By Mary Beth Sheridan
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.
On the campaign trail, Obama called for tougher action against Sudan and a no-fly zone over Darfur. He assailed as "reckless and cynical" a Bush offer to remove Sudan from the U.S. list of terrorism sponsors in exchange for allowing more peacekeeping troops.
The Obama administration was stocked with champions of the "save Darfur" movement, such as Vice President Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. And Obama created an unprecedented bureaucratic structure aimed at preventing genocide - including appointing Power to the National Security Council staff.
But on Sudan, the administration quickly ran into the constraints that had stymied the Bush administration. Military action would be difficult because of a lack of available U.S. troops and the risks of intervening in a Muslim country.
As for economic penalties, "we have so sanctioned Sudan that the bilateral threat of sanctions is not what it might have been, let's say, with Rwanda," Power said.
J. Scott Gration, Obama's envoy in Sudan, thought it was important for the south to solve its problems directly with the north. The southerners, who are mainly Christian and animist, had long complained of discrimination by the Arab Islamic north.
"We want to be there as a partner, not a protector," Gration said in an interview.
The envoy decided he had to deal with Bashir's government to address the enormous dangers associated with the referendum and Darfur.
"In order to fix these very real problems that were threatening lives, human rights, physical property, there was no option but to engage and to build the relationship of trust," he said.
But that approach - from an administration that had talked tough on Sudan - made Gration a lightning rod. U.S. anti-genocide groups were outraged by the political neophyte's blunt comments, including his declaration that the International Criminal Court's indictment of Bashir's for genocide would "make my mission more difficult."
Lengthy debates on Sudan erupted within the administration, with U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice and others urging a less accommodating approach, officials said.
In recent months, Gration has had a lower profile, with the administration naming ambassadors to focus on the referendum and Darfur. But the administration has adopted much of his approach, offering to delist Sudan as a terrorism sponsor if the referendum is honored and the two sides resolve border, oil and other issues.
Andrew S. Natsios, a Bush envoy who had advocated engagement with Sudan's ruling party, said Obama had "swung past the Bush administration in pursuing a conciliatory policy toward the north."
But he said that in the administration's desire to be evenhanded, it "appeared to have neglected the south," a traditional U.S. ally.
Advocacy groups had criticized the Obama administration as lacking high-level involvement on Sudan. With the referendum in trouble, though, the administration accelerated its efforts. Deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough began running frequent Sudan meetings at the White House.
On Sept. 24, the president appeared at the United Nations with top representatives of Sudan's north and south, calling for the referendum to occur on time. A communique with that message was signed by 34 countries.
The southern Sudanese, who had complained that Gration was favoring Bashir, were heartened by Obama appeals to world leaders to support the referendum.
"It has actually created a situation whereby Bashir has no other way but to say he's going to be the first to accept" the results, said Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth, head of the south Sudan mission in Washington.
The U.S. emphasis was on "ensuring this is not an American message" but a global one, Power said, that included countries such as China that had economic leverage on Sudan. "That's what elevating [genocide] prevention looks like," she said.
Many flash points could still spark violence, including unresolved disputes over the oil-rich border region of Abyei, which is claimed by the south.
Power said the administration is "sensitized to the importance of preventing violence before it occurs rather than responding after the fact. And we now have the structures in place that spur us to look further ahead than most bureaucracies tend to do." But with Sudan, "there is a huge amount left to be done before anybody can say prevention worked."