US special envoy to Sudan J. Scott Gration arrives at the Sudanese foreign ministry for meetings with officials after his arrival in Khartoum, Sudan, April 2, 2009.
US special envoy to Sudan J. Scott Gration arrives at the Sudanese foreign ministry for meetings with officials after his arrival in Khartoum, Sudan, April 2, 2009. Abd Raouf/AP
Scott Gration is an embarrassment. As Barack Obama's special envoy to Sudan, Gration has a dual mission: to help win justice and peace for the nearly three million Darfuris who currently live in camps after being subjected to genocide by Sudan's government; and to prevent that same odious government from initiating another slaughter in southern Sudan, where a 2005 peace agreement is looking more tenuous by the day.
How is he doing? Since taking the job in March, Gration has gone about ingratiating himself to the Sudanese government — an odd choice given that the government is a genocidal one. He seems interested only in offering Khartoum incentives, even though it has provided him basically nothing in return. He has pressed Congress to ease sanctions on Sudan. He has met with an American lobbyist for the Sudanese government. He has endorsed an absurd demand issued by Khartoum concerning an upcoming vote on South Sudanese independence. He has lamented to The Washington Post that many Darfuris distrust the government because of "psychological stuff." Explaining to the Post how he wants to deal with Sudan's rulers, he said: "We've got to think about giving out cookies. Kids, countries — they react to gold stars, smiley faces, handshakes, agreements, talk, engagement." This is both astonishingly offensive (why would one give "cookies" to a government that has recently killed hundreds of thousands of its own people?) and strikingly impractical: Most observers of Sudan agree that Khartoum has historically responded to sticks, while viewing carrots as an invitation to continue orchestrating violence.
And that is what seems to be happening this time as well. Gration has touted his success in convincing Sudan to readmit some of the aid groups it ousted from Darfur earlier this year; but many groups were never re-admitted. (As Rebecca Hamilton recently documented for TNR Online in an on-the-ground report, the exit of these aid groups has had a particularly terrible effect on rape survivors.) Meanwhile, the government is reportedly ramping up attacks again in Darfur. Some also believe that the government is, through its militia proxies, behind a recent wave of violence in the South. In other words, Gration's soft approach to dealing with Khartoum is doing little to help the people of Sudan. And it may actually be making the situation worse.
Is Gration a cynic? A lightweight? We suspect worse: He is a man with an almost utopian theory about international relations. Before Gration was President Obama's envoy, he was candidate Obama's adviser. In that role, he spoke to The New Yorker's Nicholas Lemann last fall. Lemann called Gration the "most mystical believer in Obamaism whom I met" and wrote that he was "more open than the other top Obama advisers in expressing a soaring optimism about the possibility of a less arrogant, more cooperative, more empathetic America leading the world." Gration told Lemann that "what doesn't work ... is forcing a solution. Create an environment, give people the opportunity to air their differences, and see if they can come together." What an odd thing for a future diplomat to say; isn't "forcing a solution" one of the essential tasks of diplomacy? Moreover, the Sudanese government is not interested in airing differences with its opponents; it is interested in crushing them by violent means, so as to preserve its autocratic rule.
Now the Obama administration has devised an official Sudan policy. It is a perfectly anodyne document: It calls for the use of both carrots and sticks in dealing with Khartoum. It is, in other words, largely a blank slate. What matters, then, is not what's written in the policy but the instincts of the person who will carry it out. Given the limited nature of the options this administration would realistically implement in Sudan, our success or failure there basically rides on the skill of the envoy. It is he who must curtail Khartoum's behavior — who must be willing to stand toe to toe with a regime that has never shown any willingness to abide by agreements or negotiate in good faith. The person we have entrusted with this task is Gration. And we say this is unacceptable.
The consequences of Gration's approach go beyond Sudan. As Daniel Jonah Goldhagen argued recently in these pages ("Ending Our Age Of Suffering," October 21), the coddling of genocidal dictators sends a message around the world to other leaders contemplating crimes against their own people. The message is clear-cut: As far as the United States is concerned, you can commit genocide — and still get a smiley face.
At this point, the world has a pretty good grasp of what Gration believes about Sudan, and how he intends to act there. The question is: What does Barack Obama believe? If he believes that giving out gold stars for genocide is no way to conduct a foreign policy, then he should fire Gration and replace him with someone who will deal forcefully and effectively with Khartoum. And if he thinks that the current approach is a wise one? Well, if that is his view, we have a bigger problem on our hands than one inept special envoy.
Today at TNR (November 5, 2009)
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