Responding to the Threat of Mass Atrocities
Drawing on his experiences as U.S. Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan, Ambassador Princeton Lyman highlights the decision making trade-offs he and his colleagues faced when they weighed the risks associated with the various forms of intervention they considered to mitigate the mass atrocities in Darfur. He also discusses similar trade-offs raised about the genocide in East Pakistan in the early 1970s and the decision to intervene in Libya to prevent a mass killing in 2011. He concludes by considering the roles that diplomacy, political pressures, and other factors play in the decision-making process, drawing from his recent study for United States Institute of Peace on “The Effectiveness of Special Envoys in Conflict Situations.”
This was a keynote address delivered April 9, 2015 to the University of Oregon Workshop entitled To Intervene or Not: Government decision-making in times of genocide and mass atrocities. It is reprinted here with the author’s permission.
Ambassador Princeton N. Lyman is currently Senior Advisor, the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) and CEO of Princeton Lyman and Associates. He previously served as United States Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan from March 2011 to March 2013. He was also an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and at Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies. His assignments at the State Department included Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs (1981-1986), Ambassador to Nigeria (1986-1989), Director of Refugee Programs (1989-1992), Ambassador to South Africa (1992-1995), and Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs (1996-1998).
Thank you to the University of Oregon for sponsoring this workshop and for inviting me to give this address. The workshop deals with a vital topic, protecting the lives of millions of people who may be threatened with mass atrocities. At the same time this obligation is proving difficult for governments and indeed the entire international community to master. I want to express my appreciation to professors David Frank and Paul Slovic and to Ambassador Joyce Leader who organized this workshop.
Before delving more deeply into this question, we should recognize that the tendency in such discussions is to focus on the failures to intervene, especially in cases of truly mass atrocities. But in fact efforts are under way around the world to prevent or contain such disasters.
There are many examples of relatively successful interventions: the combination of diplomacy, U.S. military presence, and West African peacekeepers that prevented a massacre in Monrovia at the end of that country’s civil war; recent steps spearheaded by the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, that have at least contained the killings in the Central African Republic and begun a process of political reform; the UN and African military intervention that ended the brutal civil war in Cote d’Ivoire; the special supplemental UN-authorized brigade that ended the depredations of the M-23 militia in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; the combined international response to the violent Kenyan election of 2007 that helped lay the foundation for constitutional reform and a peaceful election in 2013.
U.S. government departments and government-funded agencies spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year dedicated to preventing ethnic or political tensions from evolving into violent conflict and training civil society activists and government officials around the world in conflict resolution skills. Many potential atrocities may well have been prevented which do not make the headlines, perhaps of which we will never know.
Defining the problem — Little patience or use for the term “political will”
Let me say at the outset that I have little patience or use for the term “political will.” I realize that serious analysts unpack that term to get at the ingredients of a decision to intervene or not. But too often the term is used to convey a simplified definition of decision-making, as if it is a matter just of will and conviction, or of political courage. The term takes on a pejorative tone. But in truth there are few opportunities when decision-makers have the freedom of pure courses of action, when there are not competing interests at stake and practical constraints.
That does not mean that individual beliefs, predilections, and prejudices, and their sensitivity to humanitarian suffering, do not matter. Personalities do matter. They matter not only in individual beliefs and outlook on humanitarian crises, but in the political skills and ability to advocate and win policy debates.
Politics matter also. In this regard, I have problems too with general references to “national security” and “national interests,” especially when cited as competitive with addressing mass atrocities. Those terms also have to be unpacked. Narrowly defined national security refers to the safety of the homeland and American lives. But it extends in most policy discussions much farther to include indirect impacts on those objectives, e.g., regional stability, even economic factors.
Recently DOD has declared climate change to be a matter of national security. Especially relevant to our discussions here, President Obama has identified the prevention of mass atrocities and genocide as a “core national security interest.” So at least in theory, addressing mass atrocities falls within “national security,” not outside it.
