”Ticking time bomb” is the entirely accurate way Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton recently described Sudan. There is every indication the country is nearing a breakup, almost certainly into its northern and southern halves, and perhaps additional fragments. The central question is not if dissolution will occur, but whether it will proceed relatively peacefully or whether renewed military conflict inside Sudan is inevitable, possibly spilling into neighboring countries.
Unfortunately, President Obama is increasing the risk this time bomb will explode. His efforts to appease President Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s government in Khartoum have increased Mr. Bashir’s perception of U.S. weakness and reinforced his inclination and willingness to use military force to suppress Sudanese opposition in the South, Darfur and elsewhere.
Although the conflict between Khartoum and Darfur has dominated the news in recent years, the proximate cause for dissolving the country now is the postponed but still simmering conflict between Mr. Bashir’s Islamicist central government and the Christian and animist South. For decades, the South resisted Khartoum’s efforts to impose its religious law on the entire country. Then, in 2005, the George W. Bush administration put this conflict on hold through the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). While the CPA halted the ongoing genocide against the South, it was only a truce, not a lasting peace. Critical to gaining the South’s agreement was the commitment to a referendum in January 2011, when the South could vote whether to remain part of Sudan or become independent.
That referendum is now the main focus. Neutral observers almost unanimously think a free and fair referendum would produce an overwhelming pro-independence vote. Those same observers think Mr. Bashir’s government will do almost anything, including resorting to military force, to prevent losing the South and its huge oil and other natural resources. (The North also has oil, but by many estimates, the South accounts for 80 percent of Sudan’s total reserves, all of which would be lost by independence.) The petroleum reserves explain why the North is still frustrating one major aspect of the 2005 CPA: the delineation and demarcation of a border between the two regions in the oil-rich Abeyi territory. While the border itself has been decided, the North is preventing the line’s physical demarcation, thus preventing the South from benefiting by drilling for and producing the oil underground. Mr. Bashir’s regime has faced no penalties for frustrating the demarcation process, or even much pressure from the United States, thus signaling that Mr. Obama does not take seriously Khartoum’s violations of the CPA.
Wrenching disagreements within the Obama administration are reinforcing the impression that our president is not willing to confront the Khartoum government. Mr. Obama’s “open hand” policy toward rogue states, which has failed so notably with Iran and North Korea, is similarly failing in Sudan. Mr. Obama’s special Sudan envoy, retired Air Force Gen. Scott Gration, has essentially cuddled up to Mr. Bashir, hoping he can thereby persuade Khartoum not to use military force. Mr. Obama’s meetings with Southern Sudan leaders and others at the United Nations General Assembly’s opening have not produced major breakthroughs.
Instead, Khartoum reads the Obama administration’s weakness as a license to hold South Sudan under its control, either by fixing the referendum, Chicago-style, or using military force. In theory, the Obama administration is confronting Khartoum with “carrots” and “sticks,” promising as carrots aid and legitimacy if Khartoum allows a free and fair referendum and respects the results. The carrot list is long and generous, but the list of sticks is hard to find. Incredibly, Gen. Gration revealed his idea of sticks when he said recently “We have a policy that gives the North a pathway to better bilateral relations [with Washington]. If they don’t take it, that’s already a stick.” In other words, if Khartoum doesn’t do what Washington wants, it won’t get what it has happily lived without for decades. No wonder Khartoum isn’t listening.
Africa has long observed taboos against changing the national boundaries given newly independent countries during decolonization. Whether or not the boundaries were optimal, African leaders thought that trying to rationalize them risked continentwide chaos. Ironically, there have been few African border conflicts since independence, but the number of internal conflicts has been high. Near Sudan, Eritrea declared independence from Ethiopia, and their conflict is still unresolved. Somalia’s government has collapsed, and the country has fragmented; radical Islamicists now operate freely, and pirates attack ships on the high seas. Chad faces substantial ethnic hostility, fanned by interference from Libya. Ethnic conflict in Africa’s Great Lakes region is well known and continuing.
The debate over Sudan’s future, therefore, clearly could affect all of Africa. Mr. Obama’s policy of appeasing Khartoum is lighting the fuse on the time bomb Mrs. Clinton fears. Only a few months remain until the scheduled referendum, and the risks of a return to genocide in Sudan are growing daily.
John R. Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of “Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations and Abroad” (Simon & Schuster, 2007).