Escalation is Never the Best Policy

Back into another wait and see phase here in Khartoum. We had the ICC, followed by the expulsions of 13 international NGOs and action against three local agencies. President Bashir made speech after speech, and was rarely off the TV. Things were building day by day. More expulsions expected. Then nothing. A planned trip to Ethiopia was never mentioned again and President Bashir has not been seen at a parade since Sunday (correct me if I’m wrong). So what’s going on?

Have wiser, more strategic heads within the government had a chance to suggest a more nuanced approach? Sudan has after all managed to alienate whatever support they may have had among African and Arab leaders by putting the lives of millions of people at risk with the expulsion of the NGOs. It was left to countries like Eritrea to show support for Bashir.

I’m told the decision to expel the NGOs was taken by Bashir himself. And my guess is that – possibly struggling for support within his own party – Bashir has been doing his own spin doctoring. And it has been a mess.

Instead of carrying on with business as usual he has worn traditional African dress – complete with feathers and a spear – and generally looked anything but a statesman unflustered by the ICC. If I was his PR man, this would be my ICC strategy… 

  • 1. generally keep quiet and continue to make it look as if you haven’t noticed you are a wanted man

  • 2. leave a small number of public protests rumbling away but don’t let them get out of hand

  • 3. avoid visits to places like Eritrea and North Korea, even if they invite you

  • 4. press ahead with planned elections

  • 5. release a token number of political prisoners (good progress on this)

  • 6. intervene swiftly to free the MSF aid workers (I frankly don’t buy the rumours of govt militias involved)

Of course, the best thing to do is to reverse the decision to expel foreign NGOs and ground the bombers. That probably isn’t going to happen. But if Khartoum’s inept spin campaign continues to back the president even further into a corner, then I really fear things are going to get a lot, lot worse. Already the ludicrous notion of a no-fly zone (wasn’t this abandoned two years ago?) is being dusted off by people desperate for action, any action and the danger is that options and time will run out. That is not a good recipe for sensible outcomes.

It looks like Bashir is finally realising that escalation is not the best policy. Can we?