The Cable

As tensions boil, Obama’s Sudan envoy contemplates Kenya post

President Obama's special envoy to Sudan, retired Maj. Gen. Scott Gration, could be on his way to a new job in Kenya as the White House prepares a new approach to Sudan ahead of a January referendum that analysts fear could split the country into two separate nations -- or even spark a new civil war.

The news comes in the wake of a contentious principals-level meeting at the White House last week, in which Gration clashed openly with U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice over the direction of Sudan policy.

At the meeting, Rice was said to be "furious" when Gration proposed a plan that makes the January referendum a priority, deemphasizes the ongoing crisis in Darfur, and is devoid of any additional pressures on the government in Khartoum.

According to multiple sources briefed on the meeting, Gration's plan was endorsed by almost all the other participants, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and will now go the president for his approval. Rice was invited to provide a written dissent. Vice President Joseph Biden did not attend.

It wouldn't be the first battle Gration has won over how to deal with the brutal regime of Omar Hassan al-Bashir, an indicted war criminal who has driven his nation to ruin since coming to power in a 1989 military coup. Gration advocates closer and more cooperative interactions with the ruling National Congress Party, which he sees as the best way to influence its behavior, along with a de-emphasis on public criticism of the regime's deadly tactics.

The tension between Gration and Rice goes back to the early days of the administration. In June 2009, ABC News reported that Rice, who has long advocated a tougher line on Khartoum, was "furious" 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.

Now, Gration's penchant for gaffes and his poor relations with communities of interest may have finally taken its toll, observers say.

"The fact that he's being rotated out of this position suggests that he may have won a number of battles but lost the war. If people were overwhelmingly happy with his performance, it seems odd you would move him out to be ambassador of a neighboring country," said John Norris, executive director of the Enough Project, a leading Sudan anti-genocide advocacy organization.

Gration, who has been the administration's point man on Sudan for more than a year, is currently considering taking the job of U.S. ambassador in Nairobi, according to multiple sources both inside and outside the administration. Discussions are ongoing and no formal offer has been made, but as of one week ago Gration was said to be lobbying hard to keep his Sudan portfolio if he moves to Kenya.

Gration has wanted to be envoy to Kenya for some time, according to multiple administration sources. If he is successful in keeping his role in Sudan policy, he would be hugely influential on three major Africa policy issues: Sudan, Kenya, and Somalia, which is largely managed from the embassy in Nairobi.

The more likely scenario is that if and when Gration is sent to Kenya -- assuming he passes a Senate confirmation process that will likely be contentious -- he would have to relinquish the Sudan portfolio.

"The special envoy job is a full-time job, as is being ambassador to Kenya during this crucial time," Norris said. "I can't imagine they would place one person in charge of both."

One administration source said that the plan had been to nominate Gration during the congressional recess, as to avoid a lengthy confirmation debate, but that plan was no longer operative and Gration would be nominated and confirmed through the usual process. Gration's office did not respond to a request for comment.

Leading figures in the Sudan advocacy community have long been critical of Gration, whom they see as too cozy with the Khartoum government and wholly uninterested in applying additional pressures on Sudan's government in response to rising violence.

When the administration rolled out its new Sudan policy last October, Secretary Clinton promised that both carrots and sticks would be used to influence Bashir's behavior. "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," she said.

But though Sudan is under a variety of unilateral and multilateral sanctions, the administration never publicly identified what additional pressures it was bringing to bear. That, combined with Gration's statements about the need to engage Khartoum positively, have led most observers to conclude that no additional pressures were ever applied.

"During the last year and a half, we've seen increased violence in Darfur and the deadliest months in five years, we saw an election that was completely compromised without any resulting sanctions, we've seen a deepening of the rifts that could cause a resumption of war between the north and the south. None of these have elicited from the Obama administration anything more than an occasional statement," said John Prendergast, CEO of the Enough Project. "This has given a clear green light to the regime in Khartoum to pursue its warmongering as usual. Gration has overseen this policy."

