Sunday, January 2, 2011

The West and the Sudan Referendum

THOUGH it deserved better than being relegated to the Sunday "Outlook" section, The Washington Post today ran a compelling early-warning article and video on the role of the international community as Sudan gears up for a referendum on January 9th. In less than a week, southern Sudanese will take to the ballot box and determine whether their half of the country will secede from its northern counterpart. The north-south divide has produced decades of violence fueled by economic, racial and religious differences, notably in the region of Darfur, and many international figures have expressed great regret over not doing more to stabilize the region.

This time, leaders hope, will be different: President Obama has initiated a blitz of diplomatic activity in an effort to preemptively avoid violence. The push has involved US officials as well as foreign partners. Obama has sent over twenty envoys to the region in recent months, and has bundled a mixed carrot-and-stick package designed to motivate Sudanese power figures into a proactive mindset toward keeping the peace. The US president has also enlisted the help of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, whose country abuts Sudan's northern border. Mubarak can leverage diplomatic and political heft with Sudan's would-be warmakers, the US administration hopes. Said Samantha Power, an advisor to Obama on the region, "this is the first time I have seen the US government devote so many high-level resources to preventing violence before it happens rather than responding to it after the fact."

In light of the violence in recent years, the event will take
place under the strong glare of international media, which boosts at least somewhat the chances of a peaceful referendum. And a host of international groups are involved, with the African Union acting as peace brokers, the European Union with offers of economic aid, and a full 10,000 UN staff on the ground to ensure a voting process both fair and on-time.

However, the piece argues, "diplomacy can only be effective if it is complemented by a willingness to take action if prevention fails." This rings loudly of a hard-power solution of last resort, should the violence that is so dreaded nonetheless erupt. The article, written by the genocide prevention expert Michael Abramowitz, goes on to suggest dim hopes for the overly optimistic. It reminds the reader of the recent catastrophes in Rwanda and Bosnia, as well as the withering criticism roused by the international community's role -- by turns inappropriate, insufficient or lacking entirely -- in both of these.

Abramowitz therefore urges that the international community be prepared to make war to break war, so to speak, even as he strongly questions the role the UN would be able to play should armed intervention become necessary. 

"It is far from clear that the U.N. Security Council would react quickly to an unfolding crisis, and most experts agree that the U.N. troops in Sudan would be of little use should atrocities commence. (Years of conferences, NATO and E.U. deliberations, and think-tank studies on civilian protection have yet to yield momentum for an effective international rapid-deployment force to deal with such emergencies.) The United States has the capacity to intervene militarily in Sudan, but after 10 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, would it have the will, and would it be effective?
If the unthinkable were to happen in Sudan this year, we might hear echoes of Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian general in charge of peacekeeping forces in Rwanda in 1994, who futilely begged the United Nations for more troops to end the slaughter there - and who has lived in anguished regret over his failure ever since."
Abramowitz clearly sees the need for a two-pronged security approach for Sudan: 1) do everything possible to prevent violence from happening, and b) should violence return, be prepared to quell fighting with a persuasive (meaning mighty) show of force from the international community. 

PRACTICALLY speaking, the burden of the second task of course falls to the West. The military prowess of the African Union and its members is more reputed for internecine warring than for effective peacekeeping. More worrying still, the other blocs involved -- the EU, the UN, the United States -- face deep structural differences on what necessitates armed response to bloody conflict. The recent ghosts of Bosnia, Rwanda, Afghanistan and Iraq have only emphasized this disparity, in which the US is most often ready to fight (Afghanistan) -- but fights when it shouldn't (Iraq), or doesn't when it should (Rwanda), or fights too late (Bosnia). 

By drastic contrast, Europe suffers from a nearly Pavlovian reflex against military action of any kind, for any reason. This is the product of deeply entrenched civilizational lessons learned from two world wars fought at home, as well as a "never again war" dogma that has occasionally blinded the continent to its responsibility to act militarily in the world during times of true humanitarian need (Bosnia, again).

We all hope that no referendum-related violence transpires in Sudan, but another major question may develop among the international community of the West: if intervention becomes necessary, will we be of one accord to execute it?