Vice President Joseph Biden is leading an interagency delegation to Africa this week, but his final stop at the 2010 World Cup is not the point of the journey. Biden is there to get involved in Sudan policy and lend some senior-level supervision to an issue that has split the Obama administration for months.
On Wednesday, Biden will become the senior-most Obama administration official to meet with Southern Sudanese President Salva Kiir. The purpose of the meeting will be "to talk about the necessary steps to fully implement the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and to plan for post-referendum Sudan," a senior administration official told The Cable, adding that the conversation will be "mostly about the future of southern Sudan." That's an indication that the Obama team is getting concerned about the January 2011 elections, when the South is widely expected to vote to separate from the North, a result that could spark violence or even a return to civil war.
There are Sudan meetings woven throughout Biden's seven-day journey through Africa. He already spoke about the future of southern Sudan with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak Monday in Sharm el-Sheikh, it's sure to come up in his Tuesday meetings with Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga, and the vice president's office has said Sudan will be at the top of the agenda during Biden's meeting Thursday with former South African President Thabo Mbeki.
Sudan Special Envoy J. Scott Gration is on the trip with Biden, along with Assistant Secretary of State for African affairs Johnnie Carson and the National Security Council's senior director for Africa Michelle Gavin, among others.
The elevation of the Sudan issue to the top levels of the White House is exactly what leading Sudan activists have been demanding of the administration for months. They are fed up with what they see as deep divisions inside the Obama team about how to approach Sudan.
"It really is time for the president, the vice president, and Secretary of State [Hillary] Clinton to get more directly involved in this issue," said John Norris, executive director of the Enough Project. But it's still not clear whether Biden's involvement will lead to a sustained level of attention for Sudan at the top levels of the White House, Norris cautioned.
The divisions inside the administration are not new, but were reinforced last month during what multiple administration sources describe as a vigorous and heated internal debate over whether or not to send a U.S. government representative to the re-inauguration ceremony for Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who has been indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court.
Multiple administration sources tell The Cable that Gration and Carson were among those who advocated internally for sending a representative to the inauguration (which was also a ceremony to inaugurate Kiir, the State Department is quick to point out). Administration officials who argued against sending an envoy included U.N. ambassador Susan Rice and the NSC's Samantha Power.
An administration official told The Cable that Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg supported the decision to send an envoy. But NGO sources contradicted that account, saying that Steinberg, at least at one point, argued against it.
It was Secretary Clinton who ultimately made the decision to send the chief consular officer at the U.S Embassy in Khartoum to attend Bashir's inauguration. Sending a junior-level representative was a compromise, but one that apparently left both sides equally unhappy.
"Our presence at this ceremony should not be confused in any way with our continuing pledge that President Bashir should respond to the warrant for his arrest for war crimes in Darfur," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said. "We have nothing to do whatsoever with President Bashir."
The decision and that explanation puzzled and irritated advocacy leaders.
"President Obama has said that genocide has been committed in Darfur by the Bashir-led government. The ICC indicted Bashir for war crimes," said John Prendergast, cofounder of the Enough Project and an increasingly outspoken critic of the administration's Sudan policy. "The Obama administration has thus broken with precedent in bestowing a measure of legitimacy by sending a U.S. diplomat, however low-ranking, to the inauguration of an indicted war criminal head of state."
Prendergast said that the Obama team had argued that it was necessary to keep lines of communication open to ensure the safe return of the American hostage being held in Sudan, but dismissed that assertion because there was nothing the U.S. side got in return for attending the ceremony.
Officials have also argued that not sending an envoy would have broken protocol, another claim advocacy leaders dismiss.
"The issue of war crimes charges makes this an entirely different kettle of fish, whether or not that's in the protocol book," said Norris, who added that not sending a representative would have sent the message that Obama was serious about the ICC.
The Sudan advocacy community has had increasingly strained relations with Gration, who is seen as being too soft on the brutal Khartoum regime and too powerful inside the administration, using his personal relationship with Obama to exert control over the issue often outside the purview of officials above his station, including Clinton.
Sometimes, the internal tension has spilled over into public, such as when 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.
Above all, Sudan watchers worry that the U.S. government is failing to prepare for what could be a very bloody aftermath to the January referendum. They also lament that details of the "benchmarks" upon which the administration's Sudan policy is supposed to be based have never been revealed publicly and are said to be still undefined.
Back in October, Clinton said when 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 despite what many, including Rice, see as lots of backsliding, no disincentives can be seen and, as the discussion over sending the envoy illustrates, the internal policy debate seems to be at a stalemate.
"If they're fighting on an issue like that, it's hard to believe there's great clarity on the larger issues," said Norris. "We're at something of a standstill. They seem to be stuck at how do you calibrate how exactly you deploy the pressures or incentives."
Those frustrations are shared by some on Capitol Hill.
"I have expressed concern at different times, including in the run-up to last month's election, that the administration has not spoken out more forcefully about abuses by the NCP or sought to hold them accountable," said Sen. Russ Feingold, D-WI, referring to Bashir's ruling National Congress Party. "Although I am not opposed to engagement, we need to be firm and to ensure any engagement is based on evidence that the NCP is willing to cooperate and has made concrete progress on previous promises."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.