Obama's hard line on Sudan: Will it also be hardball?

The future of Africa's largest country, including Darfur, depends on the president's willingness to twist arms.

As he takes his time to figure out the US role in the Afghanistan conflict, President Obama has been forced to take a stand on another conflict – or rather two conflicts – in Sudan.

This state, the largest in Africa, will receive tough diplomacy from the US, based on a White House policy issued Monday, while also being given incentives for any progress on key issues.

This firm but still flexible stance is welcomed, but the policy leaves doubts as to how much Mr. Obama will use personal diplomacy and various types of pressure to solve one of the world's top crises – which has seen millions either killed or made homeless.

During the 2008 campaign, candidate Obama took a strong stand on confronting Sudan's repressive regime over the humanitarian tragedy in Darfur and the ongoing violence in oil-rich Southern Sudan, home to many Christians in a largely Islamic nation.

But since entering the Oval Office, he has let Sudan fall off his radar.

And meanwhile, his special envoy to the country, retired Air Force Maj. Gen. J. Scott Gration, hinted at engaging the regime with small incentives that might seem to ignore past human rights atrocities – raising concerns in Congress and among activists on where Obama stood exactly.

Now Obama is clear once again that he wants the regime's leaders to be held accountable for some 300,000 deaths in Darfur – a mass killing that the Bush administration labeled as genocide. That stance by Obama will help back up the March indictment of Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir by the International Criminal Court at The Hague.

This emphasis on accountability for human rights violations is a tough call for Obama, as it would be easier for the United States to resolve differences in Sudan's two conflicts by overlooking the past. And Obama, who often sees himself as mediating peacemaker – after all, he won the Nobel Peace Prize this month – might like to end Sudan's troubles during his time in office.

But long-term peace in Sudan relies on the survivors of violence there knowing that the main perpetrators are punished, thus setting a precedent that can prevent future violence.

At the same time, Mr. Bashir is still a powerful figure, unlikely to be overthrown soon or to buckle under foreign pressure. His cooperation is necessary for now in letting aid groups operate in Darfur, in letting refugees return home, and in allowing a 2011 referendum to take place in Southern Sudan on whether the region should become independent.

Bashir has also been helpful to the US in fighting international terrorists.

No wonder, then, that Obama's policy statement didn't specify the types of pressure that he might use, such as preventing a write-down of Sudan's burdensome foreign debt. And he made clear that any incentives won't be given until after progress is made on certain issues.

But beyond the issue of carrots and sticks, the president needs to get on the phone with other leaders to form a solid coalition that can persuade Sudan to solve these issues. And he especially needs to enlist China, which buys large quantities of oil from Sudan and backs the regime, during his trip to Beijing next month.

Fortunately, Obama promised a quarterly review of his Sudan policy by top foreign-policy officials, raising this conflict higher up in priority. And by not firing Mr. Gration – as many activists wanted – he keeps a well-regarded diplomat in place who knows the region well.

Solving Sudan's woes will be difficult, especially with a referendum that may split up this large African country.

With better clarity and more determination, Obama is now on track to give this troubled land the attention it deserves.

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