Published July 10, 2012
Juba, South Sudan, is one of the few places in the world where American bipartisanship seems to be alive and well. One year ago today, President Barack Obama's envoy to the United Nations, Susan Rice, sat near former Republican Secretary of State Colin Powell as Rev. Franklin Graham, a harsh evangelical critic of the U.S. president, cheered what White House officials were claiming as a major foreign-policy success -- the birth of an independent South Sudanese nation. Diplomats and African heads of state took turns congratulating the new government from a podium overlooking tens of thousands of sweating South Sudanese gathered under the midday sun for the occasion.
This was the miracle of South Sudan, a U.S. foreign-policy darling welcomed onto the world stage in a burst of optimism on July 9, 2011. The new country's birth was the crowning achievement of one of Washington's most effective campaigns of the past 20 years. The campaign to support the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM)--a rebel movement founded in 1983 in Sudan's marginalized southern lands by John Garang, a U.S.-educated officer who wanted to transform Sudan's minority-ruled northern government into an inclusive democracy--began with Rep. Donald Payne, an African-American Democrat from New Jersey, and Frank Wolf, a conservative evangelical Republican from Virginia.
Payne described to me on that hopeful day a year ago how he first visited southern Sudan in 1989 and met South Sudan's now-president (then rebel commander) Salva Kiir for the first time in the field in 1993. He worked across party lines ("many of the members I had very little in common with") to build the SPLM's fan base. Its ranks grew in Washington every year, expanding beyond the Congressional Black Caucus-evangelical alliance to three consecutive presidential administrations. "We were able to get a bipartisan effort. That's really what made this sustainable," said Payne, who died in March.
Without the United States' heavy-handed engagement, it is doubtful South Sudan would today be its own country. But Washington's love affair with the SPLM looks likely to end in heartbreak.
One year on, the jubilation that accompanied South Sudan's independence has vanished. Its first year as a nation has been a disaster by all but the lowest of standards. Sure, worst-case scenarios of sustained full-blown war with Sudan or a complete implosion of the state have not yet materialized. But good luck finding many other silver linings: South Sudan is already the target of a sanctions threat by the United Nations for military aggression along its border with Sudan; its internal strife has already resulted in thousands of civilian casualties; and the country's oil--its sole source of revenue--stopped pumping in January as part of dangerous brinkmanship in negotiations with Sudan. The country desperately needs visionary leadership: It has only one paved highway, three-quarters of its adults are illiterate, and extreme poverty is widespread.
The SPLM isn't directly to blame for the dire conditions it inherited in South Sudan, but its dismal governance has stopped most progress before it even had a chance to begin. South Sudan has been run mostly autonomously--with its own budget revenue and standing military--since 2005, and the SPLM used that time to loot its way to personal riches, leaving development projects penniless. In May, South Sudan's government acknowledged that South Sudanese officials had "stolen" $4 billion of missing funds that were supposed to go to developing the war-torn state--the equivalent of roughly two entire years of official revenue. Worse, this money was looted directly under the noses of the international community, which agreed to supervise the peace process and even provided consultants to do South Sudan's own bookkeeping.
U.S. officials are quick to pay lip service to the problem of corruption, but there is so far no bite behind the muffled whimpers of protest. Unlike the tough, targeted U.S. actions against leaders in countries such as Kenya, Washington has not threatened travel bans or publicly frozen bank accounts of leading government officials, U.S. officials say. Despite providing military support--to the tune of about $300 million in taxpayers' money--since 2005, the United States does not seem to have a strategy in place to induce South Sudan's leaders to reform their ways.
That is true despite President Kiir's estrangement from Obama, which one source close to U.S. policymakers described as "probably irreparable." In September, Kiir kept Obama waiting for over a half-hour for their first meeting on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly session, according to several sources with knowledge of the meeting. Then, over later phone calls, Kiir personally denied to Obama that South Sudan was providing support for rebels across the border--despite U.S. intelligence that clearly established otherwise. Relations turned even more sour in early April, when Kiir promised Obama that South Sudanese forces would not strike north and capture Heglig, a disputed Sudanese oil field, sources briefed on the conversation said. Several days later, South Sudanese forces -- working in coordination with the Sudanese rebels Kiir denied links to--did just that, sparking international outcry.
But even if U.S. policy errors are partly to blame for the country's mishaps, don't expect the White House to take a tougher stance on South Sudan anytime soon. Why? Because Obama has little to gain from upsetting the SPLM's friends.
Amid a sea of foreign-policy realism, Sudan has survived as a foreign-policy issue grounded not in national security interests, but moral idealism. In the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, Sudan became a rallying cry for religious activists and human rights proponents enraged by the Sudanese government's atrocities. But the activists made a critical mistake: They seemed to think the SPLM rebels represented a virtuous mirror image of Khartoum's evils.
This conventional wisdom has shielded the SPLM from U.S. wrath, despite its corruption and increasingly questionable decision-making. It boasts a bipartisan, election-proof lobby that not even money can buy--a network of true believers in Congress, the White House, think tanks, and the media. This influential network of friends is all the more striking because it has stayed intact despite the 2005 death of Garang, the SPLM's U.S.-educated founder, whose personal charisma and political instincts made the SPLM the best-connected rebel group in Africa.
Two of President Bill Clinton's Africa hands, John Prendergast and Gayle Smith, who co-founded the Enough Project at the Center for American Progress, have arguably been the most effective of the SPLM's friends in Washington. By branding the organization as anti-genocide, the Enough Project often gets a free pass from the mainstream media, which frequently cites its version of events in Sudan as objective independent analysis. But the morally charged and culturally hip do-goodism helps disguise a clear political agenda: Even while it acknowledges South Sudan's poor record on human rights and "transparency," Enough's policy papers are filled with calls for punitive measures toward Khartoum and greater engagement with Juba. Last year, Prendergast and Enough publicly advocated for arming South Sudan with air defense weapons. When Enough advertised for a job opening of "Sudan policy analyst" last year, they hired one of the SPLM's legal advisors for the position.