I prefer to use the term “politics,” to include not only the more narrow definitions of national security, but regional political factors, alliance relationships, competing demands for resources, the likelihood of success, and not incidentally domestic partisan politics. A leader cannot ignore these factors, no matter his or her deep personal feelings of concern.
Finally there are principles involved. Principles do matter. They define a nation’s core. They are essential to being able to mobilize popular support for intervention, and they matter to individual and national conscience. The one that guides most current discussions of intervention regarding mass atrocities is the responsibility to protect (R2P as it is called), the commitment of nations agreed to in 2005 to demand that countries take responsibility for the protection of their citizens, and if they cannot or will not do so, the international community has a responsibility to act to provide such protection.
That principle builds upon the Convention on Prevention of Genocide of 1948, the Convention Against Torture 1987, and other conventions and declarations that set out principles of international behavior. Relevant also are recent definitions of war crimes by international tribunals, to include gender-based violence, attacks on UN peacekeepers, and deliberate targeting of civilians in warfare. There is also the principle of accountability, of justice. The Obama administration has elevated this principle also to being part of the national interest. The Department of State declared “The United States has seen that the end of impunity and the promotion of justice are not just moral imperatives; they are stabilizing forces in international affairs.”
But there is another principle important to the functioning of the international community that competes with those above. This is the principle of national sovereignty. Lest one think that it has been eclipsed by R2P, one has only to look at the arguments being made today by the U.S. and its allies in opposing Russia’s annexing of Crimea and subsequently its intervention in the rest of eastern Ukraine.
Let me now turn to three cases where the U.S. faced the question of whether or not to intervene in the face of mass atrocities and genocide and if so, how. We can examine how these three factors – personalities, politics, and principles – impacted the decision.
East Pakistan 1970-1971 — The Blood Telegram
Not much attention has been given over the years to the events in East Pakistan – now Bangladesh — in 1970-1971. It is a case where there was clear evidence of genocide and yet a very determined decision by the U.S. not to intervene. We have new material on these events from a recent book, The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide by Gary J. Bass. The title actually refers to the name of the U.S. consul general in Dacca at the time, Archer Blood, but the author surely understood the double entendre. The book is able to draw not only on the usual documental sources, but also the Nixon tapes which give us particular insight into the personalities involved.
Briefly the facts are these. Pakistan, upon independence, consisted of two wings, separated by thousands of miles, with India between them. Political and military control rested largely in West Pakistan, while in the east, Bengalis chafed under the situation. In an election in 1970, the Bengali based Awami League won a sweeping national victory and began immediately to call for greater autonomy for East Pakistan. Pakistan’s ruler, General Yayha Khan, refused to allow the Awami League to form a government, sent troops into East Pakistan, and set in motion a vicious attack in particular on Bengali Hindus.
Observers in the U.S. consulate, journalists, and others determined this to be genocide. Important also in this crisis was the role of India. India was inundated with nearly ten million refugees from the conflict, had a large sympathetic Bengali population of its own, and a history of war and tensions with Pakistan. It was the international actor calling the loudest for U.S. action. In the end India intervened with military force to end the genocide and facilitated East Pakistan’s declaration of independence as Bangladesh.
Throughout this period, the American consulate in Dacca sent increasingly alarming reports of the situation in East Pakistan, and urged a strong U.S. response. The consulate’s assessment was backed up by the New York Times journalist, Sidney Shanberg. The army would come through, he wrote, yelling, “Are there any Hindus there?” When they found them, they would kill them. “It was genocide,” he concluded. Senator Edward Kennedy who visited the region drew the same conclusion. The CIA did not go so far as to make that finding, but did call it an ethnic campaign, with 80-90% of refugees being Hindu. Yet Washington refused to act.
Eventually the consulate employees sent a long “dissent” telegram – the Blood telegram of the book’s title – detailing the genocide and objecting to U.S. policy that avoided even putting political pressure on the Pakistan government. The dissenters believed this to be moral bankruptcy on the part of the United States.
