WASHINGTON -- While a new administration is just getting started, history doesn't stop.
On Sudan and Darfur, Obama's Africa team has begun a lengthy policy review, and is mulling names for a special envoy to Sudan. But an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity was approved by the International Criminal Court (ICC) this week. And the administration suddenly faces an unprecedented question: Can a hunted war criminal also be a partner in the Sudan peace process?
While in government, I was skeptical of the usefulness of ICC indictments in situations such as Sudan. Indictments are a blunt diplomatic instrument -- once imposed, almost impossible to withdraw in exchange for concessions. They leave a thug in a corner -- less likely to negotiate and more likely to lash out at humanitarian groups and civilians. A dictator with no options is dangerous.
But I have changed my mind in the case of Bashir. The traditional carrots and sticks of diplomacy have failed. For decades, the Sudanese regime has been masterful at using minor concessions and delaying tactics, playing allies who want oil and critics with short attention spans, to achieve its genocidal ends. Bashir would like nothing better than to play another round in this game. The ICC warrant provides an opportunity to change the rules, holding Bashir personally responsible for achieving massive improvements, or personally responsible for committing massive crimes.
There are three predictable international reactions to the ICC arrest warrant against Bashir. -- Sudan's traditional enablers -- China, the Arab League, South Africa and other nations of the African Union -- will push the U.N. Security Council to defer enforcement. Sudan's current negotiations in Doha with Darfur rebels may result in apparent progress, including a rough framework for future peace talks. Supporters of Sudan will argue that this is reason enough to give Bashir a reprieve and some breathing room.
-- Britain and France, in contrast, will likely insist on the enforcement of the warrant to maintain the institutional credibility of the ICC itself.