What planet has the White House been living on lately? Israel, Afghanistan, Iraq - add Sudan to the list of delusional behavior. Put it at the top even, in light of retired Air Force Major General Scott Gration’s current activity in the country.
The US envoy to Sudan told reporters three weeks ago in Nairobi, "There are going to be a lot of things that are keeping us from focusing on Darfur. That's why we have this little window where we really need to get the framework solidified. In the next two weeks I think we are going to see a real big focus on the election.”
Two weeks later Khartoum was hit by a cataclysm of oppositional boycotts, triggered by the withdrawal of Yasser Arman, the opposition candidate of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM).
Arman fought with and was a personal friend of the late SPLM leader John Garang, and was the primary challenger to President Omar al-Bashir. Today Gration found himself in Sudan vainly pushing a last-ditch effort on the SPLM to salvage the sinking presidential election.
"We certainly hope the parties can reach agreement so there will be maximum participation,” said State Department spokesman Philip Crowley. “What's important here is to put together credible, legitimate institutions of government that can govern all of Sudan.”
That is certainly important, but of immediate concern is that Sudan lacks credible, legitimate institutions to run the election.
Grassroots activists and supporters of both the North and South are said to be agitating under the prospect of a delayed or canceled election. It’s hard to blame them having built up the entire apparatus only to see it come crashing down. According to the government around 15 million people of an electorate of 19 million have registered to vote, nearly 80% of all eligible voters.
Sudan's political-military opposition, fearful of sparking an internal backlash, has correspondingly kept the door ajar for partial participation in select districts. But the truth has been exposed for good.
Khalil Ibrahim, leader of the Justice and Equality Movement (Jem), Sudan’s largest opposition bloc, told Al Jazeera, "These elections are based mainly on false senses, especially in Darfur. Masses of populations... will be excluded from the elections. I don't think the other parties will accept this, there will be chaos and war if he [al-Bashir] wins."
“Security conditions in Darfur does not allow the elections to be held in its scheduled time, especially in West Darfur, and a large area in North Darfur,” added Mariam Al Mahdi, a spokeswoman for the Umma party.
Regardless of how many Sudanese people want free and fair elections, as that includes all of them, no one seems to believe the elections will be free and fair. Not al-Bashir, who rattled international observers all month, not the political opposition, and definitely not outside observers.
Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo, who called for the ICC arrest warrant issued last year against al-Bashir, sounded the alarm a day after Bashir threatened to expel international election monitors for saying the vote might delayed due to logistical problems.
Moreno-Campo told a Brussels seminar, “It's like monitoring a Hitler election. It's a huge challenge."
Indeed hundreds of monitors are supposed to police over ten thousand polling stations, and with limited international security; the US-based Carter Center, the largest US monitoring team, is sending only 60 observers. An estimated 16,083 stations, 10,335 of them in the north and 5,748 in the south, were set to open on election day.
And the Carter Center admitted even before the current meltdown that the election was, "at risk on multiple fronts."
"The elections for president is made for one person, it is not made for a democratic process or for the Sudanese people, it was only made to save General Bashir from the ICC," Arman said on Thursday as he stepped down.
And yet, when asked the next day to clarify the US position on a delayed election, Crowley responded, "At the present time, we're working hard to try to resolve these issues. I think we are still aiming for the election to occur on April 11."
Why is that?
Because the Obama administration possesses no strategy except to force feed this election upon the Sudanese people. John Norris of Enough! observes a root of the problem that has plagued the White House from the beginning - it’s divided on what to do.
“As yesterday's dueling statements made obvious,” Norris writes of Gration and UN ambassador Susan Rice, “the administration needs to start singing from a common song-sheet and hold President Bashir accountable for facts on the ground as it said it would when the Sudan policy review was first rolled out.”
Then there’s the problem of timing. If Sudan fails to hold its presidential election on schedule the referendum on secession in 2011 becomes a guaranteed time bomb, set to explode right in the middle of Afghanistan, a potential war with Iran, and in Sudan’s backyard, a new crisis in Zimbabwe.
2011 is hinting at pandemonium, partially because of Sudan, meaning Washington is trying to limit how many fires it must fight. In a way it’s hard to lay blame since Sudan doesn’t really have a solution, but eyes cannot be shut to reality.
Were Sudan to hold a corrupt election on schedule America would have just as big a mess on its hands in 2011, like Afghanistan.
And how do you offer a solution to vote-rigging? Please don’t rig the vote? The only thing Bashir really cares about is not being invaded. To this degree he will do the minimum to keep Washington off out of his territory, dangling the hope of reform in front of Gration and the West in general.
Right now America is propping up a regime accused of international war crimes, a staggering policy. Instead the White House should be preparing with the Pentagon for the worst case scenario, as it’s more likely than the best.
First, after the White House gets on the same page, an international political framework must be constructed for the event a postponed presidential election and referendum on secession. The latter is especially critical as al-Bashir stands almost no chance of letting the South break away. America needs agreements in place with the EU, UN, and AU before 2011.
When the time comes, and it appears destined to, the international community will be compelled to act on the violence that results from Sudan’s political turbulence, or face the consequences of inaction. Special-Ops teams should be covertly pre-positioned in surrounding African nations as first line responders. The primary military options should already be chosen, tested, and ready, whether that entails a peacekeeping role, military strikes, or funding the insurgency against al-Bashir.
The White House won’t get an extended period of time to review, and can’t wait until hell breaks loose to decide.
Sudan is shaping up to become one of Obama’s biggest foreign policy challenges, right before his re-election bid begins. Strategy for 2011 must already be deep in planning for a failed election and renewed civil war if he wants to avoid that fate.
Ignoring what the entire country is screaming is not a realistic option.