Obama Administration Special Envoys for Sudan: A Succession of Failure, Duplicity, and Cynicism

US Envoy to Sudan and South Sudan Donald Booth. Photo: AFP
US Envoy to Sudan and South Sudan Donald Booth. Photo: AFP

By Eric Reeves

November 24, 2016 (SSNA) — The Obama administration—under three successive “Special Envoys for Sudan(s)”—has proved almost inconceivably misguided and destructive in addressing the many problems of Sudan—and not only genocide in Darfur (Obama himself used the word “genocide” repeatedly both as a senator, a presidential candidate, and early in his Presidency. His administration and special envoys have collectively encouraged the Khartoum regime to believe it will pay no significant price for its continuing wars on the marginalized people of Sudan, and they have badly failed in assessing the political and economic crises of the country as a whole. The recent column in the Sudan Tribune by current envoy Donald Booth (http://www.sudantribune.com/spip.php?article60908/) only continues eight years of deliberate and expedient misrepresentation of Sudan’s crises and the diplomatic tasks that confront not only the U.S. but the African Union, the UN, and the European Union.

I’ll return to Booth’s central claim, one that implicitly suggests that the Khartoum regime (one of the “parties to the conflict,” in his diplo-speak) is beginning to move “toward peace” in Darfur—a claim for which there is not the slightest shred of real evidence:

“[Abdul Wahid al Nur’s] refusal to negotiate has been a perennial problem for international efforts to end the conflict in Sudan, but it has become especially damaging as other parties to the conflict begin moving toward peace.”

While I too have found Abdul Wahid thoroughly obdurate in conversation, the idea that he is the problem—that if only his “cooperation” could be secured Darfur’s massive crisis would be resolved—is simply perverse; it appears to be a last, desperate effort by the Obama administration to absolve itself of responsibility for the continuation of “genocide” over the entire eight years of Obama’s two terms as President of the United States.

But before looking in detail at the disgraceful dishonesty of Booth’s assertion, it is worth looking briefly at the destructive diplomatic handiwork of his two predecessors, also part of the Obama legacy.

Air Force Major-General (ret.) Scott Gration

Gration was appointed by Obama in March 2009 to address perhaps the single most difficult diplomatic challenge on the world scene: ongoing war in Darfur and the troubled move toward fulfillment of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA; January 2005) between Khartoum and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army of South Sudan (as well as South Kordofan, Blue Nile, and Abyei). Gration had no knowledge of Sudan, no diplomatic experience, and had voted for George W. Bush in 2000, three years before Bush led the U.S. and Britain into the catastrophic invasion of Iraq. He had no Arabic or other relevant language skills.

He was completely befuddled by the challenge posed by Khartoum’s expulsion from Darfur (March 2009) of thirteen critical international nongovernmental humanitarian organizations, and the closing of three Sudanese NGOs. So over-matched was Gration that it fell to then-Senator and now Secretary of State John Kerry to handle the crisis, which he did in his typically expedient and disingenuous fashion. UN humanitarian officials informed me at the time that the expulsions and closures represented roughly 50 percent of total humanitarian capacity in Darfur; Kerry traveled to Khartoum and issued the following statement in April:

Senator John Kerry, chair of the Senate foreign relations committee and also representing Obama in Khartoum, has expanded administration disingenuousness by declaring (April 17, 2009): “We have agreement [with Khartoum] that in the next weeks we will be back to 100 percent [humanitarian] capacity,” said [Senator John] Kerry. (Reuters [el-Fasher], April 17, 2009)

Kerry knew full well that such restoration of capacity was not even remotely logistically possible. But by framing it as an “agreement” with Khartoum, Kerry effectively made the crisis look manageable. No matter that the Khartoum regime had never abided by any such agreement—not one, not ever. The same has been true of Khartoum’s “Status of Forces Agreement” with the UN and African Union concerning UNAMID forces, guaranteed by the January 2008 “agreement” the right to move unhindered throughout Darfur. Relentless denial of access has defined UNAMID’s presence in Darfur from the day the agreement was signed.

And full humanitarian capacity was never restored in Darfur, nor anything remotely close. On the contrary, Khartoum continued with its expulsions of humanitarian organizations and made access as difficult for humanitarians as it had for UNAMID.

By the time Envoy Gration was actually working in office, he demonstrated extraordinary and dangerous ignorance on Darfur issues. He quickly sided with the regime on the question of early returns of displaced persons, without any understanding of the danger facing people forced to leave the relative security that the camps afforded. For that ignorance he was taken sharply to task by a humanitarian “Inter-Agency Management Group” (IAMG) in summer 2009: people who actually understood the situation on the ground in Darfur refused to be silent in the face of such dangerous statements as issued from Gration and his office. This was reported by the superb journalist for the Washington Post, Colum Lynch, on August 5, 2009 | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/08/05/AR2009080503808.html/. With access to the notes from the IAMD of their meetings with Gration, I wrote in detail about their harsh assessment of the special envoy’s views (http://sudanreeves.org/2011/01/23/us-special-envoy-on-returns-of-displaced-persons-in-darfur-september-2009/).

Undeterred by the evidence of his ignorance, Gration soon went on to display his thoughts about diplomacy with the hardened and supremely canny Khartoum regime:

“We’ve got to think about giving out cookies. Kids, countries—they react to gold stars, smiley faces, handshakes, agreements, talk, engagement” (Washington Post, September 28, 2009 | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/09/28/AR2009092802336.html/)

The fatuous, benighted, and dangerous character of dealing with ruthless génocidaires on such a basis can hardly be overstated. These words certainly encouraged Khartoum immensely in its continued ethnically-targeted campaign of destruction in Darfur, and set the stage for the events of late 2010 and early 2011 in the run-up to the Southern self-determination referendum. On Abyei in particular—joined by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and current Secretary of State John Kerry—Gration urged the government in Juba to “compromise” further on the boundaries of Abyei, despite the existence of a final and binding ruling on Abyei from the Permanent Court of Arbitration—binding arbitration that Khartoum had agreed to (July 2009)

This ruling was favorable to Khartoum and significantly reduced the area of Abyei entitled to participate in what was to have been a January 9, 2011 self-determination referendum, which would have seen an overwhelming vote to join South Sudan. But encouraged by Gration and others in the Obama administration, Khartoum had by the time of the referendum resolved to seize all of Abyei militarily, which it did—after substantial and clearly visible military preparation—on May 20, 2011 (for a complete timeline of events and decisions leading to this deeply threatening military action, see http://sudanreeves.org/2011/05/27/an-abyei-timeline-the-long-road-to-khartoums-military-invasion/).

Princeton Lyman

Just as destructive as Gration in the attitudes and policy views he espoused was Obama’s second special envoy, Princeton Lyman. Lyman was in charge of Sudan policy throughout the early months of 2011 and knew full well of Khartoum’s military preparations to seize Abyei. He said nothing of consequence, and after the actual seizure on May 20, also said nothing of significance—no demands that Khartoum withdraw militarily, specifying consequences if they did not. All that the U.S. and international community offered the people of Abyei, denied their right to a self-determination referendum as guaranteed by the CPA’s “Abyei Protocol,” was an Ethiopian brigade of peacekeepers, which has done little more than preserve the status quo.

Unsurprising, emboldened by the entirely successful military seizure of Abyei, Khartoum soon after initiated hostilities in South Kordofan. The most consequential early violence was in the capital of the state, Kadugli. Almost from the first we had many highly credible reports—including from an Agence France-Presse correspondence on the scene—of mass killings of Nuba, the general name for the African tribal populations of the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan. House-to-house searches, traffic barricades, and arbitrary arrests of people of Nuba ethnicity defined these early days. So too did mass graves, capable of holding thousands of bodies. (For a lengthy interview of what we knew, when we knew it, and how we knew it, see | http://sudanreeves.org/2013/10/11/genocide-in-the-nuba-mountains-a-retrospective-on-what-we-knew-june-2011-2013/).

Working at the time as an advisor to the Satellite Sentinel Project (http://www.satsentinel.org/), I had daily access not only to the photographs but expert military and forensic analysis. Even though our photographic resolution was limited by U.S. law, the findings were simply unambiguous. And yet Princeton Lyman denied the validity of these findings, refused to credit the reports coming from Kadugli, and allowed a Rwanda-like event to proceed without any U.S. condemnation. He went so far as to claim that our analysis of the clear evidence of mass graves was mistaken—that he had “other evidence.”