Smith moved back into the White House in March 2009 as a special assistant to the president and a senior director of Obama's National Security Council, where she joined Rice as the key SPLM advocates in the administration. But Prendergast has turned into a media phenomenon, an activist-cum-celebrity whose specialty is recruiting celebrity-cum-activists. Prendergast's biggest catch of late is George Clooney, who has made Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir something of his own personal white whale. Clooney has swooped through Juba at least three times in the last two years to advocate for South Sudan's cause, meeting personally with Kiir, and has even invested his own money in a satellite service that publicly spies on Sudan. This sounds a lot like journalism on steroids, and there is definitely overlap. Clooney's eyes in the sky have visually confirmed several events on the ground. But, its satellites also have a clear agenda: Read through the group's reports, and while regularly publishing about Sudan's troop mobilizations near the border, it does not offer comparably critical scrutiny of South Sudan's forces, guilty of its own troop buildups, sometimes in violation of international agreements as well.
Clooney's star power provides multiple benefits: He dominates news coverage--his visit to South Sudan during the January 2011 referendum headlined news coverage of the event--thereby ensuring that Prendergast's narrative of events carries the day. He is also a powerful lobbying force inside Washington who can secure personal meetings with the president, and he uses those meetings to talk about Sudan. In March, Clooney and Prendergast were arrested protesting outside the Sudanese Embassy in Washington. It also doesn't hurt that Clooney is a major surrogate for Obama in Hollywood: This year, he hosted the largest single fundraising haul, $15 million, for the Obama campaign.
The Enough Project isn't the only effective advocate for the SPLM in Washington. Since the late 1980s, a core group of government officials worked behind the scenes to implement the policies that led to South Sudan's independence. Some have left government to advise the government directly. For instance, Roger Winter, the subject of a 2008 New York Times Magazine piece, was an official with the U.S. Agency for International Development under Clinton and the State Department's special Sudan representative under George W. Bush, and he still testifies before Congress on Sudan issues. After retiring in 2006, he stayed behind to serve as a volunteer advisor to the SPLM. "As one American that has had over 27 years of involvement in Sudan, it is my association with the SPLM and SPLA that I am most proud of," he said in a speech to the SPLM national convention in May 2008. In another example, Ted Dagne was an Africa specialist at the Congressional Research Service who forged close ties with Garang. Today, he works as an advisor to Kiir in Juba, where he labors in his prefab office and sometimes writes press releases on behalf of the South Sudanese government.
The heavy U.S. backing of the SPLM might be producing as many problems as it is resolving. "It makes them reckless," said Alex de Waal, a top Sudan scholar and an advisor to the African Union's mediation efforts between Sudan and South Sudan. "They think the rules don't apply to them." That behavior was most evident in April, when U.S. and African diplomatic officials told me South Sudan seemed genuinely blindsided by the global condemnation of its military offensive against Sudan.
Meanwhile, South Sudan's partisans in Washington keep egging on the Obama administration to take a more aggressive stance. "The Obama administration has not pursued a policy of isolating the regime in Khartoum, as some on Capitol Hill and in the NGO community have advocated. Neither has the administration been terribly pro-South Sudan," Prendergast wrote to me in an email last month. If the United States were really serious about backing South Sudan, Washington "would perhaps be aiding Sudan's own rebels," he added. With student-led protests continuing in Khartoum, expect the calls from SPLM advocates to grow louder for a regime-change policy toward Sudan, presumably involving arming South Sudan-backed rebels in the process.
No matter who wins the U.S. presidential election in November, the SPLM has its bases covered--like it always does. If Obama loses, the SPLM has reason to hope it will receive even more slack from Mitt Romney's administration. The Romney campaign website's Africa policy page focuses disproportionately on Sudan and South Sudan, devoting more than twice as many lines to Sudan and South Sudan than all other countries combined. The words could have been written by the SPLM itself: "While the initiative begun by the previous administration to help South Sudan achieve its independence was completed during President Obama's term," reads the website, Obama "has failed to strengthen a once promising alliance with South Sudan."
Romney's backing of South Sudan should come as no surprise, since Rich Williamson and David Raad, two Bush political appointees to Sudan, are now advisors to his campaign. Williamson served as Bush's special envoy to Sudan. Raad worked on the Sudan desk at the State Department, and then--like some of his Democratic peers--served as an advisor to the SPLM government after the peace deal. He then launched a business consulting firm (created at the request of Kiir himself, according to its website) specializing in facilitating access to SPLM leaders. The website says Raad's clients have pursued business interests in South Sudan's mining, timber, financial, and security industries.
With the SPLM's faults becoming more and more difficult to dismiss, its advocates might begin to face a more skeptical crowd in Washington--though there are few signs of that yet. Some of its non-American friends have already started to turn. Gérard Prunier, a leading French scholar on Africa and fierce critic of the Sudanese government, resigned as advisor to the South Sudanese government because, he told me in a phone interview last month, he didn't want to be "guilty by association," describing the country's leadership as a "government of idiots" who are "rotten to the core." Prunier is a respected author on Sudan and a frequent commentator on the region, and his words have not gone unnoticed in Washington.
By resigning, Prunier has done what U.S. opponents of Bashir have seemed unable to do--merge their hatred of Khartoum with any sort of similar outrage toward South Sudan's leadership.
If Washington hopes to right South Sudan's sinking ship, it would do well to abandon the feel-good moralizing and consider ways to limit the damage wrought by its friends, before it is too late.