Obama Administration Forms Sudan Policy: 'Not Ruling Out' Meeting with Alleged War Criminal Omar Al-Bashir

"We're not having a strategy of hope," declared Major General J. Scott Gration at an intimate roundtable discussion with bloggers about Sudan at the State Department Friday morning. Gration, President Barack Obama's special envoy to Sudan, spoke with calm optimism about the role of the United States in the fate of the largest state in Africa, as it endures political transformations that very well may split it in two. Speaking for roughly an hour, he addressed concerns about the administration's formation of an official policy toward Sudan, his openness to sitting down with Sudan's president Omar al-Bashir -- who was indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court in March, and the controversial prospect of lifting sanctions against the war-torn state.

Gration, a broad-shouldered and affable retired Air Force officer, proposed that American policy in Sudan be both engaging and self-effacing: the U.S. must be involved; the U.S. must only be a facilitator. But his mission is consummately ambitious: "We're trying to bring about an environment so that in 5 months we can help make a country," he said with a light snap of his fingers. The Obama administration is committed to helping Sudan arrange for general elections in January -- the first in over two decades -- and a referendum in 2011, which will determine if South Sudan will declare independence from the North.

"Some people call it nation-building, I call it preparation for independence," he said with a grin. Gration seemed to regularly punctuate his heaviest news with chuckles, almost as if realizing that levity is the only way of coping with the enormity of the challenge he is tasked with.

Or perhaps it's also because he underestimates the likelihood of bloodshed in the near future. In July, Gration drew fierce criticism from Darfur activists for his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in which he used strikingly soft language regarding the government of Sudan, entertained the controversial idea of easing sanctions, and claimed that Sudan was only on the list of state sponsors of terrorism for "political" reasons.

While he later tempered his remarks about sanctions, his commentary inspired suspicion among many members of the anti-genocide movement, especially in light of his remark earlier in the summer that Sudan contains only "remnants of genocide." Critics saw these comments as signs that the Obama administration is unjustifiably optimistic about the effectiveness of peace negotiations, and inclined to appease a brutal government which requires forceful policy. They acted. And the fact that the White House has been slow to form an official policy toward Sudan has only left room for fevered speculation.

But on Friday, Gration said that the Obama administration agreed just the night before upon both a "broad framework" and "the specifics" of its Sudan policy, and that there is now a general consensus among Obama's policymakers on how to move forward with its strategy toward the country. While he did not reveal the date for the release of an official policy review, he suggested it's near completion, and said that there's been "daily" discussion between the White House and the State Department about strategy toward Sudan.

In the meeting, Gration reiterated that he does not think that genocidal violence is transpiring in Darfur anymore. However, he also assured reporters that he is not dismissing the instability and fear that still affects Darfuri lives today. "I don't understand the psychological ramifications [of living displaced]," he admitted, but "whether the act of fighting is going on or not, there are still conditions of insecurity and fear- and gender-based violence that are keeping people from going back to their homes."

One group particularly affected by the turmoil and of great concern to the Administration is the Darfuri youth. Perpetually displaced and marginalized, the lives of the "shabab" (Arabic for young people -- in this case generally male) have become politicized and militarized at an astonishing rate. They have become a pro-rebel political force in the refugee camps for the 2.7 million people displaced by years of war, and often stand fiercely against peace talks with the government of Sudan. The camps have become a source of tension for the Sudanese government, which prompts it to regularly announce that it will clear them out -- in contravention of all humanitarian standards.

Sudan's security concerns extend far beyond Darfur. Gration is especially uneasy about the lack of law and order in the south, where there has been a surge of killing, mainly due to intertribal conflict and struggles to control scant resources. But Gration is confident that security in Sudan is now more a matter of dealing with a chaotic and disorganized mix of bandits, "autonomous Janjaweed" (the nomadic Arab militiamen long at odds with the sedentary Darfuris), and armed militia. On the international front, the Administration is also working vigorously to reduce tension between Chad and Sudan, and is concerned with cutting off support networks for Chadian-backed Sudanese rebels.

Ultimately, he acknowledged that even with a dramatic decrease in violence, there are a number of variables -- such as the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), the leading Darfuri rebel group -- that could reignite major violent conflict in Sudan.

But security is only one element of the administration's multi-pronged approach. Rebel unification is critical to sustaining a lasting peace, and is to be executed by using past peace agreements as a platform for pulling together an array of fragmented rebel groups, with the hope that "they can agree what are those things they want changed." Gration also expressed a commitment to connecting with Sudanese civil society, and reaching out across IDP Camps, refugee camps, and the diaspora to ensure all Sudanese voices are heard during the peace negotiations.

Improving humanitarian assistance is a critical goal for the Administration. Gration pledged that his team is working to enhance the distribution of food and medicine, and assist Darfuris returning home or settling into new settings that they may have become accustomed to.

Urgency may be the defining theme of the great din surrounding the fate of Sudan: There are less than 150 working days until the election; and there are less than a year's worth of working days before South Sudan holds a referendum that will allow it to vote to sever ties with the North and declare independence. Roughly 85% of the country is illiterate. Nearly 3 million are internally displaced. The United Nations has warned that parts of southern Sudan could be in pre-famine conditions, with 1.3 million people across the country in need of food aid. And a flare-up of violence in the country is a serious possibility.

It is this urgency that informs Gration's attitude toward engaging Khartoum. "We're the only country right now that has relations -- good relations -- with the governments of southern Sudan and Khartoum," he said. He spoke in a conciliatory tone of the need to work to rapidly "bridge gaps" and "establish a relationship of trust -- even in Khartoum." Gration was even open-minded toward the possibility of negotiating with the Sudanese president: "I've not met with Al-Bashir, nor do I have plans to meet with him, but I'm not ruling it out if we have to do it to move process forward."

Regarding sanctions, the Administration is not looking to lift them in a systematic manner, but it is likely to consider exceptions when they interfere with the humanitarian and development elements of the mission. Without lifting any sanctions, building infrastructure and aiding in the development of a viable economy in South Sudan is extremely inefficient. "It's crazy stuff, we're trying to get some John Deere tractors into the south, so we have to sell them to an Indian, who then imports them," Gration said.

Gration welcomed input from Darfur activist groups. "If anybody wants to come and help us, come on down." He outright rejected the idea that the Obama administration isn't deeply engaged in advancing policy on Sudan, but also admitted there was always room for improvement: "Can we do more? Yeah. Would I like to have a hundred people on my staff? Yeah. There's more obviously we can do, and it's the same with everything, it's a matter of priorities."

In an email, John Norris, the executive director of The Enough Project, an anti-genocide organization, warned that despite Gration's sincerity and work ethic, Sudan could again be headed for a civil war, and wrote, "[Gration] is spending a great deal of time trying to get the parties to renegotiate existing agreements, instead of grasping the nettle and addressing all the hard questions that surround the question of potential independence."

In the meeting, Gration sounded as if he was preparing for every scenario. But the degree and type of preparation is always up for debate, and there's no scarcity of opinions. Sudan Now, a coalition of anti-genocide organizations, has already accepted Gration's informal offer to meet with others interested in serving Sudan. "Sudan deserves more than good intentions at this point," wrote Norris, whose organization is a member of Sudan Now. Fortunately, nobody's debating that.

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