Can Obama top Bush with peace for Sudan?

Obama finally gets engaged with Africa's largest country, one on a knife edge over a referendum that would divide it. His prized peacemaking skills are on trial.

As a new president last year, Barack Obama was surprised when he won the Nobel Peace Prize. Now he has a chance to really earn it. He can prevent war from igniting in Sudan, Africa’s largest country.

Sudan has known too much war, whether it is in Darfur or, even more so, between the largely Arab north and the largely black and Christian south. It is again on a knife-edge. A referendum is scheduled for Jan. 9 in which the oil-rich south is expected to vote for secession.

The vote is a “ticking time bomb of enormous consequence,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said last week. Her words hint at a new seriousness by the United States to make sure the vote takes place and that any aftermath is peaceful.

Mr. Obama’s prized reputation for peacemaking is on trial here, especially his preference to use carrots more than sticks, or the use of diplomatic engagement and incentives more than pressure and threats.

Sudan remains vulnerable to another genocidal war that might force the US to intervene. And there is potential fallout from renewed conflict for the US campaign on Islamic terror, the oil markets, and the global role of China, an ally of Sudan’s despotic ruling party and a heavy buyer of the country’s oil.

It’s welcome news, then, that Obama has not only appointed a new envoy for Sudan, Princeton Lyman, but that the president plans to attend a high-level meeting on Sudan at the United Nations on Sept. 24. His presence there may help lure other world leaders to attend, pushing Sudan toward a peaceful outcome.

Obama is building on the success of President Bush. His predecessor helped broker a 2005 north-south deal that put a temporary halt to the 20-year conflict that left some 2 million dead. The deal not only calls for the secession referendum but also a sharing of Sudan’s oil reserves between north and south.

Obama’s efforts, however, have been stymied by administration delays, notably an internal dispute over whether to use more incentives than threats against the regime of President Omar al-Bashir.

Obama has wisely chosen the incentives route – or, at least, until Mr. Bashir no longer appears to be cooperating.

Most of all, Bashir must drop any attempt to stir up divisions in the south with armed militias. He must also make concessions on defining a north-south border, an issue related to dividing up future oil wealth (much of the oil is in the south).

And he should not try to use the humanitarian crisis in Darfur to pit American activists on that issue against those seeking a permanent solution for the north-south conflict.

If the regime in Khartoum somehow manages to delay or even scuttle the referendum, many experts see war erupting. Bashir and the war-mongering elite around him, however, may be ready to play.

Bashir himself has been indicted on charges of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court. He badly wants to restore his image. His government also seeks debt relief, an end to sanctions, and normal ties with the US.

Sudan’s leaders also want to avoid more US restrictions on their travel and financial assets. But that kind of threat is only implied by Obama for now as he tries the engagement route.

Getting China to push Bashir to make a deal and to allow a fair referendum is essential to Obama’s plan. But how much will the president use American influence to make sure China is on board?

Sudan’s leaders are a practical lot, and with Obama’s hands-on attention and the right incentives, they might be won over. The US is trying, as Mrs. Clinton said, to make it “worth [Bashir’s] while to peacefully accept an independent south.” Time is short, however, if the largely rural south is expected to hold a fair vote in less than four months.

Overcoming such challenges is the way that Nobel Peace Prizes are won. If all goes well, Africa could have a new nation next year, and one less place for a war over ethnicity, religion, or mineral wealth. Sudan has had enough of that.

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