Successful foreign policy has always relied on shrewdly employing both the carrot and the stick. That assumption is a staple of political realism — everywhere, apparently, except when it comes to Sudan. There, it seems, the stick is sufficient. Liberal hawks in the foreign policy establishment of the Democratic Party have once again joined with neo-conservatives in calling for "action" against the authoritarian regime in Khartoum. Demands for symbolic action, stringent sanctions, and possible military intervention comprise the strategy of powerful organizations like "Save Darfur" and "Enough" that are supported by a phalanx of well-meaning celebrities. Cautionary voices have been notably absent even among staunchly liberal newspapers like The New York Times. It’s easy to see why. General Scott Gration, the Special Envoy to Sudan who was appointed by President Barack Obama in March 2009, has come under blistering attack for refusing simply to endorse the conventional wisdom.
Symbolic actions, sanctions, and military threats haven’t worked — and they won’t work. Symbolic action produced the high-minded attempt to brand the 2008 Olympics in Beijing as the "genocide" Olympics, unless China pressured Khartoum to alter its policies toward Darfur. This led to nothing; someone apparently forgot to consider that China is dependent on energy imports and needs Sudanese oil as much as Sudan needs Chinese markets. In the same vein, these advocacy groups had for years demanded the indictment of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for war crimes in Darfur; but the recent decision by the International Criminal Court to do so has increased his popularity at home, impaired further peace efforts, and raised suspicions of Western motives among the African community. Existing sanctions, meanwhile, have pushed Sudan closer to China, Malaysia and Indonesia; investment in Sudan actually increased by nearly $3 billion last year. Imposing a no-fly zone to prevent air attacks on Darfur by the government of Sudan, a country roughly the size of Western Europe, has now generally been recognized as impractical. Exercising a military option is an even more reckless tactic given that literally dozens of tribes have paramilitary organizations, rebel forces opposing Khartoum are split into nearly two dozen competing factions, and the nearly 3 million inhabitants of more than 150 camps for "internally displaced persons" in Darfur and other parts of Sudan would surely suffer the most from any Western invasion.
Creating durable peace agreements, improving the conditions of internally displaced peoples, and fostering stability require a constructive engagement with Sudan on the part of the United States. It calls not merely for the stick but the carrot as well. General Gration should think about suggesting a policy to President Obama that would soften existing sanctions and even facilitate investment should Khartoum agree to demobilize its worst militias and implement compensation schemes for those in the camps. Efforts to counteract the influence of China will involve policies designed to reintegrate Sudan into the world community. Elections are planned for 2010 and a referendum is planned for 2011 in the South that will decide whether Sudan splits into two states. The greatest threat to Darfur now, arguably, derives from the barbaric Lord’s Resistance Army that originated in Northern Uganda and that has previously wreaked havoc in the Congo. Seeking stability in the region through diplomatic means is the only approach that makes sense given the complexity of the situation and the potentially disastrous ramifications of regime change in Khartoum for those nine states bordering Sudan.
Foreign policy toward Sudan requires something more than the outpouring of moral righteousness and the use of a sledge hammer. General Gration is facing a daunting set of issues with a sense of nuance and sobriety. He has served his country for more than thirty years and neither he nor his supporters should be smeared with accusations of being soft on human rights or naïve about authoritarian regimes. Let the Special Envoy to Sudan make his analysis, articulate his proposals, and then let them be debated without demagoguery. That is what a genuinely democratic foreign policy demands.
STEPHEN ERIC BRONNER is Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University and Director of Global Relations at its Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights.