Khartoum Characters

As President George W. Bush sat down at a joint press conference with South African President Thabo Mbeki on June 1, he preempted a question about the crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan, one of the topics of the two men's White House luncheon.

It had been 142 days since Bush had uttered the word “Darfur,” and this day, he spoke carefully. “This is a serious situation,” Bush said. Then he made a statement that would effectively end a dispute within his administration over the true nature of the war crimes in Darfur. “As you know, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, with my concurrence, declared the situation a genocide. Our government has put a lot of money to help deal with the human suffering there.”

His latter point is beyond dispute. The United States gives a substantial portion of the world's humanitarian assistance to the roughly 150 camps for the internally displaced that dot Sudan's western region. But where a government has recognized genocide, dictates of treaty law require an effort to punish and prevent war crimes -- and that's an effort the Bush administration has yet to undertake.

“Declaring Darfur a genocide every six months or so leaves the administration open to criticisms that they are politicizing the use of the term,” says John Prendergast of the respected nongovernmental organization the International Crisis Group. “The genocide declarations appear less demonstrative of policy and more of a political ploy to be seen as being tough on the [Sudanese] regime.”

Indeed, both Powell's genocide declaration -- delivered September 9, 2004 -- and Bush's recent concurrence belie the general trend in the administration's Sudan policy. The rhetoric can occasionally be tough, but the policy behind it bears the hallmarks of a creeping rapprochement with the regime in Khartoum, which is responsible for the deaths of as many as 400,000 in Darfur and the displacement of 2 million more. And if the current trajectory of the Bush administration's Sudan policy is sustained, there's the likelihood of a new era of constructive engagement with Khartoum -- pursued in the name of fighting the war on terrorism -- after the Sudanese government undergoes a constitutional restructuring in July.

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In February 2003, militia from non-Arab “African” Muslim tribes caught the central government of Sudan off guard with a series of attacks on military and government installations in Darfur. The non-Arab peoples of Darfur had launched an apparent rebellion against the central government long considered to be hostile to their existence. Their perception would soon prove prescient.

The Khartoum government, unable to mobilize its own military to the region, turned to local tribal leaders to put down the rebellion. The fighting force they assembled -- collectively known as the Janjaweed, or bandits -- would systematically target African towns and villages throughout Darfur. By the spring of 2004, with support from Sudanese airpower, several thousand people had been killed and as many as a million displaced.

As the crisis began to threaten regional stability, the highest levels at the State Department began to take serious notice. “There was a lot of discussion of Darfur at State, and there was the feeling that the U.S. could not just stand by if another genocide was occurring,” says Stephanie Frease of the Washington-based NGO Coalition for International Justice.

In June 2004, Frease, a former investigator for the United Nation's International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, was invited to a high-level meeting at the State Department. The ambassador-at-large for war-crimes issues and the assistant secretary for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor called on Frease and other NGO representatives to devise a survey tool that would help establish the scope of the atrocities in Darfur. “There was a big push … to interview refugees to determine was actually going on in Darfur,” Frease told me. “And they wanted to act quickly.”

And it happened. Two weeks after Frease's meeting at Foggy Bottom, she was in Chad on a State Department contract leading a team of investigators conducting a survey of refugees. By August, her team had completed 1,136 interviews (the statistical threshold for determining a pattern), so she turned her findings over to the State Department.

The survey soon made its way to Powell's desk. Shortly thereafter, he unambiguously told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee of the survey's finding, saying, “We concluded that genocide has been committed in Darfur and that the government of Sudan and the Janjaweed bear responsibility, and genocide may still be occurring.”

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Powell's statement constituted a momentous occasion for Sudan activists, one of whom told me he cried like a baby when he heard it. But while the statement may have temporarily satisfied these activists -- a large number of whom, incidentally, are evangelical Christians, which may help explain why Powell made it seven weeks before the election -- no policy shift accompanied the declaration.

Bush's defenders would note here that he inherited a policy of constructive engagement from the Clinton administration. That's true. However, the later Clinton administration was willing to engage Khartoum precisely because its tough approach in prior years paid some dividends. “The last time we really went after these guys was in 1996–97,” says Prendergast, who served on the National Security Council (NSC) at the time. “We imposed targeted sanctions on the regime, and they immediately booted [Osama] bin Laden [who had found haven in Sudan from 1992–96] and dismantled his terrorist infrastructure.” During that time, the ruling National Islamic Front was never an exemplar of human rights, but it had not yet started a genocide.

