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
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