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Can the Obama administration defuse a ‘time bomb' in Sudan?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010; A22

SECRETARY OF STATE Hillary Rodham Clinton recently blurted out a rather undiplomatic warning about "a ticking time bomb of enormous consequence." She was talking not about Afghanistan or Iran or Iraq, but Sudan -- a country that until recently has gotten relatively little attention from the Obama administration. She was right. In a matter of months Sudan could present the administration with a major new international crisis, one that has the potential to be even bloodier than the Darfur genocide.

At stake is one of the top diplomatic achievements of the Bush administration: a 2005 peace accord ending two decades of war between Sudan's Arab-controlled central government and its mainly Christian and animist south. The deal established an autonomous government in the south, and stipulated January 2011 as the date for a referendum on whether the region, which comprises about a third of the huge country, will become independent.

Ms. Clinton spelled out the problem succinctly: It is "inevitable" that the south will vote for independence in a free and fair referendum. That means the government of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir -- who has been indicted for his crimes in Darfur by the International Criminal Court -- will be expected to peacefully give up a region that contains 80 percent of the country's oil reserves. The odds that Mr. Bashir will cooperate don't look good: The regime has been stalling on everything from the demarcation of the border and talks on the future division of oil revenue to preparations for the referendum, which are worryingly delayed.

Mr. Bashir, like the southern Sudanese leadership, does have reason to avoid a new war. The south has acquired tanks and other heavy weapons, and the Sudanese army can expect formidable military opposition if it attacks. A deal could ensure both sides continuing access to oil revenue that might otherwise be lost entirely. Both sides also need better relations with the rest of the world. Mr. Bashir wishes to escape from pariah status, while southern Sudan desperately needs international help in nation-building.

After allowing its diplomacy to be hamstrung by internal feuding and inattention, the Obama administration has mounted what looks like a vigorous effort. Mr. Bashir has been presented with tangible incentives to cooperate -- including, in the longer run, the normalization of relations -- and warnings of more punishment if the referendum is obstructed. The U.S. diplomatic presence in the country has been rapidly expanded, and a veteran ambassador has been dispatched to help in north-south negotiations. On Friday President Obama will sit down with senior Sudanese officials at a meeting convened in New York by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Administration officials have occasionally expressed pessimism about the ability of the United States to exert influence in Sudan. But Washington does have leverage -- and it also has an obligation to do its best to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe. In the same appearance at which she discussed Sudan, Ms. Clinton declared that "a new American moment" has arrived in international relations, "a moment when our global leadership is essential, even if we must often lead in new ways." Sudan would be an ideal place to prove that.

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