WASHINGTON - Activist groups that have long urged a tougher U.S. policy toward Khartoum praised the new "comprehensive approach" toward Sudan announced here Monday by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, even as they expressed concern that it will not be fully implemented.
"The ideals spelled out in the Obama administration's new paper on U.S. policy to Sudan are worthy of considerable support," said John Prendergast, director of The Enough Project, a key group in a coalition of organisations that has expressed growing frustration with the administration's policy of engagement with the government of President Omar al-Bashir, and especially with Obama's Special Envoy on Sudan, Gen. Scott Gration (ret.).
"At best, the completed policy review is a chance to start anew, and get the policy and diplomacy back on track. At worst, it is an effort to rhetorically paper over an issue that has been treated as a fairly low foreign policy priority by the administration," he added.
Other activists stressed that Obama must himself become personally involved in efforts to rally international support for his Sudan policy and expressed disappointment that the president did not personally take part in its roll-out. Instead, the White House released a statement in which he stressed the urgency of international action to prevent Sudan from "fall(ing) further into chaos".
The new policy, the result of seven months of reportedly contentious internal wrangling between Sudan hawks and doves within the administration, was unveiled at a special joint briefing by Clinton, Gration, and Washington's U.N. ambassador, Susan Rice, a leading hawk who worked with Prendergast under former President Bill Clinton.
Laid out in a five-page paper, the policy promises a "comprehensive approach" to dealing with Sudan's various internal conflicts, most notably in ending the violence and "genocide" in Darfur and ensuring implementation of the 2005 North-South peace accord that is supposed to culminate in a referendum on independence for the southern part of the country in 2011.
That approach will use both carrots and sticks - hopefully in coordination with regional and global powers, including Washington's European allies, Russia and China - designed to push all parties into compliance with their obligations.
"We will employ calibrated incentives as appropriate and exert real pressure as needed on any party that fails to act to improve the lives of the people of Sudan," said Rice.
"There will be no rewards for the status quo, no incentives without concrete and tangible progress. There will be significant consequences for parties that backslide or simply stand still," she declared.
Clinton said what specific rewards or incentives may be applied to the parties are part of a "classified annex" to the strategy paper that she declined to disclose at this time.
As Clinton herself stressed, the policy paper comes at a "critical juncture" in Sudan, where the U.N. and African peacekeeping force (UNAMID) reported Monday that both the government and a rebel faction appeared to be preparing for a new round of fighting in North Darfur.
In addition, tensions between the government and the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Movement/Army in the South have been on the rise in advance of elections scheduled for next spring and the 2011 independence referendum, preparations for which are already lagging badly.
The U.N. estimates that as many as 300,000 people have died as a result of the violence in Darfur over the past six years, while another two million have been displaced from their homes.
Some two million people - the vast majority in the South - are believed to have died during the 21-year civil war that preceded the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which was mediated by the U.S., Norway, Britain, and several regional states.
The new policy appears to be a compromise between Gration, who has been harshly criticised by the activist groups for allegedly attempting to "appease" Khartoum, and hawks led by Rice and the National Security Council director for multilateral affairs, Samantha Power. The latter have reportedly argued that Bashir, indicted earlier this year for "war crimes" by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in connection with the government's counter-insurgency campaign in Darfur, is more likely to respond to sticks than to carrots.
In a Washington Post article published last month, Gration, who accompanied Obama on his first trip to Africa as senator and was a regular companion during his presidential campaign, was quoted as saying that the best way to secure the regime's cooperation in Darfur and in the South was to "think about giving out cookies. Kids, countries, they react to gold stars, smiley faces, handshakes, agreements, talk, engagement".
That attitude - as well as his numerous friendly meetings with top Sudanese officials; his public criticism of economic sanctions and questioning of whether "genocide" is still being committed in Darfur; and suggestions that Washington would not necessarily insist on strict adherence to the CPA's terms - infuriated the activist groups, including a number of Sudanese expatriate organisations that last week called for him to resign.
Indeed, Gration's conciliatory approach toward Khartoum stood in stark contrast to what Obama himself had said about Sudan policy during his presidential campaign. Among other things, he - and, for that matter, Clinton and Vice President Joseph Biden, too - urged at the time that Washington toughen sanctions against Khartoum and even consider imposing a no-fly zone over Darfur to protect civilians there against government forces.
"The new policy on Sudan announced by the Obama administration today represents a welcome clarification after months of ambiguity as to how exactly the administration would approach the various challenges presented by this pivotal country," said Joel Charny, acting president of Refugees International.
He also lauded the policy's commitment to provide greater logistical support, including helicopters, to help UNAMID operations in Darfur, although he also expressed concern about "the lack of a clear commitment to protect people from further violence in the south".
"Local conflicts are beginning to increase, and people feel vulnerable in the absence of sustained government security presence," he said.
Rep. Donald Payne, co-chair of Congress's Sudan Caucus, also expressed relief over the new policy, noting that it made clear that Khartoum's cooperation with Washington's anti-terrorist efforts would no longer trump U.S. concerns about Darfur and the CPA's fate.
"[The government's] saying, 'We're helping you get al Qaeda' isn't going to play anymore," he told IPS. "Now there are benchmarks that have to be met, and there will be consequences if they're not. This is something we can rally behind and support."
Still, the activist groups stressed they remained concerned about the administration's determination to follow through on the new policy and to ensure that Obama himself would make it a priority in his talks with other key leaders, such as those he will hold next month with Chinese President Hu Jintao.
Beijing has invested heavily in Sudan's burgeoning oil sector and, by some accounts, also serves, along with Russia, as its most important arms supplier.
"This is a hopeful step, but the key will be follow-through, including by President Obama himself," said Jerry Fowler, the director of Save Darfur, a coalition of more than 100 U.S. church, humanitarian and human rights groups.