WASHINGTON -- On a steamy day in September, President Barack Obama summoned senior officials to the White House Situation Room. A U.S.-mediated peace accord in Sudan was in danger of collapse, and the president was worried.
This wasn't just another African country in turmoil. Months earlier, Mr. Obama's director of national intelligence had warned that there was a greater threat of genocide in south Sudan than anywhere else in the world. In a forceful tone, the president reminded his aides that 2 million people had died in Sudan's north-south war, which ended in 2005.
"The president gave very clear guidance, which is that we don't have a lot of time. We've seen this movie before," said one official in attendance, speaking on condition of anonymity to be candid.
On Sunday, a key part of the peace accord is to become reality -- a referendum that will in all likelihood see south Sudan secede. It is a remarkable turnaround; the vote had appeared imperiled by huge delays and the Sudanese government's reluctance to lose the oil-rich south.
Since Mr. Obama's Sept. 2 meeting, the White House has launched a diplomatic offensive, with the president pressing Sudanese and world leaders for a timely referendum, and senior officials relentlessly pushing to speed up preparations. The administration is cautiously optimistic. Sudan's leaders have said in recent days they will accept the results of the vote.
And yet, solving the Sudan crisis has been a tortured journey for a president who came to office committed to avoiding the kinds of genocides that erupted under his predecessors. Mr. Obama's team wound up embracing elements of former President George W. Bush's approach that they had once criticized -- specifically, offering incentives to get a government accused of war crimes to cooperate with the referendum. And the administration's offensive followed a year of internal struggle over policy.
"This should have been an easy win for the administration. You had, within the administration, a deep brain trust on this issue," said Mike Boyer, of Humanity United, an advocacy group. "The administration got completely hamstrung not being able to reach internal agreement."
Senior officials acknowledge that they realized, on taking office, the constraints of U.S. influence on Sudan. But they argue that they have labored steadily to build an international coalition. In the end, they say, the administration should be judged by results, not on whether U.S. officials worked with a brutal regime.
"The question of 'how many carrots, how many sticks?' surely will prove less important than 'what did our policy deliver for the people of Sudan?' " said Samantha Power, a key Obama adviser on genocide prevention.
Ms. Power, a National Security Council member, wrote a 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "A Problem from Hell," that deeply impressed Mr. Obama. It harshly criticized the U.S. government for failing to stop genocides in Cambodia, Iraq's Kurdish region, Rwanda and elsewhere.
Her conclusions about the Rwandan genocide were so powerful that they were sent to Mr. Bush by his staff. "Not on my watch," he famously scrawled on the memo.
Mr. Bush succeeded in getting the 2005 Sudan peace agreement, ending Africa's longest war. But the Obama administration quickly ran into the constraints that had stymied the Bush team. Military action would be difficult because of the lack of available U.S. troops and the sensitivities of intervening in another Muslim country. And the United States already had suspended most trade with Sudan.
The president's Sudan envoy, Scott Gration, felt that it was important to encourage the south to develop a relationship with the north, so they could solve their problems directly. The southerners, who are mainly Christian and animist, had long complained of discrimination by the Arab north. "We want to be there as a partner, not a protector," the envoy said in an interview.
Mr. Gration decided he had to deal with the government of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir to resolve the enormous problems in Sudan, including the referendum and the fragile situation in Darfur, where 13 humanitarian groups had been expelled in retaliation for Mr. Bashir's indictment on war crimes by the International Criminal Court.
"In order to fix these very real problems that were threatening lives, human rights, physical property, there was no option but to engage and to build the relationship of trust," the envoy said.
But that approach, from an administration that had promised to get tough on Sudan's government, made Mr. Gration a lightning rod. U.S. anti-genocide groups were outraged by the political neophyte's blunt comments, like his dismissal of Mr. Bashir's indictment for genocide as something that would "make my mission more difficult."
Lengthy debates erupted within the administration on Sudan policy, with U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice and others urging a less-accommodating approach, according to officials familiar with the discussions.
In recent months, Mr. Gration has taken a lower profile, with the administration naming longtime ambassadors to focus on the referendum and Darfur. But the administration has adopted much of his approach, offering to delist Sudan as a terrorism sponsor as early as July if the referendum is honored and the two sides resolve issues around the south's independence.
With the referendum in trouble, though, the Obama administration accelerated its efforts. Deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough began running constant meetings at the White House. On Sept. 24, the president appeared at a U.N. session with top representatives of Sudan's north and south, emphasizing the importance of holding the referendum on time. A communique with that message was signed by senior officials from 34 countries.