Rewriting the History of the Sudan Calamity

Winners write history.

Losers rewrite history continually as bills come due, consequences surface, newly revealed errors and shortcomings must be excused, and heavier blame must be shifted onto backs sturdy enough to bear it.

Case in point: Michael Abramowitz’s insider-propelled backgrounder in the Washington Post, U.S. Promises on Darfur Don’t Match Actions tries to explain why, despite its brave talk, the Bush administration isn’t getting anything done on Darfur.

A considerable effort is made to make President Bush look good on this issue by painting him as the guy who wants to do the right thing but was thwarted by distracted, risk averse bureaucrats.

At one point, one senior official said, Bush wanted action to crimp Sudan’s booming oil business, a move that would have severely aggravated relations with China — and that no one else in the government favored.

There was stunned silence in the room, the official said, when Hadley disclosed Bush’s idea to other government officials. Hadley made clear he was not interested in having a discussion, but the administration never went as far as the president seemed to be demanding. Instead, Treasury officials came up with a sanctions plan aimed at tracking and squeezing key individuals and companies in the Sudanese economy, including the oil business.

At an appearance in Tennessee this summer, Bush raised a question many have asked about the situation in Darfur: “If there is a problem, why don’t you just go take care of it?” But Bush said he considered — and decided against — sending U.S. troops unilaterally. “It just wasn’t the right decision,” he said.

Unable to compel the attention and obedience of his advisors, unwilling to resort precipitously to military action, and bereft of an outlet for his idealism.

Doesn’t sound like our President Bush, does it?

Actually, I think there’s a good argument that, on Sudan, President Bush was guilty of doing too much, not too little. Not in Darfur, but in another, more strategically important area of the country that receives one-tenth of the attention the Darfur sideshow does: the South.

A full understanding of Mr. Bush’s problem can be seen in the context of the twenty-plus year civil war between the oil-rich South and Khartoum that claimed two million lives.

The president commendably invested considerable prestige, attention and energy to broker a peace deal that, after hopeful beginnings, is now on the point of collapse.

The ironic legacy of the North-South deal may turn out to be that it only provided the template for the political and humanitarian crisis in Darfur–and demonstrated the limits of unilateral foreign policy, even by the world’s only superpower, in one of the world’s more intractable trouble spots.

This gives me a chance to unpack a long piece I wrote last year, The Twisted Triangle: America, China, and Sudan.

I argued that the Bush administration was hostage to the policy of rapprochement with the Sudan regime that had brought about the cessation of the North-South civil war;

that, because of the outcry over Darfur, President Bush had not been able to deliver on the deal promised to Sudan’s President Bashir in return for accepting a risky power-sharing arrangement;

that Bashir was extremely unhappy with the Bush administration as a result;

and that the United States nevertheless, in its best “hope is not a plan” mode, incorrectly assumed it still possessed the leverage to act unilaterally and outside the UN and other mechanisms to impose a Darfur settlement that turned out to be dead on arrival;

and that therefore the Bush administration’s efforts-as further retailed in the Abramowitz article-to blame the U.N. and China for the lack of progress on Darfur is supreme example of sour grapes and hypocrisy.

I wrote:

Rather ironic that Sudan, which was supposed to serve as the keystone of Bush administration engagement with Africa, has turned into an exclusive sandbox for the Yellow Peril.

More to the point, it should be recalled that the United States has consistently pursued Sudan as its exclusive Great Power trophy, most recently when it decided that it would pursue its Darfur diplomacy directly with Khartoum and use the African Union as its vehicle, excluding China and bypassing the UN.

But that didn’t quite work out….

Its credibility and clout diminished by the failure of its DPA initiative, the U.S. government is reduced to impotent table pounding by its media proxies and indignant finger wagging by humanitarian and evangelical groups trying to somehow coerce China into helping out.

Talking about Darfur also gives me an opportunity to present the acme of Bush administration second term hubris to a new audience:

Anticipation of the juicy [North-South] deal coming down the pipe had evoked this remarkable headline in the Sudan Tribune on the occasion of the 2004 U.S. presidential election:

“Sudan prayed for Bush victory.”

