Darfur Activists Frustrated with Obama's Sudan Policy

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Stuart Price / AFP / Getty

Sudanese fighters of the Justice and Equality Movement on the Sudan-Chad border in northwestern Darfur

Supporters of President Obama have learned this year that the realities of government rarely live up to expectations. One group particularly angered by the White House's lack of action are activists and lobbyists for Darfur, who backed him in last year's election and wanted quick action to end the killing and start fixing the humanitarian disaster in the troubled Sudanese region. Frustrated by the absence of an official policy, groups such as the Save Darfur Coalition, the antigenocide advocacy organization the Enough Project, and Humanity United, a California foundation that provided a significant portion of the money behind the Darfur movement, lashed out at Obama in early September. Furious at the President for not keeping his campaign promises, they bought full-page advertisements in major U.S. newspapers (including the local paper in Martha's Vineyard, where the First Family was vacationing) and ads online, rallying supporters to call, e-mail, Twitter and Facebook the White House to remind Obama that he once said, "Sudan is a priority for this Administration" and "There must be real pressure placed on the Sudanese government."

Perhaps the President read one of those newspapers. On Oct. 19 the White House released its much delayed Sudan policy. It proposes a series of "incentives and pressures" designed to encourage the government of Sudan to end the slaughter of civilians in Darfur and credibly implement the 2005 peace agreement between the Arab north and the animist and Christian south. While the exact carrots and sticks remain classified, advocacy groups have responded to the overall approach with cautious optimism. The Save Darfur Coalition released a statement saying it cautiously welcomes the new policy but that "its success will depend on implementation backed by sustained presidential leadership."

In some ways, the Darfur activists' problem over the past few months hasn't been Obama so much as his special envoy to Sudan, Scott Gration. A decorated soldier who commanded the no-fly zone in northern Iraq for 2½ years, Gration campaigned for Obama last year, giving him much needed cachet among the military set. But his Africa experience consists of being raised by American missionaries in the Congo, from where they were evacuated three times — he likes to remind his African interlocutors that he too was once a refugee.

The appointment of Gration was something of a surprise to Washington's Sudan watchers; Gration's own first choice was to head NASA. And as a plainspoken first-time diplomat, Gration hasn't exactly been careful with his choice of language. Before a Senate Foreign Relations Committee in late July, Gration testified that sanctions on Sudan should be loosened, a statement he had to retract within days. Earlier, he asserted that only "remnants of genocide" remain in Darfur, provoking fury from Darfur advocacy groups and directly contradicting his boss's position: Obama has said three times since January there is currently a genocide in Darfur.

After General Gration told the Washington Post that "cookies" and "gold stars" might be useful in forcing Khartoum to cooperate, a few dozen activists from the group Students Against Genocide sarcastically delivered a large cardboard cutout gold star and smiley face to the front of the Sudan embassy in Washington.

Despite the criticism, Gration has had regular, direct access to Obama, circumventing various members of the National Security Council, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice — all of whom have lobbied for Gration to take the Sudan policy in a different direction. Rice in particular stands in opposition to Gration's approach to Sudan. In 1998 she was instrumental in President Bill Clinton's decision to send 18 cruise missiles slamming into a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory (it was thought to produce chemical weapons for al-Qaeda) in retaliation for the U.S.-embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya. Rice was an early supporter of Obama, and when he won the election last November, her proximity to the President sent a shock of fear into the small coterie of men who rule Sudan. As some in the Sudanese capital say, in the past 50 years, only the Darfur rebels and Susan Rice have attacked Khartoum. But working from her U.N. office in New York City, Rice has largely been sidelined from the policy debate.

The disagreement between Gration and Rice is symbolic of the fundamental fissure that has paralyzed the Administration's Sudan policy. "There is a war inside the Obama Administration," says Andrew Natsios, the special envoy to Sudan under President George W. Bush from 2006 to 2007. "Gration, with the support of [Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs] Johnnie Carson and [National Security Adviser] Jim Jones are all on one side wanting to use diplomacy to address Sudan's problems. On the other side, you have Susan Rice, Samantha Power, with the former co-chair of the Enough Project, Gayle Smith, now at the National Security Council, as the hard-liners who want to declare virtual war."

Meanwhile, the ground reality has changed. Darfur is no longer the crisis it once was — mortality rates there are far lower than those in south Sudan, which is where advocacy groups say the next major crisis will be. This puts the advocacy groups in a tight spot. They no longer have the cachet and spotlight they once had.

The question now is whether the government of Sudan — and the many fractious rebel groups — will make the right moves and end the humanitarian catastrophe in Darfur and prevent renewed fighting between north and south.

The options are the same as those open to President Bush, who took a strong personal interest in the issue. Progress is to be evaluated every three months. If significant progress isn't evident, then the President will face a series of tough decisions on what to do with a regime bent on slaughtering its own people. The fear is that wrangling among policymakers might lead another young American President to sit idle as another African country spirals out of control.