Why does the U.S. have so little influence over political outcomes in Sudan? Earlier this month, I made a presentation at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York in which I argued that the U.S. Administration can only influence political outcomes in Sudan at the margin, and moreover that its leverage is diminishing. Some in the audience were puzzled by this. It is axiomatic for many in the policy world that the international community (usually defined as north America and Europe) not only should fix difficult problems, but can successfully do so.
There are five main reasons why the U.S. has less influence in Sudan than it did a few years ago.
1. Credibility. The Bush Administration made several promises to Khartoum, and failed to deliver on them. The Sudan Government expected normalization of relations after it signed the CPA, after it signed the DPA, and after it allowed UN troops into Darfur. There are good reasons why the U.S. didn’t make good on its promises. The Obama Administration inherits that legacy. But, from Khartoum’s point of view, any U.S. promise is heavily discounted.
2. Coherence. Khartoum will only listen seriously to a promise or a threat from Washington DC if senior members of the Administration speak with one voice. Despite the completion of the Sudan policy review, there are still contradictory statements in public. As long as this continues, Khartoum has no reason to respond to any U.S. engagement. If Special Envoy, General Scott Gration’s critics get their way and force him out, we can expect another interregnum after which his successor (if one can be found for this thankless job) spends many months formulating a new approach.
3. Cohesion. In the 1990s, as the north-south peace process remained moribund, the first task was getting a common stand among the key internationals. That was achieved when IGAD appointed a Special Envoy, backed by the troika of the U.S., Britain and Norway, and Egypt did not object. Getting these five internationals into line took from 1994 until 2001, and that was a prelude to the real negotiations. Gen. Gration, has made progress in coordinating the six Special Envoys (the P5 plus the EU), but the profusion of international institutions and interested foreign governments, means that this is loose coordination rather than the tight cohesion that made the IGAD-convened process so effective.
4. Paucity of tools. When dealing with most foreign policy issues, the U.S. Administration has a range of tools, including the pressure that can be brought from commercial ties, various forms of cooperation, as well as diplomacy. In the case of Sudan, isolation and sanctions have left Washington with diplomacy alone. It’s a weak lever to move a heavy stone. Khartoum’s attitude is that it has learned to live without the U.S., and that threats of escalated pressure are simply not credible.
5. Time. The best opportunities for influence have been lost. The current dynamic in Sudan is one in which the NCP and SPLM are sizing one another up, assuming the worst, and preparing for the worst. True, there is intermittent progress, such as the agreement on a Referendum Law, but the Government of National Unity falls exists chiefly in name. As the days of decision approach, the relationship between the NCP and SPLM will determine what happens. The few tools that the U.S. possesses will be slow to enact, and U.S. action will be hampered by the need to protect humanitarian workers, peacekeepers and political relationships with key partners. So, while the NCP and SPLM will actively drive events, the U.S. will be reacting after the fact.