Israel’s Debkafile is not the most accurate reporter of news. But it is a faithful chronicler of grandiose neo-con fantasies and this report from 2004 catches some of the giddy enthusiasm of the Bush White House over the new Sudan policy:

For the first time ever, American diplomacy will have succeeded in converting a country dominated by radical Muslims ­ in Sudan’s case since the 17th century -into a secular democracy ­ in a period, moreover, when fundamentalist Islam is at its most militant and only a few years after Khartoum played host to Osama bin Laden’s headquarters. Bush also has a special occasion in mind with an eye on the African American vote where his support is relatively weak. He will step forward as the first US president to plunge deep and head-on into problems endemic to the African continent. The Sudan peace will show the way to accommodations of other conflicts. He has allocated liberal sums for the fight against AIDS and steps for raising the standard of living of hundreds of millions of Africans.

On the agenda too is a highly evocative ritual at the White House at which Sudan’s president will solemnly forswear his country’s dark past as recruiter of slaves for America and the Arab caravans carrying African slaves around the world.If the US president has his way, the White House lawn will be fully booked this year with ceremonies centering on the Sudanese reconciliation, which he rates more highly than the Israel-Palestinian handshake hosted by Bill Clinton eleven years ago.

“It has to be a ceremony even more impressive than the 1993 White House signing of declarations of principles by Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat,” said a senior US official preparing the event. “It will be an ‘African Camp David’, but one that will not fail.”
Bush’s advisers are preparing to stage a truly gala reception for the two Sudanese leaders, the first of a series showcasing the presidency’s breakthroughs in Africa in full sight of the American electorate and culminating in a splashy signing ceremony in March or April.

National security adviser Condoleezza Rice has set up a committee with heads of the African American community. Working out of an undisclosed location in Los Angeles, they are assess the next moves on Sudan and their impact on voting patterns in November.

As Danforth’s mission draws to a successful conclusion, the president’s senior political adviser Karl Rove is taking charge of strategy on Sudan and its exploitation as campaign fodder.

Let’s highlight a truly wonderful passage:

“On the agenda too is a highly evocative ritual at the White House at which Sudan’s president will solemnly forswear his country’s dark past as recruiter of slaves for America and the Arab caravans carrying African slaves around the world.”

Sudan would not only be reclaimed for the Christian God and Big Oil.

It would also help exorcise the guilt of the GOP’s white southern base for its slaveholding past, and place the onus firmly on the backs of those troublesome but ultimately contrite Muslim Arabs.

Now, that’s a peace deal for the ages!

That’s that I wrote, and none of that stuff ever happened, of course.

President Bush’s plans for a colorful African triumph on the White House lawn were derailed by the helicopter-crash death of John Garang in 2005 that must be reflexively described as “suspicious”, even though the aircraft was lent him by his Ugandan allies; and by shameless reneging on the details of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement by the Khartoum regime.

President Bush tried to keep the dream alive. He kept the State Department on the case and intervened personally to advance the peace process; met with Garang’s successor, Salva Kiir Mayardit; Garang’s widow Rebecca was one of three non-U.S. citizens honored by a place in Laura Bush’s box at the 2006 State of the Union address; and aid flowed to the south, in the form of a $40 million Dyncorp contract to house and train the south’s army as part of the buying-off process.

However, there were limits to the energy and commitment America was willing to bring to bear on the situation. When faced with a severe challenge and difficult choices, its largely unilateral diplomacy proved incapable of preventing the Sudan situation from unraveling.

The biggest dark cloud of trouble that doomed the Bush’s carnival of diplomatic, religious, and racial reconciliation was in Sudan’s northwest: Darfur proved his undoing.

There was serious unrest in Darfur before the CPA. Unfortunately, the Bush administration tried to wish away the problem with a combination of optimism and obstinate neglect.

