Monday, October 19, 2009

How and Why Engagement with Sudan Shows Precisely What’s Wrong with Obama Administration Foreign Policy


By Barry Rubin

The Obama Administration apparently thinks that its policy of engaging repressive radical anti-American dictators has been working so well as to extend it now to Sudan. This is the meaning of the new policy to be on this issue October 19.

That country’s government, once accused of genocide in the south, is now said to have been doing the same thing in the west. Mass murder and ferocious repression—300,000 people have been killed; 2.7 million made refugees--has been so prevalent that the country’s president Omar al-Bashir is under an international indictment for war crimes and Sudan is on the State Department list as a country sponsoring terrorism.

Far from being inconvenienced by this fact, however, Sudan has been playing a leading role in the effort to do the same to Israel: that is, wipe it out while simultaneously accusing it of war crimes. Sudan is the current leader of the “non-aligned” group at the UN, the largest bloc of members, and one of the main countries pushing to indict Israel for war crimes.

So to anyone who understands how international affairs works it would appear:

A. That the United States is rewarding Sudan for its behavior.

B. That the United States has already reached an agreement with Sudan that it will act differently at home and in the UN before giving it a big concession.

C. The United States is afraid of Sudan.

None of the above points are true. Therefore, this raises a case study regarding the most important issue of all whose absence from the Obama Administration list of priorities is most noticeable on every issue:

What will the Sudanese government do for the United States? Imagine, in the same week that Khartoum has flouted U.S. interests by pushing the Goldstone report through the UN Human Rights Council, Washington is going to reward it with a renewed relationship.

This sounds familiar:

The U.S. government announced the withdrawal of a plan to put anti-missile missiles in the Czech Republic and Poland on the anniversary of the Russian invasion of Poland at a time when Russia’s leader rejects sanctions on Iran and reaffirms the rationale for annexing much of Poland in 1939.

The U.S. government agreed to engage Iran immediately following the stealing of an election there and the repression of peaceful dissidents.

So we see the same pattern:

--A major concession while receiving nothing in exchange.

--The timing of a concession at a moment when the other side is acting in a particularly aggressive manner.
This is justified, however, by what might well be called the administration’s “cookie” philosophy. This was expressed by retired Major General J. Scott Gration, who has been handling U.S. policy toward Sudan. The former general, who has no previous diplomatic experience—something he has in common with the president—explained, "We've got to think about giving out cookies,’ said Gration. `Kids, countries--they react to gold stars, smiley faces, handshakes, agreements, talk, engagement."

No, that’s not how things work. Reality is better expressed by a Sudanese dissident who said that U.S. rapprochement with the regime will give it confidence to crack down all the harder and, I might add, be more aggressive abroad. That’s precisely, by the way, the effect of the policy on Iran and elsewhere.

So how does the administration guard against such an outcome? It warns that the violence and humanitarian abuses must stop. But a verbal warning from a government eager to renounce toughness and eager to forget all trespasses against U.S. interests is not exactly credible.

You see, the argument is that engagement will make the lives of people in Sudan better and persuade the regime from stopping its sponsorship of terrorism. In principle, this is a reasonable argument but only if three conditions are met:

--Real pressure is applied.

--Concrete, material proof is presented by that country’s behavior before the benefits are provided.

--There is real evidence the regime wants to change its behavior.

All these conditions are lacking regarding Sudan, Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, Syria, and every other country the administration is coddling. One can add the Palestinian Authority to the list.

But here’s the problem: If the United States demands that these countries do something, they won’t. This has certain implications:

--U.S. policy toward them will appear to have failed, thus making the administration look bad.

--They will be angry and denounce Obama, thus undercutting his vaunted international popularity.

--The resulting friction might force the United States to engage in tough measures, which could be seen as imperialist bullying.

--Friction could lead to military measures, thus pressing the United States toward having to use force or the threat of force, which would damage the administration’s argument that “soft power” works.

I am not being cynical or joking in providing this list. Such things are the ideas and goals which paralyze the Obama Administration from the kind of policy needed in today’s world.

Equally, there is nothing either conservative or liberal in this analysis. It is the framework by which almost all previous American presidents have conducted foreign polic. If anything, liberals have historically been far more forthright in wanting to pressure repressive dictatorships. Yet here is a presidency supposedly built on compassion whose policy means that Sudan’s people will suffer even more.

Human rights' groups working on the Darfur issue are worried that thist might be a betrayal.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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