As President Obama wraps up his three-day trip to New York City and the United Nations General Assembly, he will chair a meeting on Sudan, the largest country in Africa, that has been waging a bloody civil war for years. But, even as the meeting is getting underway, critics say this latest push by the administration is nothing more than public relations.
The White House is pushing hard on the Sudan agenda, using the upcoming referendum in that country as a milestone to encourage other nations in addition to the United States to put pressure on the Sudanese. The referendum is part of a peace agreement, originally settled on in 2005, which ended the armed conflict between the north and the south of the nation. Sudan has been engaged in a civil war for almost all of the country's history. The latest cycle of violence began in early 2003 when the Sudan Liberation Army and the Equality Movement started attacking a variety of government targets and accused the government based in the capital of Khartoum of oppressing black Africans in favor of Arabs inside Sudan.
White House Senior Director of Multilateral Affairs, Samantha Power, said the meeting is a chance for world powers to show Sudan they are united in ensuring peace in the country. "It's no secret that the parties, in any conflict, but in this one, as well, have often thought to play countries within the international community off one another, and this is an event that will show that the world is united and that the parties need to move very, very briskly and responsibly to ensure that these votes take place on time," Power told reporters in a conference call on Monday.
But a former United States Envoy to Africa under President George W. Bush says the meeting in New York is all show, and not much substance."It's public relations. It's a lot of PR. The president needs to insert himself into the policy and be seen to actually care about it and not just use this moment in New York to make a nice pretty speech," says Jendayi Frazer.
Frazer says it's clear the Obama White House feels pressure to perform on African affairs, especially in the face of criticism that Obama's predecessors did more for that continent. "It's very clear the criticism he is getting is ‘President Bush had done a better job on Sudan and other African issues' has motivated them to show more of a profile of the president on Africa."
While most U.S. administrations have been reluctant to engage militarily in Sudan, Frazer says this would be a good time to show some sort of force from the United States. "I'm not saying we need to use U.S. troops. But we need to provide the southerners with the wherewithal to protect themselves. We need to work with neighboring countries to support a southern independent state that is strong and viable."
United States Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice says the aim Friday is to incite the Sudanese people to advocate on their own behalf. "Our aim is to spur them forward in their own interest, consistent with their own commitments, and to be supportive of the parties as they do so in the critical time where the stakes are high for the people of Sudan, for the region and, indeed, for international peace and security," Rice told reporters on a conference call Monday.
Power says the conditions in Sudan, particularly in the region of Darfur, where thousands of refugees live in tent cities, after being forced from their homes cannot continue and the president will address that Friday. "We continue to see unacceptable conditions for the people living in camps and the fact that they -- none of them feel safe enough to return to their homes. So he will, of course, speak to the need for enhanced security and dignity for the people of Darfur and the need for accountability, as well."
For her part, Frazer says there's more productive steps for Obama to take than just Friday's meeting and says Obama's communication to the world should change. "He's in campaign mode, showing up at the meeting on Sudan. The president needs to get substantially engaged and be willing to make hard choices and put some credibility behind the policy."