Southern Sudan's Planned Referendum May Present a Crisis For Washington

 
     Sept. 21 (Washington Post) -- SECRETARY OF STATE Hillary
Rodham Clinton recently blurted out a rather undiplomatic warning
about "a ticking time bomb of enormous consequence." She was
talking not about Afghanistan or Iran or Iraq, but Sudan -- a
country that until recently has gotten relatively little
attention from the Obama administration. She was right. In a
matter of months Sudan could present the administration with a
major new international crisis, one that has the potential to be
even bloodier than the Darfur genocide.
     At stake is one of the top diplomatic achievements of the
Bush administration: a 2005 peace accord ending two decades of
war between Sudan's Arab-controlled central government and its
mainly Christian and animist south. The deal established an
autonomous government in the south, and stipulated January 2011
as the date for a referendum on whether the region, which
comprises about a third of the huge country, will become
independent.
     Ms. Clinton spelled out the problem succinctly: It is
"inevitable" that the south will vote for independence in a free
and fair referendum. That means the government of President Omar
Hassan al-Bashir -- who has been indicted for his crimes in
Darfur by the International Criminal Court -- will be expected to
peacefully give up a region that contains 80 percent of the
country's oil reserves. The odds that Mr. Bashir will cooperate
don't look good: The regime has been stalling on everything from
the demarcation of the border and talks on the future division of
oil revenue to preparations for the referendum, which are
worryingly delayed.
     Mr. Bashir, like the southern Sudanese leadership, does have
reason to avoid a new war. The south has acquired tanks and other
heavy weapons, and the Sudanese army can expect formidable
military opposition if it attacks. A deal could ensure both sides
continuing access to oil revenue that might otherwise be lost
entirely. Both sides also need better relations with the rest of
the world. Mr. Bashir wishes to escape from pariah status, while
southern Sudan desperately needs international help in
nation-building.
     After allowing its diplomacy to be hamstrung by internal
feuding and inattention, the Obama administration has mounted
what looks like a vigorous effort. Mr. Bashir has been presented
with tangible incentives to cooperate -- including, in the longer
run, the normalization of relations -- and warnings of more
punishment if the referendum is obstructed. The U.S. diplomatic
presence in the country has been rapidly expanded, and a veteran
ambassador has been dispatched to help in north-south
negotiations. On Friday President Obama will sit down with senior
Sudanese officials at a meeting convened in New York by U.N.
Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
     Administration officials have occasionally expressed
pessimism about the ability of the United States to exert
influence in Sudan. But Washington does have leverage -- and it
also has an obligation to do its best to prevent a humanitarian
catastrophe. In the same appearance at which she discussed Sudan,
Ms. Clinton declared that "a new American moment" has arrived in
international relations, "a moment when our global leadership is
essential, even if we must often lead in new ways." Sudan would
be an ideal place to prove that.

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