the moral limits of confronting the bully, and calling his bluff

Gerard Prunier, who, in another life, penned a decent history of Sudan’s Darfur conflict, has published a Luttwakian op-ed in today’s New York Times, calling on the international community to “give war a chance” in Sudan. His argument is a thinly veiled case for supporting South Sudan’s mobilization against Khartoum, and is predicated on the overarching, exclusive preferability of the National Congress Party’s imminent combustion:

The status quo is not working, regardless of what American and United Nations officials might believe. Mr. Bashir recently referred to the black leaders of South Sudan as “insects” and insisted that Sudan must “eliminate this insect completely.” For those who remember Rwanda and the racist insults hurled by Mr. Bashir’s janjaweed militias during their brutal attacks in Darfur, his vile words should be a wake-up call. Indeed, without some moral common ground, “negotiations” are merely a polite way of acquiescing to evil, especially when one’s interlocutors are pathologically incapable of respecting their own word. And in the case of a murderer like Mr. Bashir, there is no moral common ground.

Now, Prunier’s right, on a couple of points: the status quo isn’t working, and Khartoum’s rhetoric against civilian populations in South Kordofan, Blue Nile, and South Sudan has added an additional layer of worrisome intent to the mix of interstate conflict. And, Sudan’s border conflict with South Sudan is posing untenable internal challenges for Khartoum’s stability, but not for the reasons Prunier outlines; the popular consequences of Khartoum’s jingoism are less destabilizing than the persistent threat of security-sector defection, which has eroded the regime’s civilian-sector capacity. Between oil production and export restrictions, the diversion of domestic resources towards military mobilization, and the political costs of fighting a four-front, varied-intensity conflict (Darfur, South Kordofan, Blue Nile, and South Sudan), Sudan’s economy–and with it, Khartoum’s last shreds of domestic legitimacy–is hemorrhaging. So yes, unfettered violence is the way to go, if your panacea-of-the-day happens to be regime change.

Unfortunately for advocates of continuous conflict, both Khartoum and Juba recognize the domestic costs of all-out escalation, and are doing their darndest to ensure that the post-Heglig violence remains below the threshold of maximal instability. Racial bias and political discrimination aside, Khartoum’s domestic incentives for conflict with South Sudan remain constant: an external threat allows the regime to consolidate internal unrest, mitigating popular and elite dissatisfaction. However, as Lesley Warner recently observed, the domestic politics that animate the Khartoum-Juba conflict are the same politics that will prevent its escalation to Prunier’s “point of no return.” Of course, the immediacy of Sudan’s humanitarian crisis–particularly in the border states–makes the human distinction between gradual, sustained escalation and all-out conflict difficult to identify.

Where regime change is concerned, the limited utility of spontaneous, unmanaged political transitions is a conflict resolution cliché, particularly under a “sustainable peace” metric. As Luttwak does, advocates will point to Rwanda, willfully ignoring the grave humanitarian consequences of Kagame’s immediate post-genocide incursions into Zaire’s eastern provinces. In Sudan, there are, of course, indications that the spontaneous, violent fall of the Bashir regime would mean fewer atrocities, but the prospects for an inclusive, post-NCP governance framework are far from certain. Hassan al-Turabi’s periodic jail-time has placed the Popular Congress Party leader out of the limelight, but the Islamist leader remains poised to serve as a kingmaker between the Khartoum hardliners and the Sudanese Revolutionary Front. Without a deliberative, representative process of constitutional development, managed political transition, and negotiated settlement, Sudan has little hope of marginalizing the corrosive influence of hardliners within a post-NCP framework. There are plenty of ways in which Prunier’s vaguely-defined “Sudanese Spring” could manifest itself, and the most likely ones don’t involve a sweeping process of liberal democratization.

A better, more sustainable solution has emerged from Sudan and South Sudan’s technically-savvy middle-class, many of whom experienced the disastrous human consequences of the North-South civil war, which was given many chances. Under the umbrella of the #newSUDANS hashtag, Sudanese and South Sudanese civil society are engaging the unified vision of former SPLM leader John Garang, promoting a normative narrative of social dynamism, political savvy, and economic vibrancy. Rather than focusing on the moral bankruptcy of Bashir, it may be worth empowering new actors, new generations, and new voices, in order to encourage a responsible process of conflict resolution in the two Sudans.

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