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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