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.

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    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.
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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.

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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September 2010 was a turning point for Obama on Sudan: he attended a UN meeting on Sudan and called for the full implementation of the CPA. Frazer dismissed Obama’s statement as “public relations,” saying, “The president needs to insert himself into the policy and be seen to actually care about it.” Obama’s actions in the following months, which included increasing the US diplomatic presence in Sudan, earned some praise from Bush appointees. Still, Williamson warned, “The naiveté of U.S. President Barack Obama and his advisors” had helped make renewed civil war in Sudan a real possibility.

War has not broken out, but criticism has not ceased. In an interview last week, Frazer told me that the referendum was going well, and she credited the administration with diplomatic accomplishments in Sudan. However, she said past mistakes had ongoing repercussions: Had Obama pursued a more coherent diplomatic strategy from the beginning, she said, things in Sudan could be better. For example, “Abyei might be having a referendum right now.” Given that the deferral of Abyei’s referendum (originally scheduled to run concurrently with South Sudan’s) and the tribal tensions there make the region a potential flashpoint for war, Frazer’s remark amounts to a stinging criticism of two years of diplomacy by team Obama.

That Bush appointees continue to criticize Obama on Sudan will surprise few observers, but the debate represents more than just partisans taking swipes at their opponents. It is a struggle over legacies. By the time Bush left office, many Americans rejected his foreign policy views. Obama’s early candidacy gained momentum in part because he offered a new direction for foreign policy – an end to the Iraq war, a recalibration in Afghanistan, a greater emphasis on diplomacy, and a tougher approach on Sudan. If officials from the Bush administration can claim that they successfully implemented – and that Obama nearly bungled – a diplomatic solution to Sudan’s conflicts, they will have undermined a core component of Obama’s foreign policy brand. And they will have partly rehabilitated Bush’s image as a doer and decider. The race to apportion credit for the referendum is on.

In assessing the value of each administration’s approach to Sudan, it’s important to remember, as Frazer told me, that the lion’s share of the credit must go to the South Sudanese themselves for their vision and persistence. While partisan differences (and a great deal of continuity, as Frazer acknowledged) affected Sudan policy in Washington, the US did not ever dictate what happened in Sudan. The US was merely an important partner in what may turn out as a great success story.

Alex Thurston is a PhD student studying Islam in Africa at Northwestern University and blogs at Sahel Blog.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of Africa bloggers. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. To contact us about a blogger, click here.

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