Six years after independence, South Sudan is a land of bloodshed and misery. Its civil war has left some 50,000 civilians dead and nearly two million people displaced, while the country is also experiencing one of its worst famines on record.
Will President Donald Trump foreign policy team be more effective than the Barack Obama administration in ending the crisis? The signals out of Washington are mixed.
On March 27, Trump renewed a 2014 executive order declaring South Sudan a national emergency. Trump stated that because the situation continues to threaten the peace and security of the region, “it is necessary to continue the national emergency.” The order freezes the transfer of assets and property in the U.S. on anyone threatening the peace in South Sudan.
Trump’s decision comes one month after a U.S. delegation to South Sudan discussed the national dialogue process established by South Sudan President Salva Kiir in December 2016, marking an apparent break with the Obama administration’s strategy of punishing South Sudanese leaders with a UN embargo and targeted sanctions.
Yet supporting Kiir’s national dialogue without a credible threat of sanctions comes with risks. The most crucial is that it allows Kiir and other South Sudanese officials to continue receiving the arms that have killed tens of thousands of civilians.
The U.S. strategy in South Sudan can be traced to its support of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), which fought against the Khartoum government in Sudan’s second civil war from 1983 to 2005. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) ended the conflict and enabled the southern Sudanese people to vote on their independence and eventually to secede and form a new state in July 2011.
Not long thereafter, the Obama administration invited Kiir to the White House to discuss various issues, including the build-up of SPLA troops in Sudan. Kiir, however, falsely denied a 2011 United States intelligence report evidencing his support of South Sudanese rebels inside Sudan.
The meeting was the start of a frosty relationship between the Obama administration and Kiir. And in December 2013 Kiir—suspecting that then-Vice President Riek Machar had planned a coup d’état—launched a preemptive attack on Machar and his backers in Juba. That sparked the civil war in the country.
Obama’s 2014 executive order marked a key shift in U.S. strategy: from supporting the South Sudanese leadership to actively targeting and punishing them for protracting the bloody civil war. The Obama administration followed up on its order by drawing up a UN Security Council resolution that would impose global travel bans on the leaders and freeze their foreign assets. But the resolution was met with stiff opposition by China, which insisted that punishing national leaders would only further destabilize the country and work against efforts to end the civil war.
After a peace deal was signed in August 2015, both sides pledged to implement the reintegration of security forces and democratic institutions. However, in October of that year, the African Union Commission of Inquiry released its report documenting atrocities committed by both sides, including rape and forced cannibalism. Another report issued by UN Human Rights Council confirmed the findings of the African Union report and implicated government officials in supporting rogue militias.
Pressure quickly increased on the U.S. to do more to punish Kiir, a member of the Dinka ethnic group, and Machar, the opposition leader from the Nuer ethnic group. Testifying before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, human-rights activist John Prendergast, the founder of the Enough Project, stated that South Sudan was a “hijacked state.” Later, he and George Clooney, the actor, would release the Sentry report, detailing the money laundering of the South Sudan’s two rival leaders.
Unfortunately, these revelations did little to sway other Security Council members on the need for an arms embargo on South Sudan. On December 23, 2016, the UN Security Council rejected a U.S.-led resolution. The abstaining members, including Russia and China, stated the need to give Kiir’s national dialogue process a chance.
Like the abstaining members, Trump also seems to support Kiir’s national reconciliation plan. So far, Trump continues to enjoy the support of both warring leaders—Kiir, for instance, had voiced his approval of Trump in the summer of 2016, when he was the U.S. Republican nominee. And in an interview in November 2016, Machar, who has been driven out of South Sudan after a series of clashes with government troops in July 2016, indicated that, unlike Obama, Trump would finally understand his struggle against Kiir’s authoritarian government. Machar even insisted that “Trump’s lack of knowledge of South Sudan,” was to him, “a blessing.”
Machar and Kiir may be hoping that Trump’s own strongman image and non-transparency will produce a mutual understanding that helps divert attention from the political and moral issue of corruption and human rights abuses. But thus far, it remains unclear if this outcome will materialize. Despite his “America first” platform, Trump has shown himself to be both a globalist and nationalist, mixing elements of U.S. intervenionism with American isolationism.
Trump the globalist has not only renewed the 2014 Obama executive order, but more recently, has counterattacked President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime for its chemical attack on innocent civilians. At the same time, Trump the nationalist has signaled his willingness to take part in Kiir’s national dialogue process, while also supporting other African dictators. The most that can be said, however, is that the unpredictability of Trump’s foreign policy has replaced the predictable, albeit ineffective strategy of the Obama administration.
Steven C. Roach is an associate professor of international politics in the School of Interdisciplinary Global Studies, University of South Florida-Tampa. On Twitter: @sroach82.