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On South Sudan referendum, Obama needs to be more proactive

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Susan Walsh/AP

(Read caption) President Barack Obama speaks during a Ministerial Meeting on Sudan, Friday, Sept. 24, 2010, at the United Nations.

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Barack Obama is trying to use his presidential “bully pulpit” to persuade the Sudanese government in Khartoum to permit, as planned, an election next January that could create a new African nation out of southern Sudan. Will his rhetoric be enough?

US policy towards Sudan has changed little under President Obama even though international experts insist the country is “sliding” towards catastrophe. Just as his predecessor, George Bush, rejected calls for direct US intervention in Sudan, Obama has done the same, choosing instead quiet diplomacy and public exhortation. His latest statements suggest he isn’t ready to alter the basic US approach towards Sudan.

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The danger of course is that the election will fail to take place or the vote will be ignored by Khartoum, igniting a new civil war in the country. There is also the unhappy prospect that a new nation of South Sudan will be created, and the Khartoum will thus receive applause, but then this new state will be covertly destabilized by Bashir’s northern government — and then the new state will itself collapse into civil war. This last scenario, which hasn’t been examined by policymakers in public, is in some ways the most diabolical, costly and depressing. By permitting the formation of the new nation of South Sudan, Bashir’s government will appear to be following the dictates of international law — and the exhortations of Obama, the president with an African father. But then by covertly destabilizing South Sudan — and giving play to the forces of entropy within the South Sudanese geography — Bashir and friends can set themselves up as the only actor in the regional who can sort out the mess — by conveniently sending their troops into the new nation to “restore order.”

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With 100 days left before the scheduled vote, the pressures on the Obama administration are mounting — and the possibilities that rhetoric will give way to action increase. Will Obama choose to decisively shape Sudan’s future?

G. Pascal Zachary blogs at Africa Works.