Again, quoting Marcia Katz:

American policymakers [decided] in early 2004 that they would try to finish the North-South deal before turning to Darfur–even if it meant ignoring a genocide. Their rationalization went like this: The North-South agreement was grounded in core principles about sharing power and wealth that Darfuris could then use as the foundation for a peace agreement of their own. The North-South agreement would also dilute the extremist regime in Khartoum by integrating Southerners into the national government and creating a new order more sympathetic to Darfuri concerns. Lastly, the agreement called for democratic elections in 2009, which would give President Omar Al Bashir and his National Congress Party an incentive to promote peace and prosperity in the whole country.

This approach served the administration’s political interests, but it was a fatal miscalculation–“a way to interpret the status quo positively,” as Gayle Smith, an Africa specialist at the Center for American Progress and onetime director of African affairs at the National Security Council (NSC), puts it. For one thing, the agreement was very specific about the division of power and resources between the North and South. To subsequently incorporate other parties and regions would require difficult renegotiation.

Rebel agitation in the northwest intensified-perhaps partially in response to the perception that the CPA was indeed a ready-made template for Darfuri empowerment.

However, Khartoum apparently decided it was not going to give away its territory and oil revenue chunk by chunk, and committed itself to the destruction of the Darfur rebels as a credible political and military force.

The tool Khartoum adopted was the notorious Janjaweed.

Khartoum could not rely on its army, which had a sizable Darfurese component (and after all, John Garang had risen to a privileged position in the Sudanese army, commanding forces charged with suppressing the southern insurrection, before he switched sides and became the rebels’ charismatic and highly effective leader).

So Sudan outsourced the dirty work to irregular Arab militias, which engaged in attacks extensive enough to become universally recognized as ethnic cleansing and behavior brutal enough to be termed genocide by many observers.

The African Union-envisioned as a Third World cadet NATO-took on Darfur as its first project, in the process revealing itself as underfunded and inexperienced (in generous official parlance) and inept, corrupt, and totally out of its depth (the scathing unofficial view) in trying to secure the Darfur region.

In June of this year, Robert Zoellick of the U.S. State Department and Hilary Benn of the U.K. inserted themselves in African Union negotiations for two days and tried to solve Darfur with an agreement that can be described charitably as half-assed.

It was signed with only one of the rebel groups, Minni Minawi’s Sudanese Liberation Army, which took its (presumably generous) payday and disintegrated in a vortex of banditry; it made no provisions for restraining or disarming the Janjaweed; and indeed made virtually no demands on Khartoum while leaving the burden for security on the hapless AU force.

A negotiator for one of the rebel groups provides some insight into the Darfur Peace Agreement:

The US engineered peace for Darfur, commonly known as Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA) is both “fake and unsustainable”. Its prime engineer Mr Robert Zoelick and his arch Experts produced a document that turns out to be a mockery of international diplomacy. As Professor Reeves said, the DPA was borne dead right from day one. In addition to the government of Sudan, the only other signatory of the DPA was Minni Minnawi and his SLM fraction, erroneously and persistently promoted to be the biggest Darfur “rebel” group. Subsequent attempts to create a force out of Minnawi by the international community, the AU and the Government of Sudan came to naught. The US too was involved in this fiasco, culminating in Minnawi’s visit to the White House. The visit was by means ill-advised.

That the DPA is dead if not borne so is beyond doubt. Mr. Pronk, the UN Special Representative to Darfur described it as “severely paralysed, does not resonate with Darfur people and requires major rewriting”. Lashing Minnawi to sign the agreement, Mr Zoelick warned him: “I could be a very good friend but could also be a nasty enemy”. Well Mr, Minnawi chose “a very good friend”. Mr President, I trust you concur with us that any agreement that is an outcome of bullying cannot guarantee “lasting and sustainable peace”.

Mr. Minnawi has so far failed to sell the DPA to Darfur people. Both of his public rallies in Alfashir and Khartoum had to be cancelled. But he is not the only one who failed to recommend the DPA in a public venue to Darfur People. Mr. Egeland, the Head of UN Humanitarian Operations had a tragic experience. His attempt to recommend the DPA to Darfur IDPs [internally displaced persons-ed.] ended up with his interpreter lynched in front of him. If the IDPs do not think that the DPA is good for them, who else does?

