinton is expected to frame the evolving U.S. strategy toward Sudan as part of the broader effort to engage America's traditional enemies to achieve U.S. political goals. American officials said that although the United States is not planning to detail possible rewards or penalties, many such ideas are on the table, including tightening U.N. sanctions and removing Khartoum from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Indeed, the overall U.S. approach builds on an engagement strategy that Gration has been pursuing independently for months, which has placed more emphasis on the prospects for improved relations with the United States if Khartoum pursues peace. The policy toward Bashir's government would be one of "verify, then trust," one official said.

Buoyed by booming oil wealth and a close relationship with China, Sudan has shrugged off repeated threats of action by the United States and other major powers. The new U.S. policy has three overarching goals: to end mass killings and other human rights abuses in Darfur, assure the success of a 2005 peace accord between the mostly Muslim north and the Christian and animist south, and prevent Sudan from being used as a terrorist haven.

Diplomats and aid workers fear that the slow implementation of the peace accord could reignite the two-decade civil war, which pitted the Islamic government in the north against rebels based in the south. That conflict left 2 million people dead, primarily from famine and disease, and 4 million homeless.

The Darfur conflict, in western Sudan, broke out in 2003 after African rebel groups attacked police stations and military outposts. The Sudanese government and allied militias have waged a brutal fight against rebels in the Darfur area, destroying more than 2,000 villages, killing more than 300,000 people and displacing more than 2.7 million.

Sudan has cooperated with U.S. counterterrorism officials since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, but officials say they are eager to see Khartoum take steps to cut support for Palestinian militants groups, including Hamas, and stop African terrorist elements from using the country as a haven.

Gration has said that however unsavory the government might appear, engaging it was the only way to get a settlement in Darfur and prevent the country from slipping back into war. He has also argued that the situation in Darfur has become more complex, with the repressive government campaign giving way to banditry and skirmishes among rebel factions.

Those positions had ignited a firestorm, with members of Congress and nongovernmental organizations arguing that they amounted to appeasement of a government that had continually broken its promises. American officials conceded that congressional concerns about the U.S. strategy could constrain the administration's effort to reward Sudan for good behavior. They cited a large body of U.S. laws that prohibit the administration from acting without congressional support.

Human rights advocates became so concerned about the administration's policy drift on Sudan that they launched a newspaper campaign in August aimed at Obama, titled "Sudan Now: Keep the Promise," which called attention to the president's past statements.

John Prendergast, co-chairman of the Enough Project, a human rights group advocating tougher, multilateral sanctions, said the new policy appeared to be "a fine one."

"The wild card is whether the intentions on paper will be translated into practice by the diplomats carrying out the strategy," Prendergast said. Until now, he said, "the president's special envoy has indicated a very clear public preference for incentives only."

Staff writers Dan Eggen and Anne E. Kornblut contributed to this report.

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