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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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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