The Big Dilemma Facing Obama’s Sudan Policy

Sudan’s first national elections since 1986 are set for next week.  To put it lightly, these elections are facing something of a credibility problem.  Opposition parties have been restricted in their ability to campaign; the main opposition party has chosen to boycott the elections; and if that were not enough, Sudan’s president threatened to cut off the fingers of election monitors dispatched by the Carter Center. 

Yet, despite these all these developments, U.S. Special Envoy for Sudan Scott Gration recently said that he has confidence that the elections will be “as free and as fair as possible.”  Understandably, Gration has been criticized by activists (including Mia Farrow on the pages of the Wall Street Journal) who note the transparent disconnect between Gration’s statement and recent events. On Monday, the State Department tip-toed Gration’s comments back a bit, though not before touting the elections as a “crucial milestone” of the U.S.-backed 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the central government and Southern Sudanese rebels. 

This fracas shows the extent to which these elections pose a dilemma for the Obama administration.  The Americans were among the strongest supporters of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement.  If the United States flat-out condemns the Sudan’s elections it would be tantamount to saying that the CPA is dead.  A dead peace agreement might mean the resumption of war. That would portend a tragic humanitarian disaster. (The 20 year civil war has already claimed nearly 2 million lives.) On the other hand, embracing these “sham” elections threatens to lend legitimacy to the Sudanese ruling party–the same crowd, it should be said, that perpetrated the Darfur genocide and is wanted by the International Criminal Court. 

It’s a difficult spot for the United States, but it is the inevitable result of a schizophrenic Sudan policy that has been torn between getting “tough” with the Sudanese government and the need to work with the government to make sure the CPA stays intact. 

Image: U.S. Special Envoy for Sudan Scott Gration