But in early July 2011, the report of a UN human rights team that had been in Kadugli for the horrific killings of June 2011 was leaked (reportedly by the U.S. ambassador to the UN Susan Rice). The lengthy report is an astonishing catalog of crimes and crimes against humanity by Khartoum’s forces, recognized as such by the UN human rights reporters. Their report should be required reading for any who wonder whether the Khartoum regime is likely to be swayed by “cookies and gold stars.”

In the summer of 2011 Lyman continued his deeply, destructively disingenuous ways. In an interview with Margaret Warner of PBS’ “NewsHour” (June 28) Lyman told Warner:

“the Nuba Mountain region in Southern Kordofan, where Northern forces have moved in and many residents have fled, is not in danger of becoming another Darfur.

“Mountain people are fighting back and I don’t think the North is capable of dislodging large numbers of people on an ethnic basis from the Nuba Mountains,” he said. “Second, I’m not sure that’s the objective of the government, though local commanders may have a different point of view.” (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/sudan-envoy/)

More than five years later this assessment is of course spectacularly in error—but even in June 2011, such an assessment required that Lyman overlook a host of evidence, including that in the UN report (to which he surely had access, at least of preliminary findings) and from the reports of countless Nuba fleeing to South Sudan. One chilling report of June 10, 2011 should certainly have caught Lyman’s attention:

“Other [Nuba] have fled to the Nuba mountains, where they are being hunted down like animals by helicopter gunships,” says the Sudan Council of Churches, an umbrella organisation representing all Sudanese churches. (http://responsibilitytoprotect.org/index.php/crises/188-crisis-in-sudan/3522-the-sudan-council-of-churches-south-kordofan-reports-of-mass-atrocities-)

Khartoum had indeed already begun an aerial bombing campaign targeting civilians and agriculture; the results have been a massive flow of refugees to South Sudan and huge numbers of displaced persons, many acutely or severely malnourished.

Encouraged yet again by the dissembling of the Obama administration’s special envoy, it was not surprising that Khartoum would soon initiate military hostilities in neighboring Blue Nile state; on September 1, 2011 a grim reprise of what we had seen for over two months in South Kordofan began in Blue Nile—it, too, continues to this day.

Despite all that Lyman had seen in 2011, including continuing genocide in Darfur and a growing militarization of the regime, Lyman issued his most expedient declaration, his most destructively dishonest assessment of the Khartoum regime in December 2011:

“we [the Obama administration] do not want to see the ouster of the [Khartoum] regime, nor regime change. We want to see the regime carrying out reform via constitutional democratic measures.” (Interview with Asharq al-Awsat, December 3, 2011 | http://english.aawsat.com/2011/12/article55244147/asharq-al-awsat-talks-to-us-special-envoy-to-sudan-princeton-lyman)

There simply could be no preposterous assumption about the workings or instincts of the Khartoum regime: there is absolutely no intention to effect “reform via constitutional democratic measures.” The so-called “National Dialogue” has been described as “political ploy” in leaked minutes of a September 10, 2014 meeting of the most senior military, security, and political figures—minutes fully acknowledged to be authentic by the office of the U.S. Special Envoy for Sudan. Since Lyman’s spectacularly disingenuous interview, repression throughout Sudan has increased dramatically, as has censorship of the news media (the regime of course controls all broadcast media inside Sudan).

Demonstrations over the effects of regime mismanagement of the economy in September 2013 resulted in police and security officials being given “shoot to kill” orders, a fact established by Amnesty International on the basis of morgue examination where they were allowed access. Hundreds of people were killed by gunshot wounds. Demonstrations have continued ever since, as inflation skyrockets, there are shortages of food and cooking fuel, and water supply crises go unaddressed. The almost total lack of foreign exchange currency has sent the Sudanese Pound into free-fall, with black market rates now in the range of 20 Sudanese Pounds to the dollar—a catastrophic decline (http://www.sudantribune.com/spip.php?article60925).

And as the economy continues to deteriorate, repression continues to deepen throughout Sudan. “We want to see the regime carrying out reform via constitutional democratic measures”?

Lyman’s statement is finally so disingenuous as to be little more than expedient mendacity. Is it surprising that during Lyman’s tenure as special envoy Darfur was “de-coupled” from the key bilateral issue between Khartoum and the Obama administration, counter-terrorism? The word “de-coupled” was used by an unnamed but senior administration official according to an official U.S. State Department transcript. (See also | http://sudanreeves.org/2011/02/15/darfur-de-emphasized-de-coupled-and-finally-denied-february-15-2011/).