Administration officials played down the conflict between Rice and Gration, saying that such meetings are supposed to be deliberative. "This is a policy debate. People often disagree. If they didn't, what's the point of having the meeting?" one White House official said.

Regardless, for Sudan watchers, the hope is that the president will finally weigh in and make his views known, to settle the internal debate.

"There's always going to be divisions inside an administration," said Prendergast. "This is the first time you have a clear choice placed directly in the hands of the president. It's time for him to step up."

Meanwhile, the world is bracing for an eruption in Southern Sudan. Khartoum has been caught fomenting violence between southern groups, agreements on borders and revenue sharing are nonexistent, and the conduct of the last election gives nobody confidence the referendum is on track.

Analysts worry that the international community and the U.S. in particular are missing their last opportunity to prevent Bashir's government from undermining the credibility of the referendum to a degree where armed conflict would break out.

"Good diplomacy backed by serious pressure can potentially prevent this from happening, but that's what's so disappointing; we have poor diplomacy with almost no pressures whatsoever," said Prendergast. "It's a worst-case scenario."

AFP / Getty Imgaes

The Cable

Republicans reject Obama’s Turkey envoy

The nomination of Frank Ricciardone to be the next U.S. ambassador to Turkey is being held up in the Senate and the GOP has no intention of allowing a vote on the nomination any time soon.

A spokesperson for Sen. Sam Brownback, R-KS, confirmed to The Cable that his office has placed a hold on the nomination, which was reported out favorably by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month. Brownback is preparing a letter now to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton explaining the reasons for his objections.

Brownback's office declined to specify the contents of the letter, but multiple GOP senate aides from other offices said that there was widespread support throughout the caucus for Brownback's position and that there was nothing specific the administration could do to convince Ricciardone's detractors to allow his nomination to proceed. If Brownback did release his hold, it's likely another one would surface soon after.

"He's just the wrong guy for this sensitive post at this time and the hope is that the administration will recognize that he won't be confirmed this year and nominate someone better," said one senior GOP aide close to the issue.

Of course, the president could appoint Ricciardone this month during the congressional recess and avoid a Senate confirmation vote, but then Ricciardone would be ambassador only until the new Congress is seated in January, at which point a potentially larger GOP Senate caucus would likely raise the same objections.

The controversy over the nomination is mired in the history of U.S. relations with several of the countries in which Ricciardone has served, including Turkey, Egypt, Iraq and Afghanistan.

To his supporters, Ricciardone is a distinguished 34-year veteran of the Foreign Service who has taken on tough assignments in dangerous places on behalf of both Democratic and Republican administrations. To his critics, Ricciardone's record shows a pattern of being too close to the governments he is interacting with and too tepid on the mission to push values such as democracy and human rights with tyrannical regimes.

The tenuous nature of the U.S.-Turkey relationship right now due to Turkey's vote against new sanctions for Iran at the U.N. and Turkey's bold anti-Israel stance in the wake of the Gaza flotilla incident have put a spotlight on the nomination.

The administration might be wary of spending its limited political capital to push through the Ricciardone nomination to a floor debate in the Senate because it could open up a broader public discussion of Turkey policy the White House might not think is useful given the delicate diplomatic environment.

There are signs that the administration is working hard now behind the scenes to reevaluate its approach to Turkey. For example, the State Department is hosting a high-level meeting today on Turkey policy, led by Clinton and Policy Planning chief Anne Marie Slaughter and with the participation of Assistant Secretary Phil Gordon.

"The ultimate aim of [the meeting] is to assess in a free, think-tanky sort of way, are we moving in the right direction, are there other areas we can address?" a State Department official said, explaining that this one of multiple meeting being held to come up with "out-of-the-box thinking to try to assess where we need to go."

One GOP Senate aide lamented that the administration seemed tone deaf to Republican objections to Ricciardone.

"They're trying to get together to figure out their Turkey policy and this nomination shows they don't have one."