For “lynched” read “beaten and hacked to death”.

As reported above, President Bush even took the extraordinary step of meeting with Minni Minawi in July 2006, and made what sounds like a futile and humiliating attempt to cajole him into behaving like a genuine American client.

From the Washington Post:

Bush told the rebel leader that his forces must refrain from violence and pressed him to forge an alliance with other factions in Darfur to broaden support for a peace agreement, [NSC spokesperson] Jones said.

Jones had no comment on how Minnawi responded.

When a policy’s success relies on inviting a powerless, semi-retired, and risk-adverse bandit to the White House for a dispirited jawboning session, you can say that policy is in trouble.

From the same article:

Minnawi faces rising opposition to his leadership among commanders in northern Darfur, including those from his Zaghawa tribe, according to the United Nations.

“He signed under incredible U.S. pressure and was probably given a lot of promises by the U.S. and the U.K.,” said Jemera Rone, a Sudan specialist with the advocacy group Human Rights Watch. “I’m sure he feels that the U.S. government now owes him and the people of Darfur quite a lot.”

A report issued earlier this month by the U.N. mission in Sudan cited allegations by displaced Sudanese that Minnawi’s faction “was indiscriminately killing, raping women and abducting” civilians.

“That agreement is not working, and one of the many reasons is Minni Minnawi,” Kenneth H. Bacon, president of the advocacy group Refugees International, wrote last week in a letter to Bush.

Refugees International said yesterday that Minnawi’s forces have conducted a “reign of terror” in North Darfur by beating and raping women, killing young men and displacing thousands of people. Bacon asked Bush to “please stress” to Minnawi that the rebel leader “must honor the terms of the Darfur Peace Agreement and stop fighting.”

At the time I speculated that this deeply flawed agreement was rushed out in order to provide a riposte to Hu Jintao’s high profile trip to Africa.

Hu’s visit certainly furnished the occasion for an ill-advised attempt to regain political traction on Sudan with a stunning diplomatic master-stroke. On that superficial level, I expect the DPA was meant to wrong-foot the Chinese president and win America a PR victory, and it succeeded, if temporarily and at the expense of further antagonizing China.

The greater significance of the DPA was probably that is was part of a failed, last-minute attempt to cobble together a strategic counter to China’s burgeoning influence in Sudan and to try to salvage the relationship that had evolved with such promise since President Bush’s election in 2000.

But the desperate measures appear to have come to nought.

The hastily-concluded Darfur Peace Agreement is in shambles.

Al-Bashir claims that he has a right to pursue the rebel groups that opted out of the June 2006 Darfur peace agreement. That’s not an unreasonable position. Trouble is, his only sound doctrine and effective order of battle relies on the use of the ethnic cleansing cum genocidal Janjaweed.

Now Khartoum is preparing a new offensive in the northwest; the shadow of riot and massacre hangs over two million desperate and despairing people huddled in squalid refugee camps; and the developed countries have declined to underwrite the AU peacekeeping contingent beyond September 2006, apparently deciding that its utility even as a figleaf for First World inaction wasn’t worth the money and trouble needed to refund its mandate.

Cynically, al-Bashir offered to allow the AU force to remain if Sudan funded it, thereby turning it into a toothless auxiliary of his army.

As a result, the crisis has been tossed into the UN, the venue in which, because of Chinese and Russian resistance, meaningful action is the least likely.

George Bush is disappointed, but I suspect al-Bashir is seriously annoyed.

The cornerstone of the 2005 deal-rehabilitation of Sudan’s international standing-seems further off than ever because of uproar over Darfur. It’s a promise that George W. Bush can no longer deliver on.

So Khartoum gave away direct control of a good third of its territory to the southern rebels in the CPA autonomy deal and got nothing in return.

What’s more, under the terms of the CPA, in 2011 the south is supposed to get a vote on independence and if it goes ahead, southern Sudan and its oil fields are undoubtedly gone forever.

