Sunday, May 07, 2006

The Darfur Gambit: Countering China While Winning Hearts, Minds, and Wallets in Africa

It appears to me that the sudden Darfur settlement has little to do with the moral challenge of confronting genocide, aroused public opinion, or even the personal and political magnetism of George Clooney…

…and everything to do with the Bush administration’s desire to one-up a certain pasty Oriental potentate.

It is surely no coincidence that the hasty agreement rushed to conclusion by Robert Zoellick of the US and Hilary Benn of the UK provided a spectacular riposte to Hu Jintao’s high-profile, politically charged trip to Africa.

I also have little doubt that the Darfur master stroke was the culmination of a painstakingly choreographed campaign to belittle both Hu and China as unworthy pretenders to power parity with the United States on the world stage.

It started with Hu’s non-state visit to Washington, with the planned and ostensibly unplanned slights, the sleeve-tugging, the screaming protester miraculously unsilenced by the Secret Service, and the ostentatious snoozing by Dick Cheney during Hu’s briefing.

It concluded with the Darfur settlement, trumpeted throughout the world just as Hu was wrapping up his worldwide trip, contrasting American responsible diplomacy in the Third World with China’s oil-grubbing moral turpitude.

The haste in which the flawed Darfur agreement was wrapped up also indicates that political objectives, rather than genuine policy or humanitarian goals, were at stake.

Two years of protracted negotiations under the auspices of the African Union were wrapped up in less than a week of brisk arm-twisting by Zoellick and Benn. It is interesting to speculate what special superpowers of logic and persuasion these First World Solomons could bring to bear in such a short period of time.

Per the Sudan Tribune:

The rebels said only the United States had the power to win concessions from Sudan’s government, though it was unclear what bargaining chips were being used by Washington

I don’t think I’m out of line in suggesting that financial inducements, perhaps of a personal as well as a government-to-government and government-to-rebel nature, played a role in the sudden acceptance by two of the parties (out of four) of the four pages of US-proposed revisions to the AU-brokered 86-page draft agreement.

Two of the three rebel groups refused to sign the agreement, something that Zoellick, the western press, and humanitarian organizations professed to shrug off. The resistance of the rebels might have been due to issues of principles or because the gravy train of concessions simply wasn’t piled high enough.

Well, there’s always somebody ready to make a deal :

The Nur faction walked out of negotiations in the Nigerian capital before dawn Friday, as had another rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement.

But one of Nur’s top negotiators, Abdulrahman Moussa, said he was walking out on Nur to form his own Front for Liberation and Renaissance. He said was taking half Nur’s camp with him and they supported the peace agreement.

Nur "is not compromising and I don’t think he is seeking peace, especially after the generous offer from Zoellick," Moussa said.

Either way, one would think that negotiations devoted to tying up these loose ends would have been conducted more vigorously and responsibly if the desire to upstage Hu Jintao on the eve of his departure for China had not been paramount.

From partial press reports, it appears that the US-brokered compromise on the key bone of contention—the number of rebel troops to be integrated into the national army—wasn’t even accepted by the Sudan government. Instead of disagreeing, as we say, they agreed to disagree.

No surprise that the adjective “flawed” appears not infrequently in analyses of the deal. From the Reuters articleDarfur conflict seen continuing despite peace deal” :

Many analysts doubt the sincerity of the government, which holds the key to implementing the deal, because Khartoum has undermined so many agreements in the past.

Furthermore, the Sudan regime and its lethal Janjaweed militias seem to be getting a free pass: no sanctions, no war crimes, no commission of national reconciliation, no hard looks in the UN canteen etc. Instead, if the deal holds, Khartoum gets to hand off the burden of pacifying, securing, rebuilding, and developing Darfur to a well-heeled crowd of First-World troops and do-gooders. Not a particularly onerous outcome, in my book.

The kid-glove treatment meted out to the Sudan regime is something that the Western press and opinion have been remarkably silent about.

