October 20, 2019

White House defends Gration against WaPo article

The ABC’s Senior White House correspondent just posted these comments by Administration officials saying that Gration was mischaracterized in today’s Washington Post. The Washington Post says it stands by Stephanie McCrummen’s piece.

I can’t say anything about the comments in relation to South Sudan as I was not there for that part of the trip. But my overall judgment from watching the various interactions over the course of the Darfur trip is that Stephanie went into it without any agenda (for the conspiracy theorists out there, there was certainly no “set up”). While parts of the article could have been written differently (I wouldn’t have characterized Gration’s reception at the NCP set-up a “rock star” greeting for instance, and Gration was greeted with a warmth by the Darfuri rebels and civilians in Ain Siro that doesn’t come through in the piece), a journalist can only make her own professional judgment and convey it in the word limit she is constrained to.  It seems to me, that is what she did. Aside from the “psychological stuff” quote that I was not present for, everything else she quoted him on regarding Darfur were things I heard him say, just as she reported it.

With regards to the White House push-back:

On the topic of the normalization of US-Sudan relations, the ABC quotes a “senior administration official” as saying:

“We would not take a step like that absent significant changes in conditions on the ground.” Later the official continues, “The story seems to suggests our approach is to trust the government of Sudan at its word and provide incentives in hope that by providing incentives they will somehow change their behavior . . . That’s wildly inaccurate. There is no talk of incentives until there is a change of conditions on the ground — verifiable changes in conditions on the ground.”

I have no doubt that this is the policy – no normalization before changes – hence the ‘stop-go’ charts Gration always talks about. In a conversation I had on the plane across to Darfur with Gration, where I asked him what he thought of criticisms made of him for trying to normalize relations, he stopped me mid-sentence to correct me; “process towards normalization of relations” he said – trying to emphasize that this was a very different thing. As one official on the trip described it (more clearly) to me, Gration’s approach to engaging Khartoum is to dangle the carrot (cookie?!) of normalization vaguely in the distant future.

Regarding the part where Stephanie summarizes Gration as believing that many displaced Darfuris are dealing with “psychological stuff” that is leading to unhelpful mistrust of the government and preventing their return home, the official responding to the article comments that “Gration’s views are misrepresented and trivialized by the reporter.”

As I said, I wasn’t there for any “psychological stuff” comment, but I don’t doubt the direct quote is accurate – it sounds like Gration.  But note that the phrasing “unhelpful mistrust” is not in direct quotes.  What I did hear Gration say on these issues was the following [if there are transcription errors Gration’s office can correct me from the tape]:

“We have to realize that the Darfuri people have gone through, in the last 7 or 8 years, an absolutely unbelievable situation where they have been subjected to things that are unthinkable and totally  unacceptable. So I understand why they have such negative feelings toward the North and they believe the North can’t be trusted. I totally understand the rhetoric that I heard today. And if I had been in the South and if I had been in Darfur, I gotta tell you that I’d probably be saying exactly the same stuff. The luxury I have is that I didn’t live in the South and I didnt live in Darfur.”

With regards to the now-infamous cookies and gold-stars comments, the White House spokesperson says:

“This article wildly misrepresents the policy discussions that have occurred in the White House, with quotes that have been cobbled together out of context.”

Gration’s press officer was there taping the interview, so they can all look back at the actual transcript. But I would find it hard to say his comments were taken “out of context”. He was talking about his overall approach to trying to get behavioral change from Khartoum and analogized to the way you get kids to do things. Was it an inappropriate analogy for him to put on the record? Absolutely. That when pushed he followed it up with the quip of “It’s your job to work out how to not have it come across like that”  to the journalists indicated he may have had some inkling of that at the time (if not, he surely does now – just as he has probably realized that hoping a journalist will make something not sound like it sounded is a risky business). But contrary to what the White House spokesperson implies, Stephanie never made the claim that in reporting this quote she was representing it as “the policy discussions that have occurred in the White House.”

All this brings me back to the conclusion of my very first post after the trip – “Gration is facing a communications breakdown. In a situation like Darfur, where the IDPs in the camps are so networked into the global media and advocacy organizations this messaging problem is no superficial matter – it has a substantive impact on Gration’s work” (and for book-writing purposes it is this interconnectedness between policymakers, advocates, IDPs and the media that is so fascinating). Just as Gration spent so much of his time in Darfur trying to “clear up misunderstandings” with the IDPs, he has no doubt spent much of the past 24-hours dealing with the fallout of the “cookies” comments.  But this just restates the reality. The real question is, given this reality, what should be done?

My view, for what it’s worth, is that Gration is not nearly as naive about Khartoum as he is generally perceived to be. It’s just a function of the fact that when doing diplomacy using a strategy of engagement, you can’t talk publicly about all the misgivings you have about the regime you are trying to engage (that most advocates disagree with using a strategy of engagement is a separate issue, to be directed to Obama).  But the dis-connect between Gration and the camp-based IDPs is a real concern. Even if Gration were to go and read them his empathetic quote above, I don’t think they could, at this point, hear it from him.

I can’t see much way forward on this particular front other than delegating IDP issues to someone else (Gration’s portfolio is enormous and he would still have more than a full-time job dealing with everything else on his plate). I know people will stiffen at such a suggestion because it risks fragmentation of what desperately needs to be a ‘whole of Sudan’ policy, but I don’t at present have a better idea . . .

Comments

  1. It seems the administration has a pattern of floating trial balloons to see what the public reaction is before they make a move. Is it possible that Gration will sometimes hint at a policy the White House is considering, and then depending on public reaction they either walk it back or go forward with it? In other words, does the administration give Gration license to go further than Obama would in talking about normalizing relations with Khartoum, just to test the waters?

  2. You know, it would be lovely to think you are right, but I’m just not convinced there is that level of strategic coordination going on between Gration and the White House.

  3. Ok. So does that make him sort of a free agent? And does that imply that policy is partly being made on the fly – and partly by Gration himself?

  4. Bec Hamilton says:

    I wouldn’t call him a free agent – he has a few red lines set out for him, like he knows the Administration position on the arrest warrant means he can’t meet with Bashir. But beyond a few red lines there remains genuine disagreement on what Sudan policy should be, and instead of the Administration having come out with a strategy and said – here everyone, this is what the position is – they have stalled. In the interim, Gration has been the only public face for people to look at for clues as to what the Sudan policy might eventually be. And rather than sit and twiddle his thumbs while the review was ongoing, he decided to get stuck in. But it means he’s been operating in a vacuum, in the sense that anything he says we all jump on and wonder – is Administration-endorsed policy? Generally it’s not, but not (in my view) because Gration is actively going against the official policy, but simply because no uncontested version of official policy has been laid out.

Trackbacks

  1. […] announced today is what Gration himself has been talking about from the beginning with those “stop-go” charts . Of course he has undercut himself a painful number of times, and spoken to the media in ways […]

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