While the Sudanese government was busy striking a peace deal with the Darfuri people of western Sudan, back in Washington, Obama's point man on the issue was holding a tense meeting with members of the Darfuri diaspora that has since touched off a fierce controversy.
A coalition of Sudan groups has been complaining that inside the Jan. 26 meeting, which was held off the record at the United States Institute of Peace, Special Envoy Scott Gration -- who outraged Darfur campaigners last September when he said the Khartoum regime was more likely to respond to incentives ("cookies" and "gold stars," as he put it) than threats -- made several statements that veered far from the Obama administration's official policy. Others deny that account.
While the exact content of his remarks are in dispute, "clearly the meeting between Gration and the Darfuris was a disaster," according to one Washington-based advocacy leader, who was not in the meeting but communicated with several attendees.
"Every time Gration speaks, he seems to churn up a whole damage-control exercise," the advocacy leader said.
An open letter (pdf) sent to President Obama in mid-February by 35 mostly smaller Sudan-related groups alleges that, inside the Jan. 26 meeting, Gration said the Sudanese government didn't intentionally kill civilians in Darfur and that the U.S. government is planning to shift some $2 billion in funding from that region to South Sudan. The letter calls for Gration's removal as Sudan envoy.
But according to multiple sources, those groups are twisting Gration's words to make them seem more out of step than they actually were. The Cable spoke with several of the participants in the meeting, all of whom asked for anonymity because they had agreed to keep Gration's remarks off the record. The consensus was that the letter to Obama mischaracterized much of what the special envoy actually said.
It may be impossible to determine exactly what Gration did say, since no transcript exists and there were language and communications difficulties to boot. Only four of the 35 groups in the letter actually had a representative in the meeting, the Washington-based advocacy leader pointed out. Gration's office did not respond to requests for comment.
Several attendees acknowledged there was palpable frustration at the end of the meeting, however, due to a perception that Gration chose mostly to explain his own thinking rather than have a genuine exchange of views.
The differing accounts of the meeting highlight a growing divide among Sudan groups over how to deal with Gration. One faction mostly outside Washington wants to force his ouster, whereas another faction, mostly consisting of larger institutions inside the Beltway, assumes that he's not likely to be thrown overboard any time soon and worries that his sacking would only create a vacuum at a critical time in U.S. diplomacy.
These larger groups hope that before 2011, when the autonomous South Sudan region is due to hold a referendum on whether to secede altogether, the White House will assign ownership of this issue to senior officials in the State Department and the National Security Council, wresting some control away from Gration.
Advocacy leaders worry what might happen if the fragile truce in Sudan falls apart, the South votes for independence, and the U.S. is forced to take sides. They see Gration's reaction to the latest agreement as an indication he is too inclined to give Khartoum the benefit of the doubt.
"We have had agreements in the past; most have failed," Gration said last week in Doha, the Qatari capital. "I think this is different."
Last week, however, U.N. officials accused the government of Sudan of increasing its attacks on Darfur civilians, despite the new truce.