Donald Booth

The current Obama administration special envoy for Sudan, Donald Booth, is unlikely to survive the transition to a Trump administration (although that administration is likely to be so disorganized on foreign policy issues that many people may simply be frozen in their positions for weeks or months). His comment in the Sudan Tribune must stand as a parting effort to explain eight years of failure to halt what candidate and first-term President Obama found expedient to call genocide:

“[Abdul Wahid al Nur’s] refusal to negotiate has been a perennial problem for international efforts to end the conflict in Sudan, but it has become especially damaging as other parties to the conflict begin moving toward peace.”

Booth seems to have forgotten or never bothered to learn the history of the terrible failure of “shotgun diplomacy” that was the 2006 Abuja “Darfur Peace Agreement” (DPA), presided over by an impatient Bush administration special envoy, Robert Zoellick. Nothing did more to divide the Darfuri rebel groups, only one of which signed the agreement—and the least valuable in securing peace (the SLM/A of Minni Minawi, and Minawi would soon leave the regime because of its all too predictable failure to uphold the terms of the DPA).

A true expert on Darfur, who has worked both for the UN and nongovernmental organizations—and who understands all too well the true obstacles to peace in the region—has conveyed to me his contempt for Booth’s argument about Abdul Wahid, asking several questions to which the special envoy has provided no answers. Two of these questions in particular force a larger view of Obama administration policy failure:

  • Why did the opposition Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF), a coalition that includes the Darfur rebel groups and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement-North (SPLA/M-N), split in two at the very time their structure and cohesiveness was supposedly being strengthened by the Obama administration? The Obama administration gave untold thousands of dollars to a law firm that was supposed to help with capacity-building within the SRF—but doesn’t know the first thing about Sudan.
  • Why aren’t other rebel groups, including the SPLA/M-N, participating in the talks Booth mentions? Abdul Wahid’s obduracy is of long-standing, to be sure—but his distrust of Khartoum is shared by all groups.

Over the years we have seen many declarations by Khartoum of a “cessation of hostilities,” every one of them violated. Diplomatic asymmetry is such that if Khartoum makes such a declaration, the rebel groups feel compelled to make the same declaration, even as they know that Khartoum’s word is meaningless, and than when it is advantageous to resume fighting, they will do so, until every area of Sudan is under full military control.

In Darfur Khartoum is very near success on this score, at least after this year’s massive and savage assault on Jebel Marra, the former stronghold for Abdul Wahid’s forces. The campaign was distinguished by vast, targeted destruction of the Fur population of Jebel Marra, including by means of chemical weapons (authoritatively established by Amnesty International). Abdul Wahid, who is not nearly as popular among Darfuris in the camps as he once was, or among his own Fur people, controls relatively little territory, and is likely to be overwhelmed by the eventual dry season offensive by Khartoum, almost certain to be the “final solution” to its “Darfur problem.” Abdul Wahid doesn’t have the power or support to stop peace if Khartoum were truly interested; that is simply not the case. Khartoum will in the end settle for nothing other than complete military victory and control of all of Darfur. Booth is blind to this basic fact, all too amply supported by recent history.

Booth chooses not to speak of these realities—or the continuing predations of Khartoum-backed militia forces, especially the well-armed and well-supplied Rapid Support Forces (RSF) that have coordinated with Khartoum’s regular forces in both East Jebel Marra since 2013 and in the Jebel Marra massif itself, particularly over the past year (see Human Rights Watch report of September 2015). Nor does he speak of the other militia and paramilitary forces in Darfur that do Khartoum’s bidding, whether directed or not. Nor does he speak of the massive obstacle to peace that continues to grow with the ongoing, violent expropriation of farmland by these Arab militias, who have in the words of infamous Janjaweed leader Musa Hilal, “changed the demography of Darfur” (http://sudanreeves.org/2015/11/05/musa-hilal-and-the-changing-of-darfurs-demography/). If the second part of Hilal’s exhortation has not yet been fulfilled—“empty Darfur of African tribes”—that is not because of any successful urging of restraint by the Obama administration over the past eight years, including during the tenure of Donald Booth.

The past is future for Darfur, and that is unspeakably cruel (http://wp.me/p45rOG-1P4).

Eric Reeves has written extensively on Sudan for almost two decades; he is a Senior Fellow at Harvard University’s François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights.

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