The American ambassadors in the region – both, incidentally, political appointees — took opposite positions, not an uncommon occurrence in such situations. The U.S. ambassador in Islamabad, in West Pakistan, firmly supported the White House position against intervention of any kind. He thought the officers in Dacca were out of line and their reporting tendentious. He wrote, “Since we are not only human beings but also government servants … righteous indignation is not itself an adequate basis for our reaction.” The U.S. ambassador in India, on the other hand, fully supported the reporting and recommendations coming out of Dacca. He reported Indians berating the U.S. “as silent spectators to genocide.”
To all this, Washington leaders seemed impervious. As Bass writes:
The U.S. did not ask [even] that Pakistan refrain from using U.S. weaponry to slaughter civilians. … There was no public condemnation – nor even a private threat of it – from the president, the secretary of state, or other senior officials.
Indeed the administration went further. When in response to public and congressional pressure, the administration slowed down the delivery of military supplies to Pakistan, Kissinger worked around the law to have some U.S. equipment delivered from third countries. When it was becoming clear that India was preparing to intervene, Kissinger urged China to move troops to the Indian border to dissuade India from acting. The only positive response was to provide substantial relief for the refugees.
What was going on in Washington? What was driving U.S. policy? How did the White House reject these pleas from the field, Congress, and increasingly from the public to react to these horrors? Why in the face of these pressures did the administration not only avoid any intervention but provide political, moral and even arms support to the Pakistan government?
We can now see at work here a combination of strong personalities and prejudices, but also an overarching focus on larger strategic considerations, and finally a contrasting set of principles.
“Why would we give a damn about Bangladesh?”
The most important personalities were of course President Richard Nixon and his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger. Nixon had a strong personal relationship with Pakistan’s ruler Yayha Khan. He liked him and admired his toughness. That was in contrast to his view of Indians. “I don’t like the Indians,” he declared flatly. Added to this was a personal dislike of India Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and of India’s policy of non-alignment which both Nixon and Kissinger thought was more pro-Russian than neutral.
Partisan politics entered into Nixon’s thoughts. It didn’t help that John Kennedy had taken a warm pro-India line. Now Edward Kennedy, preparing perhaps for a run for the presidency, was raising public and Congressional awareness of the genocide and pressing the administration on the issue. Nixon’s personal views had relevance in the policy-making environment. More than once Kissinger reminded his restless staff that Nixon had a special relationship with Yayha and wanted nothing done that would disturb that relationship.
Kissinger, for his part, shared many of Nixon’s personal views about India and Pakistan. However, Kissinger had larger strategic considerations in mind and pursued them rigorously and with consummate political skill. Through all the debates over a U.S. response, through all the meetings with his staff and cabinet officials, while debating alternatives for intervention and seeming open to them, Kissinger drove the administration to what one official called “massive inaction.”
The strategic considerations Kissinger was focused on were not small. For exactly as these events were unfolding, Yayha Khan was acting as the principal intermediary for what would be the Nixon opening to China. Yayha had the confidence of both the U.S. and china for this task. Time and again, Kissinger and Nixon concluded that nothing should be done that would upset this relationship and endanger that initiative.
So closely consonant were these events that only three months after the Blood telegram Kissinger would take his first secret trip to Beijing, flying direct from Pakistan, which provided an airplane and a convenient cover story. To Nixon and Kissinger, this was perhaps the most important diplomatic act of the Cold War, one of the most consequential of the 20th century, and would change the course of history. More lives were saved, Kissinger would later argue, by this opening, than were lost in East Pakistan.
Finally principles were advanced in this debate. This was of course well before the commitment to R2P, but it was well after the convention on genocide and the moral issues were quite clear. But in their strong opposition to intervention, Nixon and Kissinger raised a different principle. They argued that the conflict in East Pakistan was an internal matter, and that any outside pressure or action was a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty.
Nixon took it a step further as India’s intervention loomed. “If we even allow the internal problems of one country to be justification for the right of another, bigger, more powerful, to invade it, then international order is finished in the world.” We might choke a bit on the context, but we can also hear an echo of the arguments, almost the very words, being advanced today by the U.S. over Ukraine.
