Sudan vote comes together after rocky Obama effort to prevent violence

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 6, 2011; 10:44 PM

On a steamy day in September, President Obama summoned senior officials to the Situation Room. A U.S.-mediated peace accord in Sudan was in danger of collapsing and the president was worried.

This wasn't just another African country in turmoil. Months earlier, Obama's director of national intelligence had warned that south Sudan was the world's most likely site for new genocide. The president forcefully reminded his aides that 2 million people had died in Sudan's north-south war, which ended in 2005.

"The president gave very clear guidance, which is that we don't have a lot of time. We've seen this movie before," said one official in attendance who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid.

Four months later, a key part of the peace accord is about to become reality - a referendum that will in all likelihood see south Sudan secede. It is a remarkable turnaround; Sunday's vote had been imperiled by delays and the Sudanese government's reluctance to lose the oil-rich south.

Since Obama's Sept. 2 meeting, he has pressed Sudanese and world leaders for a timely referendum, and senior officials have pushed to speed up preparations. To the administration's relief, Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir said this week that he he would accept the outcome.

And yet, solving the Sudan crisis has been a tortured journey for a president committed to avoiding the kinds of genocide that erupted under his predecessors. Obama and his team wound up embracing elements of George W. Bush's approach that they had once criticized - specifically, offering incentives to a government accused of war crimes. The administration's diplomatic offensive came after a year of internal debate.

"This should have been an easy win for the administration. You had, within the administration, a deep brain trust on this issue," said Mike Boyer of Humanity United, an advocacy group. "The administration got completely hamstrung not being able to reach internal agreement."

Senior officials say that they have labored steadily to build the groundwork for peace and that they should be judged by the results.

"The question of 'How many carrots, how many sticks?' surely will prove less important than 'What did our policy deliver for the people of Sudan?' " said Samantha Power, a key Obama adviser on genocide prevention.

Power wrote a 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "A Problem From Hell," that harshly criticized the U.S. government for not stopping genocide in Cambodia, Iraq's Kurdish region, Rwanda and elsewhere.

After reading her conclusions on Rwanda, then-President Bush famously scrawled on a memo: "Not on my watch."

Bush succeeded in getting the 2005 Sudan peace agreement, ending Africa's longest war. He was unable, however, to prevent what he acknowledged as genocide in the country's western region of Darfur. More than 300,000 people are estimated to have died there as militias backed by Sudan's ruling party brutally put down a rebellion.

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