Since then, the Bush administration's reluctance to take the regime to task can partly be explained by the intimate liaison forged between the CIA and Sudan's intelligence services since September 11. As the journalist Ken Silverstein revealed in a blockbuster April 29 Los Angeles Times article, Sudan is an active partner in the war on terrorism. So close is this cooperation that the head of Sudan's security services -- an unsavory character known to be instrumental in Darfur -- was flown to Washington to meet with intelligence officials at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.

“Right now, we are back in this Cold War mentality where we say, ‘What they do in their country is their business as long as they are supporting our war on terror,'” laments Representative Donald Payne, a New Jersey Democrat who serves as the ranking member on the House Subcommittee on Africa. Gayle Smith, a former senior director of African affairs in President Clinton's NSC and now with the Center for American Progress, sees a similar pattern. “Some people say that harping on genocide is an obstacle to short-term policy goals,” Smith recently told me. “But in Sudan we are repeating what we did in the Cold War -- that is, trading short-term goals for our long-term policy objectives.”

But intelligence cooperation is not the only reason the administration treats Khartoum with kid gloves. The other is internal to the State Department, where Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick has served as the administration's point man on Sudan since Powell left. To say the least, he's been less than aggressive with Khartoum. In April, on his first trip to Sudan, Zoellick refused to endorse Powell's genocide declaration. In the presence of Khartoum's main power broker, Vice President Ali Osman Taha, Zoellick responded to a reporter's question about the number of dead in Darfur with an impossibly low number (60,000 to 160,000) that defied even the most conservative of mortality estimates. Before he left for his most recent trip to Sudan in the last week of May, Zoellick expressed his confidence that the regime in Khartoum was seeking a political solution to Darfur. This was a departure from Powell, who previously suggested that Khartoum's Darfur solution was more of the “final” sort.

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Underlying Zoellick's comment is the fact that, in January, under American leadership, the warring parties in Sudan's 20-year civil war signed a historic peace agreement in Nairobi, Kenya. The new peace accord between the south Sudan rebels and Khartoum to the north has led to the hope that its implementation can spread peace across the entire country. Khartoum is poised to enter into a power-sharing arrangement with the leader of the southern rebels, John Garang, who is set to assume a vice president's post and form a national unity government with his former adversaries in July.

While the north-south accord was momentous, it's arguably come at the price of innocent lives in Darfur. “The singular task was to get the peace deal done,” said a government official familiar with the formation of Sudan policy at the time. “Some State Department officials key on Sudan matters were slow to engage on Darfur because it would goof up the north-south negotiations. When they finally caught on to Darfur a year after it started, they were required to both pursue the peace deal goal and also respond to Darfur in ways that did not abort the southern deal.”

Khartoum has effectively exploited this dogged focus on preserving the deal. “The genocide in Darfur can be seen as the fulfillment of Khartoum's ability to use the north-south agreement to their advantage,” says Eric Reeves, a Smith College professor who's become one of the most prescient observers of Sudan over the last half-decade. “To some extent, it is the result of a self-fulfilling prophesy that north-south needs to be preserved above all else.”

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When Garang enters Khartoum in July, the State Department is likely to portray the formation of the national unity government as a volcanic event. It comes only as the result of a large expenditure of State Department resources, both financial and moral, and ushers in the end of a war that spanned two decades.

But despite the government's new look, Khartoum will not exactly be overrun with fresh faces come July. Garang aside, the same people who orchestrated the genocide in Darfur will remain in power. And this will put the administration in the most awkward of diplomatic spots. As Ted Dagne, a Sudan researcher for the Congressional Research Service, aptly asks, “Will the Bush administration continue to invest in the success of an entity that it helped create, but which includes some of those who have carried out what the president himself has deemed a genocide?”

Given the low priority to which the administration holds the punishment and prevention of the genocide in Darfur, it would appear so.

Mark Leon Goldberg is a Prospect writing fellow.

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