The U.S. money and support for Khartoum that was supposed to compensate for the giveaway to the south and assure the survival and prosperity of what will probably become the new Islamic Republic of North Sudan hasn’t materialized; and al-Bashir is no doubt sufficiently realistic to understand that future administrations are going to side with the southern Sudanese political force that is adored by Christian evangelicals, and his a) tyrannical b) Muslim c) Arab regime is going to find itself squarely in the regime change crosshairs when push comes to shove.

Al-Bashir has his back against the wall and President Bush can’t help him.

All President Bush can do is plead with al-Bashir publicly and privately to play along and accept some gesture that will placate the world community-like “rehatting” the AU troops as part of a UN force-and al-Bashir is having none of it, at least for now.

Instead, al-Bashir has readopted the defiant language of Arab nationalism in his dealings both with the United States and the UN. With relations between Sudan and the U.S. are reverting to open hostility, it is very unlikely that Khartoum will welcome a UN force that might become the vanguard of a Western regime change offensive against his regime.

In an August 29, 2006 AP story carried on Yahoo as Sudan president claims west conspiracy, and in contrast to the effusive mutual handkissing between Bush and al-Bashir in 2003 quoted above, the Sudanese strongman declared:

“Everybody knows the Americans and British are scheming against the Sudan,” al-Bashir said at a rally to muster support for his opposition to the proposed deployment.

“We shall not be the first country to be recolonized in Africa. … We are free and shall not be enslaved,” al-Bashir told about 2,000 workers belonging to a federation of unions.

With the clock running out on control of the south-and perhaps his entire regime; with U.S. support revealed as a taunting mirage; and with President Bush, the one U.S. political actor emotionally committed to engagement with Khartoum, fading into distracted lame-duck weakness as the end of his final term in office looms, it’s not surprising that al Bashir has increasingly relied on China-which, since 1996, has taken advantage of Khartoum’s pariah status to become the single largest foreign investor in Sudan’s energy industry–as the one power with the determination and strong stomach to support his regime domestically and on the international stage.

Once again the Bush administration finds itself in the familiar and unenviable position of suddenly finding itself with little leverage and few options in dealing with a troublesome regional crisis. In contrast to North Korea and Iran, there is less excuse here since the United States has been engaged with the Sudan regime for the last five years.

Unable to explain its awkward, unrealistic, and now disintegrating flirtation with this terrorist state, the White House understandably looks for a scapegoat: China.

The title of the Washington Post’s September 6 editorial Responsible China? Darfur exposes Chinese hypocrisy pretty much conveys the political line of frustrated administration policymakers.

The United States and its European partners have called upon Sudan to let the U.N. force in. But China, which has enormous leverage over Sudan because of its investment in Sudanese oil fields, has failed to push the Sudanese into accepting the “realistic option” of a U.N. deployment.

Rather ironic that Sudan, which was supposed to serve as the keystone of Bush administration engagement with Africa, has turned into an exclusive sandbox for the Yellow Peril.

More to the point, it should be recalled that the United States has consistently pursued Sudan as its exclusive Great Power trophy, most recently when it decided that it would pursue its Darfur diplomacy directly with Khartoum and use the African Union as its vehicle, excluding China and bypassing the UN.

But that didn’t quite work out.

So President Bush has been forced to return to the UN to try to get the Security Council to rescue not only Darfur, but Sudan-from itself, and the genocidal activities that will remove it permanently beyond the diplomatic pale–by insertion of an effective peacekeeping force.

Its credibility and clout diminished by the failure of its DPA initiative, the U.S. government is reduced to impotent table pounding by its media proxies and indignant finger wagging by humanitarian and evangelical groups trying to somehow coerce China into helping out.

It must be especially galling to President Bush that not only is his diplomacy in Sudan in disarray, but the Chinese are in there scooping up the oil.

It’s amazing what poorly conceived, badly executed, and intermittent diplomacy can accomplish.

In the past, I’ve argued that liberal criticism of China, though justified in certain aspects, has been misplaced since the true issue was that Khartoum could always counter any pressure from China by intensifying its rapprochement with Washington, a patron that had demonstrated its unwillingness to censure its wayward client.

However, if al-Bashir has truly burned his bridges with Bush, and not just engaging in reckless brinksmanship, then the sub rosa US support that Khartoum has relied in order to flout international censure with impunity may be gone-and the Chinese finally will have the leverage we’ve always been so eager to ascribe to them.

Unfortunately it doesn’t look like they are in the mood to help us out.

It must seem absurd to Beijing that China is expected to sanction its ally to rescue a unilateral US diplomatic initiative that was designed primarily to strengthen US influence at China’s expense–simply because the wheels have come off the President Bush’s Sudan bandwagon and there’s nobody else around to help pick up the pieces.

No doubt a lot of eye-rolling about that in Zhong Nan Hai.

The true significance of the Darfur war-and China’s crucial role in propping up the Khartoum regime-will probably be revealed in the south, not the northwest.

The main oil reserves are in the southern province of Abyei. In order to make the CPA deal work, Khartoum (and the Bush administration) did not sweat the details of power-sharing and boundary definition there.

But Khartoum has been working the problem non-stop ever since, desperately, illegally, and ruthlessly.

As the distinguished Sudan-watcher Eric Reeves writes:

At the same time, the National Islamic Front senses that it will enjoy virtually complete diplomatic protection from China and other international actors, and that the Western nations that helped bring the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) to fruition are not sufficiently engaged to ensure that key terms of the CPA are respected. This is extremely dangerous and may well lead to renewed war in the south, possibly in the near term. For example, Khartoum’s refusal to accept the findings of the distinguished international Abyei Boundary Commission creates of the oil-rich Abyei enclave a potential flash-point for renewed violence. Though the Government of South Sudan seems determined to seek international arbitration in its effort to force Khartoum to abide by the terms of the CPA, many in the SPLM have made clear that continued intransigence on Khartoum’s part could lead to war, which will almost certainly be the most violently destructive phase of a civil war that began in 1955, on the eve of Sudan’s independence from Anglo-Egyptian colonial rule.

In a replay of Darfur tactics, Khartoum is supporting militias in Abyei. Not regular army troops strong enough to turn on the central government, but forces strong enough to drive people from their homes and challenge the southern administration’s claim to uncontested sovereignty over the crucial oil regions there.

I believe that China’s crucial role is to come in and beef up the oil production, transportation infrastructure, and security and assist Khartoum in creating the “facts on the ground” that will help it deny the ownership of the oil assets to the southern regime after independence-and make it easier to defend these assets against a southern counterattack.

Maybe the Chinese believe they have a special expertise in the economic penetration and exploitation of mineral resources in unfriendly ethnic enclaves-think Tibet and Xinjiang. And their determination, patience, and focus might also prove to give China more lasting influence and success in Sudan and throughout Africa than the lazy “just add freedom” grandiosity of the Bush administration.

In theory, the Bush administration could resign itself to the current situation, in which China has favored access to Sudan’s oil and the trust of the Khartoum regime, and promise to respect its position and interests in return for Beijing’s active participation in compelling a genuine cessation of the violence in Darfur.

But that would mean abandoning the increasingly unattainable goals and ever more remote dreams that the Bush administration apparently still cherishes–for an American triumph in northeastern Africa, an isolated , cowed, and weak Muslim regime in Khartoum, the prospect of Sudan’s eventual conversion into a pro-US bastion centered in the south, and the positioning of Sudan’s oil reserves within America’s orbit and far outside of Chinese reach-in exchange for simple humanitarian goals.

The current campaign of China-bashing-attacking the one party we now accept has the capacity to influence the Khartoum regime-appears to indicate that the U.S. hasn’t made this choice.

So until a U.S. administration reconciles itself to the loss of its position of advantage in Sudan–or the situation somehow lurches back into Bush’s favor–accommodation with Beijing on Sudan will remain unattainable.

And for the foreseeable future, for the people of Darfur, there may be no respite–and no rescue.

CHINA HAND edits the very interesting website China Matters.