The staggering crisis in South Sudan is the perfect opportunity to tell the United States, and other meddlers in Africa and the Middle East: I told you so. That’s because the unfolding civil war in the rump state of South Sudan, whose ugly birth was midwifed by George W. Bush and by President Obama, is partly America’s fault, and it’s what happens when well-intentioned and not-so-well-intentioned outsiders decide that they know what’s best for a divided country. Let it be a lesson to those who would carve up Iraq, or Syria, or other countries into mini-states and statelets based on religious, ethnic and other divisions.
The birth of South Sudan, trumpeted as a great victory for the United States, was also promoted by Christian fundamentalist groups in the United States who were alarmed by the plight of Christians in Sudan’s south and who thought that their intervention in faraway Sudan might undermine Islam and the weirdly Islamist government of Sudan in Khartoum.
But it’s clear, now, that South Sudan doesn’t deserve to be a state at all. It may be too late to stitch the cut-in-half baby back together, but at the very least the only real hope for South Sudan is to let the United Nations take over and administer it as a basket case. Above all, the United States ought to stay out of it altogether, except perhaps for organizing financial support for the region’s future.
Peace talks are underway between the savage factions cobbled together at independence, though the talks aren’t going well, and there are reports already that Uganda is sending additional troops into the fledgling nation. According to The Guardian, Uganda “had sent 1,200 troops to secure installations such as the airport and state house, adding that Ugandan military aircraft had bombed several rebel-held positions.” Uganda, of course, is intervening on one side of the war, in support of the supposed government in Juba, the capital.
In a New York Times-sponsored “Room for Debate” section on South Sudan, one participant suggests, incredibly, that Christians ought to roll up their sleeves and get involved more fully. Mark Fathi Massoud, a professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, writes, “The last time these churches confronted such a choice—combining their spiritual and relief work with zealous advocacy—came during Sudan’s 1983-2005 civil war, which led to South Sudan’s secession from Sudan in 2011.” Exactly.
An even worse suggestion comes from G. Pascal Zachary, a “professor of practice” at the journalism school at Arizona State University, who calls for the United States to establish a trusteeship over South Sudan. With unbelievable arrogance, Zachary says: “Only the United States has the moral authority and the tactical resources to administer South Sudan for the multiyear period required to build a political culture that will yield stable and authentic self-determination.”
Zachary makes the Colin Powell argument about the so-called Pottery Barn rule, namely, that “if you break it, you own it.” Leave aside the fact that the Pottery Barn doesn’t even have such a rule—if you break something, the staff just cleans it up—it’s a sad admission that Zachary makes that the United States helped to “break” Sudan into pieces, even though he calls the creation of South Sudan “one of the most extraordinary diplomatic achievements of the United States in sub-Saharan Africa.” If that’s an achievement, then I’d like to see a failure. Eastern Congo, perhaps?
Indeed, Zachary—perhaps missing the days of imperial and colonial overlordship in Africa, penned an execrable piece for The Atlantic in 2011. Its title: “South Sudan: The Case to Keep Dividing Africa.” In it, he wrote: “Sudan has been successfully split into two independent countries. Here's why more African nations should divide, secede, splinter, or otherwise scramble the old colonial borders.”
Eric Reeves, another South Sudan expert at Smith College, doesn’t go as far as Zachary, but according to Reeves it’s all about the United States taking charge, too. But at least Reeves says that the United States should take a back seat to the UN’s role. It’s left to Princeton Lyman, who served as Obama’s special envoy to South Sudan from 2011-2013, to make the case for a bigger UN role. Without exactly saying so, Lyman suggests that the international community take over South Sudan and run the place.
It’s possible of course that the two main factions in Sudan will patch up their differences under international pressure and stop tearing the country apart. But the events in South Sudan show the foolhardiness of trying to solve civil wars from the outside by giving every ethnic and sectarian faction a nation of its own. (Remember then-Senator Joe Biden’s terribly misguided idea at the height of the civil war in Iraq to carve three states out of Iraq, one for Shiites, one for Sunnis, and one for Kurds.) Had their been Christians in Iraq as one of the three factions then—Iraq’s small Christian population doesn’t rise to the level of a bloc that could have had an actual “state”—perhaps America’s meddling Christian churches might have backed Biden’s call, and Iraq’s current crisis would have been far, far worse than it is now. Like Sudan.
Bob Dreyfuss, a contributing editor for The Nation magazine, is an investigative journalist living in Cape May, New Jersey and New York, specializing in politics and national security. He is the author of Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam, and has written frequently for Rolling Stone, The American Prospect, and Mother Jones.
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