It is hard to read the final assessment by the personalities involved, and yet we have to acknowledge that more than personalities and prejudices were involved. There were large strategic stakes at risk that indeed did impact the course of history.
When the crisis had ended, and still smarting from the criticisms over the U.S. failure to act, Nixon, with a touch of conscience, says, “God almighty, we did everything we could possibly do.”
Kissinger concurs, saying, “It was a cold-blooded calculation. … No one has yet understood what we did in India-Pakistan and how it saved the China option….Why would we give a damn about Bangladesh?”
“We don’t,” agreed Nixon.
Libya 2011 — Humanitarian concerns or an “unnecessary distraction”?
Let us turn now to a situation with very different personalities, different geopolitical circumstances, and a very different outcome. This was Libya in 2011.
First the personalities. President Obama early on committed his administration to improving U.S. response to mass atrocities and genocide. He issued a presidential directive in 2010 that looked in detail at how the government could implement the recommendations of the 2008 study directed by Madeleine Albright and William Cohen, Preventing Genocide: A Blueprint for U.S. Policymakers. A major outcome of this directive was the creation of the Atrocities Prevention Board in 2012, a multi-agency senior body in the government to coordinate and prioritize atrocity prevention. As noted earlier, President Obama declared the prevention of mass atrocities and genocide “a core national interest as well as a moral obligation.”
Driving this work was Samantha Power, appointed by President Obama to the National Security Council staff. Power, as most of you know, is the author of Problem From Hell, the Pulitzer Prize winning book on genocides in the 20th century, and which decried the failure of the U.S. to have addressed them. In the administration, Power quickly developed a “tool kit” of actions that the U.S. might take in such situations, from sanctions, to UN resolutions, and other steps as well as ultimately consideration of armed intervention.
Another key Obama appointee was Susan Rice, first as U.S. Ambassador to the UN, and of course today the National Security Advisor. Rice had been a member of the National Security Council staff in 1994 when the U.S. failed to respond to the genocide in Rwanda. The memory haunts her. “I swore to myself,” she said in an interview in 2001, “that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic actions, going down in flames if that were required.”
At the State Department, Hillary Clinton upgraded issues of conflict resolution and civilian security to the undersecretary level, and appointed J. Stephen Rapp, a former prosecutor for the special court for Sierra Leone, as Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes and Director of the Office of Global Criminal Justice. Even though the U.S. was not a member of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Clinton promised support for its prosecution “of those cases that advance U.S. interests and values.”
One of the first tests of these pronounced policies and for these officials dedicated to them arose in Libya in 2011. A splendid account of the decision-making in this case can be found in James Mann’s The Obamians. The Arab spring quickly took root in Libya in March 2011. Beginning with demonstrations and calls for the resignation of long-time dictator Muammar Gadhafi, it soon morphed into an armed struggle. (Photo: AP)
Gadhafi fought back. Reports claimed that gun ships and helicopters were shooting down demonstrators and innocent civilians. Soon Gadhafi’s forces were marching toward Benghazi where rebels had gathered. Citing blood curdling rhetoric from Gadhafi and his son about the fate of those rebels, calls began for action to stop what appeared to loom as a major massacre.
On the side of intervention were not only humanitarian concerns. Officials looked at how far-reaching would be the events in Libya, and the consequences of not acting, in the rest of North Africa, or in the Middle East where such uprisings were also taking place. There was also the attitude of key allies. European countries were strongly urging the U.S. to join them in taking action. Maintaining the strength and unity of NATO, and the willingness of members to back up each other, is a cornerstone of U.S. security policy. Pressure also soon came from key Arab countries that were ready to join in a military intervention. Those pressures helped turn Hillary Clinton around to supporting Power and Rice in favor of U.S. military intervention.
But Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense, saw Libya as an “unnecessary distraction.” It was not that he was insensitive to the humanitarian situation, but he saw it more of Europe’s responsibility and closer to their national interests than of the U.S. Since Gadhafi had destroyed his stock of weapons of mass destruction and renounced some of his previous support for terrorism, he was no longer a direct threat to the U.S. Gates was particularly worried about the drain of resources from other high priority engagements that would be required for military intervention.
