NAIROBI — If the election of Barack Obama has been greeted with glee across much of Africa, there is at least one spot where the mood is decidedly different.
In the Sudanese capital of Khartoum these days, political elites are bracing for what they expect will be a major shift in U.S. policy toward a government the United States has blamed for orchestrating a violent campaign against civilians in the western Darfur region.
“Compared to the Republicans, the Democrats, I think they are hawks,” said Ghazi Suleiman, a human rights lawyer and member of the Southern People’s Liberation Movement, which has a fragile power-sharing agreement with the ruling party. “I know Obama’s appointees. And I know their policy towards Sudan. Everybody here knows it. The policy is very aggressive and very harsh. I think we really will miss the judgments of George W. Bush.”
While the Bush administration most recently advocated the idea of “normalizing” relations with Sudan as a carrot approach to ending a crisis it labeled a genocide, Obama’s foreign policy appointees have pushed for sticks.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, the nominee for secretary of state, has called for a NATO-enforced no-fly zone to “blanket” Darfur in order to prevent Sudanese bombing of villages. The appointee for U.N. ambassador, Susan E. Rice — a key Africa adviser to the Clinton administration during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, when President Bill Clinton was sharply criticized for failing to act — has pushed for U.S. or NATO airstrikes and a naval blockade of Sudan’s major port to prevent lucrative oil exports. Rice has vowed to “go down in flames” advocating tough measures.
Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., who was chosen for his foreign policy experience and pressed early for U.S. intervention to stop the fighting in the Balkans, was blunt during a hearing last year: “I would use American force now,” he said.
But it remains unclear how those pre-election views will square with the president-elect, who has outlined a pragmatic, coalition-based approach to foreign policy, while also speaking of America’s “moral obligation” in the face of humanitarian catastrophes of the sort that are plentiful in Africa.
Heading off potential genocide is the focus of a task force report to be released today in Washington. The group recommends, among other things, that the Obama administration create a high-level forum in the White House to direct the government’s response to threats of mass violence.
So far, Obama has been more cautious on Darfur than some of his appointees, advocating tougher sanctions against Khartoum and a no-fly zone that might be enforced with U.S. “help.” He has not called for direct U.S. intervention.
Obama intends to keep Bush’s defense secretary, Robert M. Gates, who has already suggested that the United States will not provide much-needed helicopters to a struggling peacekeeping mission in Darfur because U.S. forces are stretched too thin in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama has also nominated as national security adviser retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones, a former NATO supreme allied commander who has suggested that NATO’s role in Darfur should be training and support to the current peacekeeping mission rather than direct intervention.
And specialists close to Obama’s presidential campaign said that more generally, the new administration sees a need for diplomatic approaches to security crises across the continent.
“We don’t have the capacity to pacify these places militarily,” said John Prendergast, a Darfur activist and former White House aide during the Clinton administration, citing Sudan and the worsening conflicts in Congo and Somalia. “We need political solutions.”
Sudan’s U.N. ambassador, Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem Mohamad, dismissed the calls for military action as “only election slogans.”
“You cannot claim to be disengaging from disasters like Iraq but creating a new disaster in one of Africa’s biggest countries,” he said.
The crisis is in many ways a far more complex conflict than the one the Bush administration confronted. The violence in Darfur began in February 2003 when two rebel groups attacked Sudan’s Islamic government, claiming a pattern of bias against the region’s black African tribes. Khartoum organized a local Arab militia, known as the Janjaweed, to wage a scorched-earth campaign against the three ethnic groups — mostly farmers and traders — thought to be the rebels’ political base.
Some analysts estimate that as many as 450,000 people have died from disease and violence in the conflict. About half the population of the Darfur region — about 2.5 million people — are now displaced.