The Cable

"Stuck in the mud" -- the Obama administration's civil war over Sudan

A meeting of top U.S. officials on Sudan last week was supposed to yield big recommendations on how to craft the right balance of incentives and pressures toward the Khartoum regime, which stands accused of fomenting genocide in Darfur and stirring instability in its autonomous southern region. Instead, the meeting seems to have left the Obama administration's Sudan policy in limbo, leading to angst among both Sudan insiders and observers, sources tell The Cable.

The meeting, hosted by the National Security Council and carried out at the deputies level, had been greatly anticipated by Sudan watchers as a watershed moment in their long struggle to turn Darfur into a top-tier policy issue. Expectations were so high that Sudan advocacy groups published an unorthodox ad in the Washington Post before the meeting calling out the deputies -- U.N. ambassador Susan Rice's No. 2 Erica Barks-Ruggles, NSC deputy Tom Donilon, Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg, Treasury Undersecretary Stuart Levey, and Michèle Flournoy, the under secretary of defense for policy -- by name.

Several members of the Sudan advocacy community said they were told that the quarterly deputies meetings would be tracking progress and making recommendations on specific "carrots and sticks" to use as leverage in Khartoum.

And they pointed to the October remarks of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said during the press conference announcing the administration's new Sudan policy: "Assessment of progress and decisions regarding incentives and disincentives will be based on verifiable changes in conditions on the ground. Backsliding by any party will be met with credible pressure in the form of disincentives leveraged by our government and our international partners."

But the deputies, who don't decide policy but make recommendations to their bosses, never got to outlining those incentives and pressures, instead only reviewing the various agencies' "assessments" of the situation in Sudan, one high-level participant confirmed to The Cable.

"This was an opportunity to hear the views of the representative, a number of challenges were outlined, and each of the assessments were in line," the participant said, referring to Sudan envoy J. Scott Gration. "I thought it was a very productive meeting," the participant said, arguing that the assessments were always meant to be the basis of the discussion.

One big problem, though, was that the briefing paper that was to have all the agencies' positions clearly spelled out was not prepared in advance, hurting the deputies' ability to iron out any differences.

According to one person familiar with the meeting, Deputy National Security Advisor Tom Donilon scolded NSC Africa Director Michelle Gavin for a lack of preparation in front of all the other participants. A government source characterized Donilon's comments to Gavin as no different than comments he might make to any staffer at any meeting. Besides, this second source said, it wasn't Gavin's responsibility to prepare the document. The source declined to specify exactly who dropped the ball.

The first source also said that Steinberg, upon learning that the prep materials were absent, moved to leave the meeting in protest but was directed to stay by Donilon, which he did.

Steinberg denied that account. "I didn't move to walk out of the meeting," Steinberg told The Cable. "The meeting ran overtime and I had to leave to attend another meeting on a time-urgent subject that was happening at the same time and which I had previewed to Tom [Donilon]."

A participant source inside the meeting confirmed that Donilon asked Steinberg to stay to the end, but said that Steinberg wasn't trying to make a show of exiting.

Regardless, the inability of participants to demonstrate any real progress on outlining a package incentives or disincentives struck many observers as a bad sign going forward.

"What's concerning here is that this signals that the same kind of dysfunction that occurred leading up to the policy review appears to continue to this day," one advocacy leader said. "It's a cliché to say the clock is ticking, but it is."

National elections are slated for April, and Sudan watchers worry that the Obama administration doesn't have a clear strategy for dealing with the autonomous South, which in January 2011 will hold a referendum on whether to remain part of a unified Sudan.

"If they're not moving the ball forward, that means the process is stalled at that level and the new policy is already stuck in the mud," said John Prendergast, cofounder of the Enough Project and an outspoken critic of the administration's Sudan policy.

Rice vs. Gration?

Obama's approach to Sudan has been hobbled from the beginning by deep divisions between senior officials -- especially Gration, the special envoy, and Rice, the U.N. ambassador -- on how best to handle Khartoum, sources said. Gration is said to be big on carrots, while Rice prefers sticks. Steinberg is also said to lean towards a harder line, which the advocacy community also favors. 

In 2006, Rice coauthored an article saying, "History demonstrates that there is one language Khartoum understands: the credible threat or use of force."

ABC News reported that Rice was "furious" in June when Gration said that Darfur was experiencing only the "remnants of genocide." The State Department quickly confirmed that its official position is that genocide is ongoing.

In remarks this week, Rice stated clearly that violence in South Sudan was on the rise and she was concerned new weapons were flowing in from the North. She also said she was not confident April elections would be safe and fair.

Regardless, Prendergast said, Gration is the driver of policy now. He has consolidated control and meets with Obama directly, often without Secretary Clinton in the room.

"This is a White House driven policy and the State Department at multiple levels has been deeply frustrated at their lack of input at various levels of the process," he said.

But if it's a White House driven policy, it's not one getting much public attention from the president: Obama didn't mention Sudan or Darfur once in this week's State of the Union address.

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The Cable

Iran sanctions bill benefits from Joe-mentum

The Senate passed Chris Dodd's Iran sanctions package Thursday evening, following the narrow avoidance of a last-minute crisis over amendments that was solved by ... wait for it ... the mediation of Joseph Lieberman.

That's right. "Joe Lieberman came down and saved the day," one senior Senate aide told The Cable. Here's how it all went down behind the scenes:

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was under a lot of pressure to pass the sanctions bill out of the Senate, especially after seven senators sent a bipartisan letter to Obama yesterday urging him to get moving on sanctions. The Dodd bill was extremely popular among senators and Reid has enough problems without being seen as weak on Iran.

Reid had promised to get it done before the break, but if he brought up the bill in February, the administration would complain that it was unhelpful in its drive to seek a new U.N. Security Council resolution on Iran sanctions, which they are expected to do as soon as France takes over the presidency of the council from China next week.

So tonight was the night, before senators leave town, and The Cable reported earlier today that negotiations were underway. As the deadline loomed, only one Senator was threatening to derail the plan to pass the bill easily: John McCain.

McCain’s proposed amendment would require the president to sanction Iranian officials who have committed human rights abuses or acts of violence against civilians engaging in peaceful political activity. Those listed would be subject to visa bans, freezes on their assets in the United States or within U.S. jurisdiction, and other restrictions on their financial activities.

"McCain's amendment would identify Iranian human rights abusers and make them feel some serious pain,” said another senior Senate staffer.

But Reid didn't want to open a Pandora's Box by allowing McCain's amendment and then having to allow amendments by others seeking to weigh in, like John Kerry and Patrick Leahy. He needed everyone on board to pass the bill by unanimous consent and avoid a protracted debate that would eat up precious floor time he doesn't have.

At the eleventh hour, in swooped Lieberman with a compromise. McCain would agree to withdraw his amendment if Reid agreed to add the substance of McCain's amendment into the conference report on the bill. Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell both promised to hold up their end of the bargain, and McCain withdrew his objection to proceeding.

"Lieberman deserves a lot of credit for getting this done," the aide said.

So now the bill goes to conference with the House, which passed Howard Berman's version weeks ago. Does this mean it's time to stock up on petrol and canned goods in Tehran? Not yet; the Democratic leadership will probably wait until the administration's U.N. effort has a chance to play out one way or the other.

And when the conference does happen, the administration will have a role in the crafting of the final version and is likely to continue to argue for things like an exemption for foreign countries that cooperate with American sanctions.

"The next battle will be to make sure the State Department doesn't water this thing down," one senior GOP aide said.

He added that this compromise marks a rare moment of bipartisan cooperation in the upper chamber, saying, "I think this was a good day for the Senate."

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