The U.S. was spending $10 billion a month in Afghanistan but not yet on a path to victory. The war in Iraq was not over. And U.S. military assets were already being deployed on another humanitarian mission, to Japan to help with the terrible destruction from the tsunami and contain the fallout of the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
A shift from humanitarian mission to “regime change”
Domestic politics began to play a role. Obama hesitated on military intervention. As much as he had put forward a commitment to preventing atrocities and genocide, he had campaigned as a critic of the rush into wars in the Middle East that had characterized his predecessor.
First, therefore, he supported strong UN sanctions, freezing assets of Gadhafi and his key supporters, and other steps, all part of the “tool box” for prevention that Samantha Power had developed. But these had little effect. In the middle of March, Obama called for Gadhafi to step down and put force on the table. This was not enough however to satisfy the growing voices of critics.
“Has Obama ever been brave?” asked The Economist. “Perhaps more pertinently,” it continued, “will he ever be?” Anne Marie-Slaughter, who had just stepped down as a principle aide of Hillary Clinton, wrote in The New York Times, America was “fiddling while Libya burns.” In the Senate, John McCain, Joe Lieberman, and John Kerry all called for a no-fly zone.
Obama decided to act. But he asked his staff one key question. Would a “no-fly zone” really solve the problem? What of Gadhafi’s tanks and artillery and other ground-based weaponry? So he asked Ambassador Rice to include in the UN resolution authorizing force, not only a no-fly zone, but “all necessary measures.” As Obama had foreseen, once a no-fly zone was in place, the campaign found it necessary to turn to attacking Gadhafi’s basic military structures of command and control as well as his ground forces heading to Benghazi. This would however put the U.S. and its European and Arab allies on a path inevitably to destroy Gadhafi’s military edge and to his ultimate downfall.
It moved the issue, in the minds of many African and other governments, from humanitarian to one of deliberate “regime change” and in their minds called into question America’s real motives. African countries who had wanted a political solution were particularly incensed.
“Never again” said a senior South African diplomat later, ironically using that phrase in this context, “should Africa allow itself to be deceived by the U.S. claiming humanitarian motives when its intentions are otherwise.” This backlash would have consequences when the U.S. sought to mobilize UN support for action in Syria and in weighing options in Sudan.
The tragedy in Libya is that the aftermath of the intervention and of Gadhafi’s fall has not been peace or democracy, but civil war and chaos. Gadhafi’s massive stores of weaponry also turned into a bazaar as various militias from other regions that had worked for him took them home with them and others came in to buy. This fueled growing violence and instability in the Sahel region, Darfur, and elsewhere in Africa and in particular the strengthening of al-Qaeda elements across the Sahel.
Moreover, the goodwill the U.S. appeared to have generated among the rebels, particularly in Benghazi, evaporated in the attack on the U.S. consulate there that resulted in the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens who had during the war been a symbol of U.S. support for the rebel cause. Thus the Libyan intervention, perhaps the high point of humanitarian intervention in the Obama administration, has become the source of division in the international community, and because of Benghazi has fueled bitter partisan attacks in the U.S.
Sudan — “Not on my watch”
Let me now turn to Sudan. This is a situation that that leaves one with a feeling of deep dissatisfaction despite many forms of intervention, but also perhaps with a recognition of the limits of control over another country’s deepest internal problems.
There have been two major issues of humanitarian concern in Sudan. One was to end a 17-year-old civil war between the north and south that had cost over two million lives and left the people in the south in a desperate state. Slowly by 2005 a peace process was under way but it was fragile. In 2003 and 2004, however, in response to an uprising in the western province of Darfur, the Sudanese government launched a series of attacks by Sudanese aircraft and by militias known as the Janjaweed that killed, raped, and brutalized the people there seen as supporting the rebel cause.
More than 300,000 people were killed, over two million internally displaced, and 300,000 became refugees in Chad. As the victim populations came largely from African ethnic groups, and the Janjaweed were largely Arab, the situation would soon be described by Secretary of State Colin Powell as genocide, and the ICC would later reach the same conclusion.
