Is the US powerless in South Sudan?


Rev Thon Moses Chol says violence in his home country is "heartbreaking"

In a church in Alexandra, Virginia, just across the river from Washington DC, the congregation sing a solemn, gentle hymn in Dinka, one of the languages of South Sudan.

There are more upbeat songs too, but this is a fairly reflective gathering. At the front of many minds is the violence that is ripping through their homeland, the world's youngest state.

The Reverend Thon Moses Chol offers a prayer, acknowledging the hurt, the heartbreak and the victims, as well as the yearning for an end to this latest bout of killing.

South Sudan entered 2014 in chaos - the government blaming a coup, the rebels claiming an ethnic massacre was underway.

The only thing that everyone can agree on is that there is a massive humanitarian crisis.

'Find a voice'

Rev Chol arrived in this country with nothing but a plastic bag, a refugee from the civil war that raged for half a century.

Now he is proud to call himself an American. Proud too that US Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama helped South Sudan separate and forge a new nation out of the brutalities of a bitter civil war.

Start Quote

I think the US policy makers are struggling to figure out which levers to pull which will actually have an impact”

End Quote John Temin US Institute for Peace

"The history of America, they stand with those who are weak and those who need to find a voice," he says.

"And I kind of felt many of us were in that search, the need to find a voice and freedom, and I think they were there for us to secure that freedom."

Now the US seems more like worried well wishers.

While many in the region and the wider world fret about American disengagement, the US is not disengaged from this crisis. Over the holiday period and ever since, the White House has held crisis meeting after crisis meeting.

It is little wonder - so many in this administration have invested so much in this new country.

When South Sudan became independent President Obama said: "Today is a reminder that after the darkness of war, the light of a new dawn is possible."

His secretary of state, John Kerry, attended South Sudan's referendum as a US senator. Susan Rice, now his national security advisor, constantly pushed for the creation of the state.

Back to war?

Now the president's special assistant, Gayle Smith, is taking the lead in the crisis meetings.

When I meet her at the White House she doesn't look exhausted but jokes that she and her staff have barely seen their beds since the conflict began. She too is another Africa expert with decades of involvement in Sudan.

Government soldiers prepare to deploy from Juba, South Sudan 13 Januayr 2014 Government soldiers on their way out of Juba, South Sudan's capital

She rejects suggestions they're not doing enough: "We're working on multiple fronts 24/7."

"This is going to be an enormous political challenge to get parties that, very quickly took a political dispute to the battlefield, to bring it back to the peace table.

"They've got them there, they are pushing them towards the issues and the negotiators aren't giving up. They can't resolve this on the battlefield. If they do that it takes South Sudan back to war and it risks ethnic conflict."

John Temin of the US Institute for Peace says this crisis is getting more attention than others might because of the history of Sudan.

Start Quote

The relationship has swung 180 degrees”

End Quote Cameron Hudson Former Bush Africa official

"In many ways the US has an added responsibility here and an added ownership of what is happening in this new country because the US is so closely connected with its creation.

"It is more moral than geopolitical," Mr Temin says. "The fact that so much diplomatic capital has been invested in South Sudan as well as real money, does it give it some significant importance around Washington."

Ignoring the US

He has no doubt the US government has been heavily engaged in trying to solve the crisis. Whether it makes much difference is another question.

"I think the US policy makers are struggling to figure out which levers to pull which will actually have an impact," Mr Temin says.

The US - which has promised $50m (£30m) in new humanitarian aid - has been putting pressure on both sides to make concessions, calling for ceasefire and getting serious about peace talks currently stalled in Ethiopia.

A recent visit to the rebel leader by the US envoy got nowhere. Neither side seems to be listening to America.

Cameron Hudson was George W Bush's director of Africa policy and worked towards South Sudan's independence. He says that's nothing new: South Sudan has often ignored the US over the last 10 years.

But Mr Hudson says that has sharpened.

South Sudanese government representatives attend peace talks on the fighting in South Sudan on in a nightclub in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia 13 January 2014 Peace talks in Ethiopia have not resolved the crisis

"That's a reflection of the parties seeking a military solution, not a political solution," he says. "There's some score settling going on now. The international community have less leverage in South Sudan that we did prior to independence."

"Then they relied on donor assistance for virtually all their budget, now that has been replaced by oil revenue, which they fought for, they fought for their rightful share."

But he says this could be a turning point. Not necessarily a positive one.

"If you consider just a year ago in Washington we held an investment conference for South Sudan and the president said the country is open for business. Now we are telegraphing sanctions which are the most business unfriendly thing you can do to a regime... the relationship has swung 180 degrees".

And still both sides of the conflict take no notice.

In the church in Alexandria they pray for peace for South Sudan, but this is a frustrating lesson for the White House, just back across the Potomac.

These days even the leaders of a small state they helped create won't take orders - or even advice - from Washington.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    Even if facts of slavery (& income inequality) 'not enough' to offend 'enough of the people' (or slave-owning land-owning leaders), even if facts of gangsterism (& fear & greed) not enough to warn against rigid prohibition of alcohol (& of education on equal partnership), knowledge of 'failure' (civil war & crime-wave & now) told & still tells of need to evolve for 'America's ethic'

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    "greatest minds"
    Had much to think of
    But not slavery
    Not a 'South Sudan'

    Agreed setting of (good) example vital for (good) socialisation, but no hiding from our collective need to "impose", on each new generation & each new citizen, the rights & duties (perhaps modified) established by our forebears, respectful of their labours & the wisdom of their time, but free to debate change

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    91 The Civil War we call The War Between the States was the worst war America ever fought. It pit brother against brother, father against son. It was the result of a British legacy created during colonial times. Britain created a cotton based economy to compete with Egypt that depended on slave labor. It was incompatible with the rest of America's ethic.The only problem our founders couldn't solve

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    91 The US government was invented by the greatest minds that ever gave serious consideration to how diverse people could live together more or less peacefully. The US Constitution is a living document that has undergone some change but remarkably little since adopted.One experiment, prohibition of alcohol was a disastrous failure.We learn.We cannot impose our ideas on others, only set an example.

