WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration, elsewhere challenged by Iranian nuclear ambitions and North Korean brinksmanship, is on the verge of a major diplomatic achievement in Sudan. Barring technical failures that delay the vote, or unexpected violence, South Sudan will approve an independence referendum on Jan. 9. Six months later, a new flag will rise, a new anthem will be played. It is a rare, risky, deeply American enterprise: midwifing the birth of a new nation.
Even six years ago, this outcome seemed impossible. The mainly Muslim north and the mainly Christian south were engaged in a two-decade civil war that unleashed genocide, produced millions of refugees and took about three times as many lives as the American Civil War. But in 2005, the Bush administration brokered the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which created a government of national unity and promised an independence referendum for the south in 2011.
Even six months ago, the implementation of the CPA seemed unlikely. Electoral abuses in local contests had widened bitter, sometimes violent, divisions within the south. And Obama administration policy on Sudan was uncoordinated, ineffective and widely criticized.
But the summer of 2010 was a turning point. The administration was sobered by a prospect of a referendum in less than 200 days for which no one was prepared. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had been pushing to elevate the issue to the presidential level, demanding, according to one official, "one team, one fight." In August, President Obama declared that Denis McDonough, then the chief of staff on the National Security Council and now deputy national security adviser, would coordinate a unified government response. The administration's common approach, dubbed "the road map," publicly promised the regime in Khartoum a series of carrots -- reviewing its status on the state sponsors of terrorism list, beginning the lifting of sanctions and starting discussions on debt relief -- in exchange for allowing the south to go quietly. Sen. John Kerry carried messages and applied pressure in both Khartoum and the southern capital of Juba. It was an effective full court press.
Southern leaders rose to the moment, encouraging an internal dialogue that has reduced the level of conflict and violence in the south. And elements of the regime in Khartoum seem prepared for sullen acceptance of southern independence, calculating that the road map might lessen Sudan's isolation as a pariah state, and probably convinced that military re-conquest of the south is not an option anyway.