The Post-Gazette editorial of June 20, “Sudan’s Struggles: Efforts to Heal the Divisions Have Not Succeeded,” concluded on an ominous note. The conclusion was that the United States has little constructive role to play in Sudanese affairs: “Leaving them to their devices would save the taxpayer dollars, too.”
It is tempting to turn from the bad news on Sudan and South Sudan — and indeed conflicts in many other places in the world — and say wearily, “A pox on both their houses. We are out of here!”
It is also true that we have had to learn some hard lessons recently about how much the United States can influence the politics and culture of other countries. Democracy cannot be forced upon another country, nor can it flourish overnight where it has not been before. Nor can piling on dollars create a free market economy where the fundamental building blocks of entrepreneurs, laws, good governance and open markets do not exist.
But before we throw up our hands and turn a blind eye to what is happening, let us take a moment to appreciate what the United States has done.
Sudan was in civil war for more than four decades, with millions of lives lost and millions of people made refugees — including the “lost boys,” some of whom came to Pittsburgh. Thanks to a tremendous international effort — by neighboring African countries, the United Nations, our European allies and the United States — that war was brought to a close in 2005 and South Sudan became independent in 2011.
That was the beginning. Sudan and South Sudan continue to face deep internal problems, and South Sudan has fallen into a civil war of its own. If it is not contained, this latest war could upset the stability of Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda, as well as Sudan.
Those first three countries already face terrorist attacks from the al-Qaida affiliated Al-Shabab terrorist organization in Somalia and are allied with the United States in fighting that organization. War on their border with South Sudan and millions of new refugees would burden them tremendously.
But this latest crisis in South Sudan does not need to spill over into the region. Once again the neighboring African countries are leading a mediation effort and contributing peacekeeping troops to supplement the U.N. force in South Sudan. The U.S. special envoy, along with European and Chinese envoys (yes, the Chinese) are working day and night to assist in the peace effort.
It will be a hard struggle to get the political forces in line and the warring parties to lay down their arms so that the country might return to a type of normalcy that allows for development. But walking away from these tasks will force us to confront only more chaos, more humanitarian disaster, more instability in the future.
Finally, can the American people really feel comfortable seeing (or trying not to see) the terrible suffering of the South Sudanese in this war and walk away? Can we turn a blind eye to possible famine on a massive scale and say, “Leave them to their own devices?” I doubt it. That is not our experience. Sooner or later Americans would see all the suffering and demand that the United States do something.
What we need, however, is “smart involvement.” That means not only humanitarian relief, but strong diplomatic efforts to bring those committing atrocities in South Sudan to justice, a robust U.N. presence that does not brook human rights violations by government forces and the encouragement of churches, women’s groups and other like-minded people of South Sudan to demand of their leaders sound and just government.
Slowly we have seen this take place in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Mozambique and other countries in Africa once torn by civil war. After so much American investment in South Sudan, it would be unjust to the people of that country and contrary to our own interests to walk away.
Princeton N. Lyman, senior adviser for the U.S. Institute of Peace, is a retired ambassador who served as U.S. special envoy for Sudan and South Sudan from March 2011 to March 2013.