But the Bush administration’s stance of moral hostility and righteous confrontation toward Khartoum--as contrasted with the amoral and mercantilist Chinese position--has always been vastly overstated.

An eye-opening article in the November 3, 2004 Sudan Tribune stated: Sudan Prayed for Bush Re-election .

Let’s repeat that.

Sudan Prayed for Bush Re-election.

Because Clinton had been—and it was feared Kerry would be—too aggressive in applying sanctions to Sudan. The article also contains the interesting nugget that Sudan’s strongman, in addition to harboring bin-Laden, supported Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait—a rogue-state two-fer distinction I believe Sudan only shared with Taliban Afghanistan.

As I argued in a previous post , the Bush administration has willingly engaged with Sudan, not necessarily because of its vital assistance in the war on terror, but because Washington was keen to counter Chinese influence and access in that country. And of course, there’s oil there.

In this context, China can at least congratulate itself on keeping its powder dry and ignoring calls from the Bush administration, Nicholas Kristof, and outraged never-againers to sanction Sudan in the UN. Any such action would have merely alienated Sudan, and with no practical benefit.

John Bolton’s soft-pedaling of sanctions at the UN—limiting the list of Sudan bad guys to four irrelevant second bananas--indicates that the real action on Darfur was, as it has been for the last two years, in the African Union negotiations—which the US intended to butt in on anyway.

That’s another indication to me that the Darfur settlement was part of a carefully thought-out program both to belittle and one-up Hu Jintao during his world tour, and also to puncture Chinese pretensions to challenging the US for a leadership role in the Third World.

How successful will America’s new focus on countering China be?

The vindictive aspect of the campaign—the desire to publicly humiliate Hu and China—is of a piece with Bush’s well-documented knee jerk hostility to leaders and countries that do not pay him sufficient tribute as the world’s moral and military hegemon, usually expressed in impulsive, self-defeating actions like the fiasco of Hu’s Washington visit.

Symbolically kicking sand in Hu Jintao’s face may have satisfied President Bush’s tender ego and also provided some political haven from the storm of bad news battering his administration and poll standings.

The PR and spin gods seem to be smiling on the Bush administration once again after a long absence.

The most amusing element of this story has been the credulous cheerleading of the western press and the humanitarian organizations. A mishmash agreement that lets the Khartoum regime off scot-free is greeted with such hosannas that one must believe there is a deep hunger after Iraq for the West to seize the moral ground, vis a vis China at least, regardless of the facts.

Human Rights Watch's statement is all of a piece. From Chinese president ends oil safari, to mixed reactions:

But angry critics have accused Beijing of doing business with undemocratic regimes, notably Sudan, an oil-rich nation that has for several decades used oil revenues to wage deadly successive wars on dissent.

"When Western governments try to use economic pressure to secure human rights improvements, China's no-strings rule gives dictators the means to resist," Human Rights Watch's executive director Richard Roth said recently.

It is to laugh. The Sudan regime is considerably richer and stronger and legitimate today, but little thanks to China. More thanks to Washington and its desire to counter Beijing in Africa.

But the painstaking planning and successful execution—and the focus on the Third World--argues that the overarching strategy was planned by the State Department and not the White House press office or Dick Cheney’s cabal, and has a chance of enduring, just as the State Department’s anti-Russian initiatives have persisted and flourished.

The welcome news for Africa may very well be…

Checkbook diplomacy is back, baby!

American policy seems to be moving away from the coercive insistence on US strategic priorities and moral imperatives justified by our self-assumed leadership role in the Global War on Terror.

We haven’t abandoned American unilateralism and returned to the flabby bosom of the UN, but at least the United States is now competing for the attention of Third World states, instead of merely demanding and compelling it.

African states can look forward to a profitable cycle of playing off Beijing against Washington.

All I can say is, it’s better than people shooting at each other.

And if the rickety Darfur agreement survives, we’ll be grateful for that, too.

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