Shortly after becoming president, George W. Bush was reading an account of what had happened, or rather not happened in face of the genocide in Rwanda. He wrote in the margin, “Not on my watch.” In his campaign for the presidency Bush had said Africa was not of strategic interest to the U.S.
But over the course of his presidency Bush would double aid to Africa, create a new instrument for aid, the Millennium Challenge Account, which became especially relevant in Africa, and most important initiated the President’s Emergency Plan Against HIV-AIDS and Malaria (PEPFAR) with an initial commitment of $15 billion. PEPFAR has saved hundreds of thousands of lives. George Bush remains one of the most popular Americans in Africa today.
Domestic politics was also influential in Bush’s thinking. Evangelical Christians, who had strongly supported his campaign, pressed for action in Sudan where they saw an Islamic government oppressing the Christian people of South Sudan. Making it bipartisan, pressure came also from the Black Caucus who saw in that same situation a case of Arabs enslaving black Africans.
Thus before Darfur erupted, Bush had already appointed former senator and ordained minister Jack Danforth as special envoy to invigorate and put American weight behind the north-south peace negotiations. When Darfur erupted Bush did not flinch from calling it genocide. (Photo: Vanity Fair)
Much the same policies have been followed by the Obama administration. Samantha Power and Susan Rice have been adamant about the situation there and advocacy groups are strongly linked to members of the Obama administration.
The frustration we feel today is that the situation in Darfur all these years later is not resolved. While not at the same level as in 2003-2004, violence continues and peace proposals have all failed. Two millions people remain in IDP camps and the refugees are unable to return. In addition another conflict broke out in 2011 in two southern provinces (the so-called “Two Areas”) where once again there is bombing, ethnic cleansing, militias burning and raping, and the government refusing to allow in humanitarian relief. Perhaps most frustrating to the international community, Sudan, in direct violation of UN Security Council resolutions, continues to use it air power to attack and intimidate both armed opponents and civilians in the conflict areas.
I disagree, however, with the assertion that is sometimes made in the face of these realties that “nothing” has been done since that early declaration of genocide. What is most instructive is that the U.S. and UN have imposed many of the measure recommended by supporters of R2P, virtually all those in Samantha Power’s toolkit short of direct American military intervention:
- The U.S. has imposed more economic and trade sanctions on Sudan than on any other country in the world, including North Korea and Iran.
- Sudan has been blocked from international relief of its crippling $40 billion debt.
- It is denied access to funds from the World Bank and the IMF.
- Sudan remains on the U.S. list of countries supporting terrorism which carries its own list of sanctions.
- The UN Security Council in 2007 established a joint UN-Africa Union peacekeeping force in Darfur. It has more than 15,000 personnel and is one of the largest in Africa.
- The UN Security Council placed an arms embargo on Darfur.
- The U.S. maintains a large humanitarian program in Darfur. Catholic Relief Services alone provides basic needs to 500,000 internally displaced.
It is also not true, though often claimed, that the U.S. has softened its positions on Sudan in return for intelligence cooperation with the Sudanese government. But in the countless hours I have spent in meetings at the White House, hammering out the conditions for normalization embodied in the roadmaps offered to the Sudan government, not once did the value of intelligence cooperation come into play. Intelligence officials have consistently deferred to the issues of Darfur and other conflicts in Sudan as the overriding conditions for normalized relations and for achieving more valuable intelligence cooperation. That might exclude Sudan from being the subject for juicy spy novels, but it is nevertheless the truth.
Rather, other no less difficult complications and challenges have affected our policy there.
One such complication is that the U.S. has had to devote considerable attention to preserve the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between Sudan and South Sudan that ended that 17-year civil war. This meant in effect walking down two policy streets simultaneously. On the one hand, the U.S. continues to advocate that the Sudanese president be handed over to the ICC, and has maintained all the above sanctions and pressure related to Darfur and other conflicts.
