Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Where's the PR on Sudan?

In Tuesday's Washington Post, columnist Jackson Diehl praises how Barack Obama has delicately handled South Sudan's road to independence over the last two years. He writes: "In Sudan, as nowhere else in the Middle East, President Obama has chosen to lead from the front." Diehl cites a number of political, economic, and diplomatic actions taken by the U.S. as keys to improving North-South relations and cajoling the North into being a productive partner in this transition.

This article made us wonder why the White House hasn't highlighted these moves in Sudan, especially since they're signs of leadership in world politics--something Obama has been hammered on from both the American right and left.

Really, there are two issues we're interested in here, so let's separate them. One involves the public relations of America's role in Sudan. In short, what would it look and feel like had Team Obama  clearly illuminated, if not crowed a bit about, its Sudan policies? The second issue concerns the failure of the Obama administration to implement even a small PR effort in support of its efforts. Why has this happened? Let's look at each of these issues below.

A PR campaign on Sudan would have several components. To begin, it would require consultations between very high-level, senior-ranking staff to develop the substance of and messaging on public statements on America's involvement in Sudan. Ideally, such staff would include those officials who have jurisdiction over and an interest in North Africa and Sudan in particular (e.g., Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, Samantha Power).

The product of these discussions should lead to a concise narrative that directly links American efforts (political, diplomatic, and economic support) with various salient, positive empirical outcomes in Sudan (the secession is still on track, the North hasn't derailed the process, nascent cooperation between North and South, etc.). This is the story, usually filtered through talking points, that eventually gets disseminated for public consumption.

Next comes coordination between the aforementioned senior officials and their subordinates. It is essential to make as many people as possible in a host of different agencies aware of an emphasis on America's Sudan policy. And even more important, senior staff must take appropriate steps to ensure that officials of varying rank maintain consistent messaging, that everyone stays "on message," when addressing the public. As we all witnessed during the early stages of the Egyptian Revolution, when mixed messages were transmitted from Team Obama, rogue officials can undercut the goals of a PR campaign by sowing confusion within target audiences.

Finally, officials propagate the narrative through public statements and appearances, which include but are not limited to press briefings, opinion pieces in newspapers and magazines, television appearances, interviews with news outlets, and posts on Facebook and Twitter.

As best we can tell, little to none of this has happened. Why? We believe there are three main reasons.

1. South secession is a work in progress and much can still go wrong. First and foremost, President Bashir is a bad and untrustworthy leader who could sabotage the transition process by encouraging violence against the South. This is the same guy who spearheaded a decades-long civil war against the South (which ended in 2005) and fomented genocide against the population in Darfur for the past eight years. Already, in the last week, there has been violence in the oil-rich border area of Kordofan, which has triggered fears that the chaos and instability could spread to the South. And at this point, the South, which lacks a competent institutional foundation, will not be able to deal adequately with all of the potential spillover effects from violence in the North (displaced peoples, mass casualties, spread of diseases, heightened North-South tensions). Those problems, in turn, could greatly hamper the South's move to independence, sapping its resources, damaging its economy, and disrupting its state building processes, among other things.

The political risk, and accordingly the political fallout, of shining a light on U.S. policy on Sudan could be high, especially as we head toward the 2012 election season. There are a score of conservatives just waiting to pounce on any missteps committed by the Obama administration. Moreover, there are international pitfalls as well. The White House has to tread carefully here, for it has to avoid sending the signal that it's more preoccupied with galvanizing domestic political support than helping to stabilize the setting in the Sudans--something that would only needlessly antagonize the Sudanese against American assistance. 

2. There isn't a domestic audience for U.S. policy on Sudan. Sure, as Diehl points out, Sudan (for instance, Darfur, the secession) has captured the attention of Hollywood and other political activists. But as for the rest of the American population (citizens and elected officials), this policy really doesn't register much interest or concern, unfortunately. One reason for this stems from the fact that there isn't a powerful lobby that can raise the profile of all things Sudan here in the U.S.

3. Lastly, given the sorry state of the American economy, it's highly unlikely that Americans want to hear that Team Obama is granting hundreds of millions of dollars, plus other kinds of support, to Sudan. This story will not play well right now. Just think about it. Americans want out of Iraq and Afghanistan. And there's already a sense of isolationism, pulling back from the rest of the world, emerging in parts of both the Republican and Democratic Parties. What's guiding these trends is a desire for the U.S. to attend to its debt problem, high unemployment, and the scary possibility of a double-dip recession. Americans are unlikely to be receptive to the idea that the U.S. is stepping up its overseas involvement in places like Sudan, because in their view it suggests that Obama's prioritizing foreign affairs over the struggling American economy.

Sudans, likely as one part of a list of accomplishments that they'll refer to as evidence of his presidential credentials. Let's face it, with the U.S. economy still foundering and with few signs of a substantial improvement anytime soon, Obama will have to accentuate his foreign policy successes on the campaign trail. But in the meantime, we're not likely to hear very much about North and South Sudan from the White House.

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