White House’s New Sudan Strategy Fits Envoy’s Pragmatic Style

It was, by many accounts, the beginning of a friendship between President Obama and the former pilot, Maj. Gen. J. Scott Gration. And in March, the president enlisted the general to help resolve another African scourge in Sudan, where a campaign of killing has left hundreds of thousands of people dead and millions displaced.

The White House
On Monday, the administration unveiled a new policy in Sudan, outlining an effort that officials said was aimed at ending the mass human suffering there, promoting a definitive peace and preventing Sudan from serving as a haven for terrorists.

Though the details of the policy remained classified, senior administration officials described it as a mix of incentives and pressure to compel cooperation from the government in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital. Glaringly absent were the tougher sanctions and no-flight zones that Mr. Obama had called for in his bid for president. Rather than issuing threats to the Sudanese government, the policy proposes to “engage with allies and with those with whom we disagree.”

Critics rebuked the new policy as naïve and little different from that of the Bush administration, while supporters have said it reflects common sense and President Obama’s beliefs about dealing with America’s adversaries. Both camps agree it has General Gration’s fingerprints all over it.

“Military officers are realists,” said Andrew Natsios, an envoy to Sudan during the Bush administration. General Gration “didn’t come to this crisis with the emotional baggage of so many people whose education about Darfur comes from the activists, or the media,” he said. “He’s not on some holy crusade.”

In recent weeks, General Gration (pronounced GRA-shun) has been the target of a campaign demanding his resignation for statements he had made suggesting that the genocide in Darfur was over, that sanctions against Khartoum did more harm than good and that Sudan should be removed from America’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.

In an interview last week, the general, 58, a son of missionaries whose family was evacuated several times from war zones in Congo, said he had been misunderstood. He had no illusions, he said, about the abuses committed by Sudanese government leaders. But he said he did not believe that resolving the interlocking conflicts plaguing Sudan was possible without talking to the leadership.

“You think we can fix the crisis without talking to Khartoum? That’s impossible,” he said. “You think we can resolve the southern war without talking to Khartoum? Impossible.”

The administration’s new policy signaled the end of one vigorous — some said heated — debate and the likely beginning of another. The administration deliberated for months in meetings led by officials steeped in Sudan’s bloody history.

People close to the talks said views fell generally into two main camps: one advocating a tougher line against Sudan led by the United Nations ambassador, Susan E. Rice, and the other calling for a more conciliatory approach, led by General Gration.

A new humanitarian emergency in Sudan meant that General Gration had little time to wait for marching orders. Last spring, Sudan’s president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, was indicted for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court. A month later, he expelled more than a dozen humanitarian organizations that were providing life-saving assistance to millions of internally displaced people.

General Gration went to the region, officials said, focused on restoring that assistance. Activists, legislators and Sudanese opposition groups said they hoped that having a soldier in the driver’s seat of diplomacy would make clear to Khartoum that its days of undermining peace were over.

But instead of an iron fist, General Gration told the Sudanese government when he landed in Khartoum, “I have come with my hands open.”

While President Obama and Ambassador Rice described the atrocities in Darfur as genocide, General Gration broke with that position, telling reporters during a State Department briefing in June that the region was experiencing the “remnants of genocide.”

Later, in an appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he set off some legislators’ tempers when he suggested that there was no reason to keep Sudan, once a haven for Osama bin Laden, on the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

And the expressions of outrage grew even more fierce after a news report, first published by The Washington Post, quoted General Gration suggesting that using “cookies” and “gold stars” might work better than threats at getting Khartoum to cooperate.

“I think Gration’s understanding of the situation is pretty sound, but he has a way of appearing less smart than he is,” said Alex DeWaal, a leading scholar on Sudan at the Social Science Research Council. “He has a folksy way that makes him seem to trivialize things, and does him a disservice. But he’s not naïve.”

Although he has never been a diplomat or held elected office, General Gration, whose first language was Swahili, has lived and worked in some of the most hostile places in the world.

He was born in Illinois, but his parents moved to what is now Congo as missionaries in the early 1950s and were forced to flee a decade later during that country’s fight for independence. After settling for some time in Kenya, the family moved back to the United States, where the general got a degree in mechanical engineering at Rutgers and enlisted in the Air Force.

He said he flew about 274 missions over Iraq from 1991 through 1998, starting with the Persian Gulf war. During that period he commanded a unit in Saudi Arabia that lost 18 Americans in a terrorist attack. He was at the Pentagon when terrorists struck on Sept. 11, 2001, and served in the Iraq war.

Aides said that he was a Republican, but that he bonded with Mr. Obama in 2006, when they traveled together across Africa, beginning at Robben Island off the cape of South Africa.

When Mr. Obama began his campaign for president, officials said, General Gration’s support helped lend credibility to a candidate with no military experience.

“Barack always trusted Scott, because he was there before any of the rest of us,” said Gen. Merrill McPeak, a former Air Force chief who also served as an adviser to Mr. Obama’s presidential campaign.

“He wasn’t famous,” he said. “But he was hard-working, and he was loyal. And the president knew that Scott wasn’t in it for himself. He was in it to serve.”

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