A wager on Sudan

Sunday, May 2, 2010

TO NO ONE'S surprise, Omar Hassan al-Bashir was proclaimed the winner of Sudan's presidential election on Monday, 21 years after his authoritarian government came to power and 14 months after the International Criminal Court ordered his arrest for war crimes. The election was widely acknowledged to be a fraud. Mr. Bashir's principal opponents boycotted the race, and the vote was riddled with what the White House called "serious irregularities."

Still, the reaction from the Obama administration and other Western governments was muted. Before the election, U.S. special envoy Scott Gration offered a low standard, declaring that the vote would be "as free and fair as possible." The reasons for that temperance could be read in Mr. Bashir's victory speech. After claiming his mandate, the strongman promptly promised to "complete the peace process in Darfur," the western region where his regime waged a campaign of genocide; and also to "go ahead . . . on time" with a planned referendum in January that will determine whether southern Sudan becomes an independent country.

The quid pro quo that Mr. Bashir is offering is clear: Accept him as a legitimate president and set aside the war crimes indictment, and he will allow southern Sudan to go peacefully and will preserve the fragile peace in Darfur. For the pragmatic Obama administration, which hasn't hesitated to subordinate human rights principles in other parts of the world, it's a tempting offer. After all, the alternative to a settlement in southern Sudan is another terrible war, like the one that killed 5 million in the two decades before 2005. And if Mr. Bashir can somehow strike a deal with Darfur's myriad rebel groups -- he has a preliminary pact with one -- that could end the region's humanitarian crisis.

No wonder that the same White House statement that condemned the election fraud concluded by saying that "with partners in the region and beyond, we will continue to engage in the preparations necessary to support peace and stability after the 2011 referenda, and continue to promote peace, security, and accountability in Darfur."

The problem, as always, is whether Mr. Bashir will deliver. He has frequently told Western governments what they wanted to hear, only to reverse himself when their attention drifted or it was time to deliver. Many experts doubt that Mr. Bashir will allow the oil-rich south to go without a fight or that he will give Darfuris the autonomy they seek. While it works for those outcomes, the United States should refrain from prematurely recognizing Mr. Bashir's new claim to legitimacy. And it should be ready to respond when he breaks his word.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company