On the other, the U.S. needed to convince Sudan that our longer term objective in the Sudan-South Sudan peace talks was to see both countries living side by side, in peace, and with development. Any other premise made the ending of civil war impossible. If it seems hypocritical to walk these two seemingly competing policies simultaneously, it is not. Rather it reflects the necessity to pursue equally imperative objectives, and this is not the only such case. But it does require constant management of the balance, continuing debate over each step taken that would advance one objective or the other.
But second, it has been a challenge to find further ways to address the situation in Darfur and in the Two Areas that would produce a better outcome.
The Obama administration has repeatedly examined what further steps could be taken to pressure the Sudan government. Time after time, the administration examined the prospect of seeking more UN Security Council sanctions that would have much greater impact than just our unilateral ones. But each assessment turned up negative, with both the veto countries of China and Russia, and the African members, surely opposed. We could propose such, but it would be an empty gesture.
The administration also examined what many advocates have called for, a no-fly zone. No-fly zones have become almost a default proposal in such situations. But their effectiveness is often exaggerated. One prominent religious leader told me that if the U.S. could drop just one bomb on a Sudanese airfield, creating a crater on one runway, President Bashir would be at the peace table the next day. Not at all likely. As my military colleagues told me, such a crater can be repaired in a day. But the administration did examine the option of a no-fly zone seriously. What the analysis demonstrated was how difficult it would be and how limited the impact.
“The outcome in Sudan is thus still unsatisfactory”
First of all, as fallout from Libya, no African country was likely to allow such an operation to be staged out of its territory. For the same reason, authorization would not be forthcoming from the UN. The Europeans were also opposed. That meant staging it alone from offshore, with long flying times and therefore very limited time over the extensive target areas. This also raised the cost of such an operation considerably, again against ongoing demands in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
But most of all, Obama’s insight about Libya was pertinent here. Sudan’s bombing attacks are frightening and disrupt planting and therefore create food shortages. But the death toll from bombing has been relatively small.
The major deaths and human rights violations come from artillery, tanks, and the organized militias that go through contested areas killing innocent civilians, raping, and driving people from their homes. A no-fly zone would do nothing to stop these. If there were to be an effective military response to the conflicts in Sudan, it would have to be a much greater one with all the complications and unforeseen consequences that had occurred in Iraq and Libya. No one in the administration or elsewhere really thought this was wise.
The U.S. was able to develop a carefully planned and meticulously executed program that has prevented a projected major famine in the Two Areas where over half a million people were at risk.
But we are still unable to address effectively the more fundamental problem in Sudan, the one that that keeps the country in a state of internal war, with on-going human rights violations and atrocities. That is the problem of Sudan’s governance, its lack of inclusiveness and of democracy.
I took a great deal of flak from some advocates when I told a reporter in 2011 that the U.S. was not supportive of armed regime change in Sudan, which had just been declared to be the objective of the armed groups fighting in both the Two Areas and Darfur.
The U.S. agreed that there needed to be fundamental political change in how Sudan was governed. But we hoped it could come about democratically, by negotiation. Critics said I was naïve to believe that such change was possible peacefully. But no serious scholar of Sudan I know believes the rebel groups have the capacity to militarily overthrow the Sudanese government. They can only continue fighting — which they do.
Furthermore, one has to be careful about sympathies. Those fighting the government of Sudan have legitimate grievances. But they are not all democratic, and some have committed serious human rights violations of their own. Indeed, I would go so far as to say there are no political parties in Sudan that I am confident have both the capacity and the commitment to rule the country democratically if the present regime collapsed.
What the U.S. has done therefore is to build the capacity and support for an ultimate political transformation. The U.S. has worked with the insurgent groups to help them develop their political platform, their principles for a united Sudan, their views on democracy, on inclusiveness, on the contentious role of religion and the state, and other issues. As they have done so, it has increased their ability to reach out to non-armed opposition parties at the center, and even convince some within the regime that reform is not necessarily a winner take all proposition.
There has been considerable progress in this direction, i.e., a growing alliance of opposition parties and groupings from all parts of the country in favor of negotiated change.
