Opinion

Imminent war in Sudan? Not exactly.

Fear of war in troubled Sudan is intensifying, and observers are calling on President Obama to act urgently and assertively. What Washington really needs to do is take a deep breath and support the ongoing negotiations.

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One would think that after two difficult wars, Americans would be hesitant to meddle in Middle Eastern nations with troubled political climates. In the last few weeks, however, astute and knowledgeable observers have been building a case for intervention in Sudan.

While suggested interventions do fall short of military engagement, many are calling for sanctions, tighter arms embargos, and support for trying the current President of Sudan on charges of genocide. The building, but misguided consensus amongst analysts and activists is that war in Sudan is inevitable unless the United States steps in to prevent it.

A recent op-ed in The New York Times by Dave Eggers and John Prendergast declared that the wars in Darfur and South Sudan could soon “explode.” The situation in Sudan is “President Obama’s Rwanda moment,” the authors concluded. Days later, a column in The New York Times by Nicolas Kristof compared the situation in Sudan to “trains steaming toward each other on the same track.”

The media have been warning of imminent war for some time. A quick Google search for “Sudan on the brink of war” returns dozens of stories over the past few years from The Washington Post, the Guardian, Time magazine, and the BBC, to name a few. Behind closed doors in Washington, discussions have been heated because many want President Obama’s special envoy, retired General Scott Gration, to stop being an impartial leader in the peace process and intervene quickly to stop impending disaster.

In January, the people living in the southern half of Sudan will have the chance to secede, via a referendum, from the North. The outcome of the vote, as many of these worried analysts now contend, is likely to be a disaster. Many activists and politicians are calling for more aggressive policy now and many in Washington are openly angry with Obama’s current policy to stay friendly with both sides of the conflict.

Dangers of "group think"

The calls for intervention are reminiscent of the pre-Iraq-war environment, when seasoned policy leaders and analysts were overcome by fear of mass destruction. “Group think’ permeated and war became inevitable in the minds of many.The determination of the international community to avoid war was ultimately ignored.

While the situation in Iraq is completely different than it is in Sudan, the common theme is that Americans seem to be consumed by fear more quickly than others, causing them to abandon the international community and go it alone.

Sudan has had a challenging history of tragic wars, and the record of the current Khartoum regime makes it impossible to predict Sudan’s future; however, the situation in Sudan today is much different than it has been in the past and the fear of calamity should be tempered by the knowledge of the current political environment.

Despite their public rhetoric, the ruling party in the North and the ruling party in the South have never had a more synergistic relationship than they do today. Each party is benefiting from the status quo, sharing astounding oil wealth in the absence of war. A return to conflict would bring Sudan’s oil industry to a halt, crippling the economies of both regions and threatening each party’s dominant position in their respective regions (other opposition groups beckon).

The current peace agreement and interim constitution have also been benefiting both parties. The United Nations, the African Union, the Arab League, and neighboring countries are providing unprecedented support for the referendum process, making any move by the United States to pick sides a threat to international efforts.

Don't spoil the peace agreement

If the US government took a side by issuing sanctions or arms embargoes, or supporting genocide charges against President Omar al-Bashir, these actions would then isolate the government of Sudan, undermine the impartial efforts of the other international participants, and significantly shift the balance of power between the North and the South that all previous agreements have been derived from. This could easily spoil the current peace agreement.

In southern Sudan, the consensus is that the citizenry will vote for secession, leaving many observers thinking that it will be impossible for the ruling parties to maintain their comfortable arrangements after secession occurs. But “secession” is merely a word, one that is loosely defined in both international law and Sudan’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which delineates the rules for the South’s potential independence.

Given the laxity of the term, the governments of the North and South can allow the secession to occur, but temporarily continue wealth and power-sharing arrangements similar to those delineated in the interim constitution.

This would allow them to slowly adjust the arrangements for as many years as is necessary to satisfy both parties and build new constitutions.

Conflict could certainly arise over many of the exceptionally contentious provisions included in the peace agreement that governs the secession, especially since both parties have a spotty record of staying committed to agreements. However, the many arrangements necessary for secession will be monitored and supported by a multiplicity of international partners, all of which are essential to the survival of both North and South Sudan.

Washington should support the referendum

The referendum can therefore be looked at as the beginning of a new phase of negotiating peace, rather than a casus belli for a divided nation.

If anything has been learned from the past decade of foreign policy, it is that doomsday predictions of inevitable destruction can easily grab headlines and persuade policymakers to make decisions based on fear rather than knowledge. In Sudan, the peace agreement, and by extension, the referendum, are products of many years of negotiation and involvement from local, regional, and international partners.

The best role for the American government is to continue using its financial and human resources to support the process of mediation, but not try to guide it.

Marc Gustafson is a Marshall Scholar and doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford. He is currently writing his dissertation on political trends in Sudan.

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