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    "US has survived"
    Evidently so (minus casualties, hundreds of thousands in Civil & WWs, in strife at home as well as abroad).

    Barring 'a local problem' (moderate planetesimal impact, Yellowstone super-volcano, the triggering of some other geological disaster), the US will be 'with us to the end'. My point is that without democracy (& planetesimal readiness) oblivion beckons to us ALL.

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    88 The US has survived far worse than it faces today. The Civil war and WWII, the cold war were events where the ultimate survival of the US was in doubt. It was improbable that the US would come into existence at all given what the American revolutionaries faced and the aftermath.

    89. The US is in a perpetual state of self renewal and reinvention. It draws the world's best like a magnet.

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    Sieu: In the past many wrote the US off as finished, in decline, a has been

    Thats not just the past Sieu, but the present in that also today many are writing us off as finished, declined and has been

    Sieu: All were proven wrong

    I sure hope we can prove them wrong again

    USA has always been an underdog and we still are one today

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    sieuarlu @86
    "critical to the survival"
    Meaning 'so far'

    None will lightly bet against a super-power still tenant of extensive & prime real estate: but without democracy at home AND abroad, the "survival" of what we are pleased to call "Western Civilisation" is far from assured, each successive cultural failure - from the Ancient Greek to the Ailing American - bringing is faster towards oblivion

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    So the choice is send in the troops ...for years and waist billions ...or let them fight it out .... and reconstruct and waist billions........ too bad they couldn't be proactive and spent money under strict guidelines and controls a couple of years ago and then people would have reason to get along instead of fighting over scraps. I suppose that kind of approach would be too much for capitalists.

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    85 The demise of the USSR was as critical to the survival of what has come to be known as "Western Civilization" as the demise of the Nazi and Imperial Japanese empire was. The same is true for militant Islam.

    In the past many wrote the US off as finished, in decline, a has been. All were proven wrong. John D Rockefeller said anyone who bets against the US will go broke. And they always do.

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    "US was finished
    with the USSR"
    Sadly, US left with same 'impossible' momentum, an unstoppable tsunami of expectation in the 'military-industrial complex'. To make matters worse, hoping for a peace-dividend, falling for financial deregulation, still avoiding the universal need for social advance, you made of US a target for US-trained terror, 9/11, market protection, then bubble-burst

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    70 Ahead by a neck? When the US was finished with the USSR it had a broken neck, finished, kaputsky, bankrupt, finito. It died because Reagan ratcheting up the nuclear arms race with the MX missiles, B2 bombers, a space based missile defense, a 600 ship navy, Pershing 2 missiles in Europe caused USSR military to demand the same.

    "The business of America IS business." It's what we do.

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    Marg: However if you wouldn't constantly interfere in other countries' affairs (those with oil especially) there wouldn't be so many problems in the world

    One of the worst things we did was get involved with Afghanistan when Russia invaded it in 80s

    If we had just let Russia have it, we wouldn't be having the problems there today

    All thanks to some ridiculous rich lady

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    79 Scott

    "Its time Africans started taking responsibility for fixing problems in their own backyard"

    Quite agree.

    However if you wouldn't constantly interfere in other countries' affairs (those with oil especially) there wouldn't be so many problems in the world

    80 Magic

    "False modesty is dishonest"

    You are obviously a very honest man...........

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    Once again the US is being looked to to help clean up the mess left by European powers who drew boundary lines on the map to divide the spoils of empire among themselves without regard for the ethnic, religious or tribal affiliations of the people who actually lived there.

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    Ref #

    False modesty is dishonest

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    Is the US powerless in South Sudan? Who cares? There's always a civil war or ethnic cleansing or murderous despot or humanitarian crisis going on in Africa, why is it the US's problem to fix? Even if the US government were so inclined there is very little support from the American people to get involved. Its time Africans started taking responsibility for fixing problems in their own backyard.

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    "moral & technological leader"
    Balanced & modest too?
    Wrong, of course, to "always criticise", but amongst those who 'always defend' - in absolute terms, partial & absurd - probably no-one here does more to raise or perhaps confirm suspicion of "derangement" in what some (careless or mischievous) might call 'the American psyche'. My guess is well meant not following orders, but still

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    Remember John Garang de Mabior, who rose to lead Sudanese People’s Liberation Army. He received his military training in Israel in 1970. During Sudan’s first civil war. Garang favored keeping the South in federation with a UNITED SUDAN.
    He died- mysterious helicopter crash 6 months later. Garang was succeeded by Salva Kiir (black cowboy hat - gift from President Bush, in 2006.)

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    Dismembering Sudan: Bill Clinton bombed a pharmaceuticals factory in Khartoum, in 1998, falsely claiming it was a chemical weapons facility. After 9/11 Sudan moved to the top of President Bush’s list. The US & Israel provided arms and training to rebel groups in Darfur, in the west of the Sudan, torching the flame of yet another civil war.


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