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With South Sudan's referendum, which US president gets the credit?

Members of President Bush’s Africa team have steadily criticized President Obama's administration's approach to Sudan, even as the referendum appears to be unfolding peacefully.

By Alex ThurstonGuest blogger / January 24, 2011

Newly arrived southern Sudanese returnees from Darfur are photographed with their belongings shortly after being dropped off from a bus in Wanjok, near Aweil in Northern Bhar El-Ghazal on Jan. 16. International observers gave south Sudan's independence referendum their seal of approval and said a vote for secession was now "virtually certain" in their first official judgment on the poll.

Paul Banks/Reuters

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The credible and relatively peaceful referendum that took place last week in South Sudan would seem to vindicate the current US administration’s Sudan policy of the past two years. Yet members of President George W. Bush’s Africa team, who have steadily criticized President Barack Obama on Sudan since 2009, continue to raise concerns about the White House’s approach. At stake in this debate are the nature of US policy in Africa and the apportioning of credit in what is arguably the greatest American diplomatic triumph since the 1990s.

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Bush and other architects of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005 (CPA), which ended decades of civil war in Sudan and laid plans for the referendum, initially envisioned a smooth transition to Obama with regard to Sudan. Immediately after Obama took office, one Bush appointee, former US Senator and Special Envoy to Sudan John Danforth wrote encouragingly, “The Obama administration can help to finish the work we started. The US can help save the peace agreement.”

But criticism of Obama on Sudan soon followed, portraying the President as disengaged and his appointees as disunited in the face of threats of renewed civil war in Sudan. Andrew Natsios, one of Bush’s Special Envoys to Sudan, wrote in 2009, “Disputes within the Obama administration are inhibiting US efforts to stop Sudan’s slide toward civil war at a time when unified American leadership is essential.” Shortly before Sudan’s April 2010 presidential elections, Jendayi Frazer, assistant secretary of state for African affairs under Bush, told CNN that the Obama administration had “wasted almost a whole year on a policy review, and yet they are still talking with many different voices.” Richard Williamson, Bush’s final Special Envoy to Sudan, denounced Obama’s Special Envoy Scott Gration for not doing enough to enforce a court ruling concerning a north-south border dispute in the oil-rich Abyei region. Frazer and Williamson suggested that Gration’s friendliness and Obama’s disengagement were allowing Khartoum to act with impunity.

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