Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Rewriting the History of the Sudan Calamity

Winners write history.

Losers rewrite history continually as bills come due, consequences surface, newly revealed errors and shortcomings must be excused, and heavier blame must be shifted onto backs sturdy enough to bear it.

Case in point: Michael Abramowitz’s insider-propelled backgrounder in the Washington Post, U.S. Promises on Darfur Don’t Match Actions tries to explain why, despite its brave talk, the Bush administration isn’t getting anything done on Darfur.

A considerable effort is made to make President Bush look good on this issue by painting him as the guy who wants to do the right thing but was thwarted by distracted, risk averse bureaucrats.

At one point, one senior official said, Bush wanted action to crimp Sudan's booming oil business, a move that would have severely aggravated relations with China -- and that no one else in the government favored.

There was stunned silence in the room, the official said, when Hadley disclosed Bush's idea to other government officials. Hadley made clear he was not interested in having a discussion, but the administration never went as far as the president seemed to be demanding. Instead, Treasury officials came up with a sanctions plan aimed at tracking and squeezing key individuals and companies in the Sudanese economy, including the oil business.

At an appearance in Tennessee this summer, Bush raised a question many have asked about the situation in Darfur: "If there is a problem, why don't you just go take care of it?" But Bush said he considered -- and decided against -- sending U.S. troops unilaterally. "It just wasn't the right decision," he said.

Unable to compel the attention and obedience of his advisors, unwilling to resort precipitously to military action, and bereft of an outlet for his idealism.

Doesn’t sound like our President Bush, does it?

Actually, I think there’s a good argument that, on Sudan, President Bush was guilty of doing too much, not too little. Not in Darfur, but in another, more strategically important area of the country that receives one-tenth of the attention the Darfur sideshow does: the South.

A full understanding of Mr. Bush’s problem can be seen in the context of the twenty-plus year civil war between the oil-rich South and Khartoum that claimed two million lives.

The president commendably invested considerable prestige, attention and energy to broker a peace deal that, after hopeful beginnings, is now on the point of collapse.

The ironic legacy of the North-South deal may turn out to be that it only provided the template for the political and humanitarian crisis in Darfur--and demonstrated the limits of unilateral foreign policy, even by the world's only superpower, in one of the world's more intractable trouble spots.

This gives me a chance to unpack a long piece I wrote last year, The Twisted Triangle: America, China, and Sudan .

I argued that the Bush administration was hostage to the policy of rapprochement with the Sudan regime that had brought about the cessation of the North-South civil war;

that, because of the outcry over Darfur, President Bush had not been able to deliver on the deal promised to Sudan’s President Bashir in return for accepting a risky power-sharing arrangement;

that Bashir was extremely unhappy with the Bush administration as a result;

and that the United States nevertheless, in its best “hope is not a plan” mode, incorrectly assumed it still possessed the leverage to act unilaterally and outside the UN and other mechanisms to impose a Darfur settlement that turned out to be dead on arrival;

and that therefore the Bush administration’s efforts—as further retailed in the Abramowitz article—to blame the U.N. and China for the lack of progress on Darfur is supreme example of sour grapes and hypocrisy.

I wrote:

Rather ironic that Sudan, which was supposed to serve as the keystone of Bush administration engagement with Africa, has turned into an exclusive sandbox for the Yellow Peril.

More to the point, it should be recalled that the United States has consistently pursued Sudan as its exclusive Great Power trophy, most recently when it decided that it would pursue its Darfur diplomacy directly with Khartoum and use the African Union as its vehicle, excluding China and bypassing the UN.

But that didn’t quite work out....

Its credibility and clout diminished by the failure of its DPA initiative, the U.S. government is reduced to impotent table pounding by its media proxies and indignant finger wagging by humanitarian and evangelical groups trying to somehow coerce China into helping out.

Talking about Darfur also gives me an opportunity to present the acme of Bush administration second term hubris to a new audience:

Anticipation of the juicy [North-South] deal coming down the pipe had evoked this remarkable headlinein the Sudan Tribune on the occasion of the 2004 U.S. presidential election:

Sudan prayed for Bush victory.

Israel’s Debkafile is perhaps not the most accurate reporter of news. But it is a faithful chronicler of grandiose neo-con fantasies and this report from 2004 catches some of the giddy enthusiasm of the Bush White House over the new Sudan policy:

For the first time ever, American diplomacy will have succeeded in converting a country dominated by radical Muslims – in Sudan’s case since the 17th century -into a secular democracy – in a period, moreover, when fundamentalist Islam is at its most militant and only a few years after Khartoum played host to Osama bin Laden’s headquarters.

Bush also has a special occasion in mind with an eye on the African American vote where his support is relatively weak. He will step forward as the first US president to plunge deep and head-on into problems endemic to the African continent. The Sudan peace will show the way to accommodations of other conflicts. He has allocated liberal sums for the fight against AIDS and steps for raising the standard of living of hundreds of millions of Africans.

On the agenda too is a highly evocative ritual at the White House at which Sudan’s president will solemnly forswear his country’s dark past as recruiter of slaves for America and the Arab caravans carrying African slaves around the world.

If the US president has his way, the White House lawn will be fully booked this year with ceremonies centering on the Sudanese reconciliation, which he rates more highly than the Israel-Palestinian handshake hosted by Bill Clinton eleven years ago.

“It has to be a ceremony even more impressive than the 1993 White House signing of declarations of principles by Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat,” said a senior US official preparing the event. “It will be an ‘African Camp David’, but one that will not fail.”

Bush’s advisers are preparing to stage a truly gala reception for the two Sudanese leaders, the first of a series showcasing the presidency’s breakthroughs in Africa in full sight of the American electorate and culminating in a splashy signing ceremony in March or April.

National security adviser Condoleezza Rice has set up a committee with heads of the African American community. Working out of an undisclosed location in Los Angeles, they are assess the next moves on Sudan and their impact on voting patterns in November.

As Danforth’s mission draws to a successful conclusion, the president’s senior political adviser Karl Rove is taking charge of strategy on Sudan and its exploitation as campaign fodder.

Let’s highlight a truly wonderful passage:

On the agenda too is a highly evocative ritual at the White House at which Sudan’s president will solemnly forswear his country’s dark past as recruiter of slaves for America and the Arab caravans carrying African slaves around the world.

Sudan would not only be reclaimed for the Christian God and Big Oil.

It would also help exorcise the guilt of the GOP’s white southern base for its slaveholding past, and place the onus firmly on the backs of those troublesome but ultimately contrite Muslim Arabs.

Now, that’s a peace deal for the ages!

None of that stuff ever happened, of course.

Read the rest of the piece to find out what really happened to what, under different circumstances, could have been a genuine achievement in Bush administration diplomacy. It’s a perspective on Sudan that is pretty much absent from the major media and, I’m afraid, Mr. Abramowitz’s article.


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