Obama, Adrift On Sudan

Thirty Sudanese political leaders will meet in Washington today with 170 observers from 32 countries and international organizations, as well as four African former prime ministers, to confront the issues that are slowly pushing Sudan over a cliff. The United States ought to be in a commanding position to mediate in these negotiations, as it did in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended 22 years of civil war between Sudan's North and South. But disputes within the Obama administration are inhibiting U.S. efforts to stop Sudan's slide toward civil war at a time when unified American leadership is essential.

First, let's consider the situation. Some policymakers continue to call Darfur an ongoing "genocide," but in fact, the conflict has descended into anarchy. "Darfur today is a conflict of all against all," Rodolphe Adada, the joint African Union-United Nations special representative, told the U.N. Security Council in April. Between Jan. 1, 2008, and March 31, 2009, he found some 2,000 fatalities from violence, one third of them civilian. The death of some 700 innocent civilians over a 15-month period, while morally repugnant, is not genocide. It is a low-level insurgency. More civilians died in southern Sudan during the past six months than in Darfur over the past 15 months. Despite such facts and extensive U.N. Security Office reports showing that genocide is not an accurate description, President Obama continues to use that weighted term.

Advocacy groups motivate their financial supporters and volunteers by associating today's low-level insurgency with the Sudanese government's massive atrocities of 2003 and 2004. This amounts to leading supporters through a time warp. Evidence shows that the deaths are less than half the 500,000 that is often cited, and that 96 percent of deaths took place during the first two years of the conflict. John Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough campaign to end crimes against humanity, said recently, "Most of these figures are wild estimates. They are simply crazily wild estimates." Well, such wild estimates are compromising American diplomacy.

The Obama administration should consider reducing sanctions on Sudan only in exchange for concrete Northern government concessions on critical issues. The North, of course, has a mixed history in carrying out its commitments, but its cooperation is key to securing peace. Yet U.S. use of the term "genocide" is reducing our diplomatic options. In the face of genocide, the United States could hardly act as a neutral mediator. No politician wants to explain why he or she remained complacent in the face of slaughter.

What Sudan needs is a set of political deals to stitch the country back together before the state collapses. Advocacy groups that claim continuing genocide are under assault by respected scholars of Africa, such as Mahmood Mamdani and Alex de Waal, and they are retreating from their insistence during the Bush administration on military intervention in Darfur. But while many now claim to support a negotiated political settlement, they simultaneously undermine efforts to talk.

In addition, the overuse use of a term such as genocide risks anesthetizing the American public and media; if the Sudanese government does one day unleash new atrocities on southern Sudan, no one will be listening.

The administration is focused more on a dated view of Darfur than on the risks of future atrocities that are likely to come from a new war between the North and South. Two events required under the 2005 peace agreement -- national multiparty elections to be held in February 2010 and a referendum the following year on the secession of southern Sudan -- will determine whether Sudan constructively addresses its internal political problems or descends into Somalia-like anarchy or Rwanda-scale atrocities. The risk of war rises exponentially without resolution of these issues: the status of oil-rich Abyei, preparation for the referendum on southern secession, and, after the referendum, the disposition of revenue from oil production (most of which is in southern Sudan, while the pipelines go through the North) between the North and South.

Using the term "genocide" feeds the International Criminal Court's indictment of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir -- which has made meeting with him politically explosive. Some advocates insist that no American diplomat talk with him. How do you mediate a peace agreement if you can't speak to one side's leader? At this crucial moment, the long-suffering Sudanese people need unified American leadership behind a pragmatic policy of engagement. Instead, they have campaign rhetoric and diplomatic paralysis. We, and they, are headed toward disaster if we do not change course.

Andrew S. Natsios, a professor of diplomacy in Georgetown University's Walsh School of Foreign Service, special envoy to Sudan from 2006 to 2007 and served as administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development from 2001 to 2005.