So far, however, the regime, though having announced its intent to initiate a national dialogue that would encompass all these parties, has in practice cracked down on civil society, arrested opposition figures, and initiated yet more military offenses trying to win a military victory, one that is beyond reach as much as the overthrow of the regime is by its opponents.
The outcome in Sudan is thus still unsatisfactory. It is an instructive if troubling example, when even the personalities are aligned and the politics not so inhibiting, of how further more dramatic interventions are still beyond the pale of either possibility or effectiveness. It is also perhaps a lesson about situations of such internal complexity where the U.S. and indeed the international community can have only so much impact, and for which it does not have all the answers.
Conclusion — It can be done.
Where does this leave us? I would cite one source of concern, and one of promise.
“Failure,” writes Paul Stares in the recent book Managing Conflict In A World Adrift “could be contagious, with potentially harmful consequences to the otherwise positive forces of globalization.”
Surely the Libya experience, along with all the other fallout from the Arab spring, has had this effect. Just as the Black Hawk Down incident in Somalia influenced the Clinton administration’s reluctance to intervene in Rwanda, and indeed led to a nearly decade long U.S. resistance to further UN peacekeeping missions, so too Libya has produced more caution in the Obama administration and probably for its successor.
It is telling and sadly ironic that President Obama announced formation of the Atrocities Prevention Board at the very time the crisis in Syria was growing but for which the U.S. still had no answers. There has also been a risk-averse reaction within the administration in the wake of the Benghazi attack on the U.S. consulate. Pressure from both the White House and within the Department of State has been brought to bear to close diplomatic posts entirely at the first sign of possible unrest, regardless of the diplomatic equities involved and the humanitarian programs that would suffer. Only strong push-back from within the Department has abetted this inclination.
But there is a basis for optimism. I noted at the beginning of this talk that the interests of the U.S. in preventing atrocities and genocide have become increasingly institutionalized within the U.S. government. There is the multi-agency Atrocities Prevention Board. In the Department of State there is an Ambassador-at-large for War Crimes and an Office of Global Justice. There is a Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, and another dedicated to conflict resolution and stabilization. There are two bureaus concerned with peacekeeping. USAID has a bureau dedicated to democracy and humanitarian response. There are similar portfolios within the National Security Council staff.
There are of course other institutionalized aspects of U.S. interests that may compete with atrocity prevention. Regional bureaus in state must examine the full range of relations with particular countries and regions, which sometimes compete sharply with humanitarian concerns. There is the Defense Department that measures carefully the cost and priority of any military intervention, and intelligence agencies that assess not only the threat of mass atrocities but the obstacles and complications in addressing them. This array of bureaucracies may seem to some as a recipe for paralysis. And it can be, and at times can empower people whose interests are more bureaucratic than substantive.
However, I see it more as an opportunity. The concern with preventing mass atrocities is built now into the system. And this institutionalization will span future administrations despite changes of personalities and policy preferences. But it is not enough for advocates for prevention of mass atrocities to be advocates. Those within the administration so determined need to navigate these several institutionalized set of interests.
This requires mobilizing and harmonizing the different parts of the system that are so committed, recognizing at the same time that the competing interests are legitimate and must be engaged. Then preparing a clear and workable plan of action, assessing the risks in the plan and developing ways to mitigate them, ways that reduces the political as well as the material costs, and in the end being persuasive. That is the challenge, but also the opportunity for senior policy officials, special envoys, or whoever is charged with developing policy in these complex situations.
It can be done. Senator Russ Feingold, until recently the President’s Special Envoy for the Great Lakes in Africa, overcame a strong, partly personality-driven opposition within the administration to confronting Rwanda over its support of the M-23 militia in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, secured a U.S. arms embargo on Rwanda that with other pressures led Rwanda to withdraw that support. These steps allowed for the deployment of a special African brigade that took on and defeated the M-23, and finally a peace agreement that included both reconciliation and accountability.
It can be done.
That is the message that we should take away from this conference.
It can be done.