After seven months of quiet shuttle diplomacy, the Obama administration announced today a significant change in the way that it deals with Sudan, shifting from hard-edged sanctions to "engagement" with the regime of President Omar al-Bashir.
Calling its new policy a "comprehensive strategy to confront the serious and urgent situation in Sudan," President Obama on Monday told reporters in Washington that he will reenact tough sanctions with the government in Khartoum – which the US in the past has accused of genocide in Darfur – but will hold out "incentives" for Khartoum if it improves its record on human rights and the advancement of peace.
"Our conscience and our interests in peace and security call upon the United States and the international community to act with a sense of urgency and purpose," Mr. Obama said, adding that it is necessary to ensure that Sudan remains stable to prevent it from becoming a safe haven for terrorists.
Obama's move comes at a time when Sudan's top issues – the conflict in Darfur, the fragile peace agreement between the North and South, and the African criticism of International Criminal Court arrest warrant for Mr. Bashir on war crimes – all appear to be going in the wrong direction.
While human rights groups warn against any softening in the international community's pressure on Sudan, some Africa observers welcome the new carrot-and-stick approach to a set of issues that weren't improved by using sticks alone.
The key difference between Obama's policy and that of his predecessor, says Alex de Waal, a Sudan expert at the Social Science Research Council in New York, is that Obama realizes the US cannot achieve its goals by mere tough talk, and going it alone.
"The reality is you need to engage the Sudanese government in order to get any results," says Mr. De Waal. "It is not as if the US can dictate the terms, let alone bring along Russia, China, and the Arab world."
Sudan lauds 'positive points' in new policy
Sudan sounded a note of cautious optimism in response to Obama's new strategy. Presidential adviser Ghazi Salahadin lauded the absence of the threat of military intervention Monday, saying that it represented "the new Obama spirit."
"This is a strategy of engagement. It is not a strategy of isolation," he told a news conference in Khartoum. "Compared to the previous policies, there are positive points."
A shift in focus back to North-South peace
Some analysts see Obama's choice, seven months ago, of retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Scott Gration as the US envoy to Sudan as the start of a shift. Mr. Gration was raised in Africa as the son of missionary parents, and speaks Swahili. He's seen as more of a pragmatist than previous US envoys. And as a former military officer, he better understands the limits of any threat to engage Sudan militarily.
Mr. De Waal says that Gration has recognized that the key to peace in Sudan is to ensure the survival of a Comprehensive Peace Agreement between North and South Sudan, signed in 2005 at the end of a 20-year civil war. The North-South conflict – in which a mainly Christian and animist South fought for independence from the Arab Muslim North – led to the deaths of 2 million people and threatened the very survival of Africa's largest country.
The Darfur conflict, by contrast, while it has led to an estimated 300,000 deaths, is a spillover of the North-South conflict, and many experts say that it can be resolved if the larger North-South peace process stays on track.