Sorry, Sudan

Article excerpt

Byline: Kevin Peraino

The United States has a long tradition of helping distant strangers. But many Americans now question our ability to do good in faraway lands. Few places are more remote--and troubled--than this one.

On the wall in the home office of Salva Kiir, the president of Southern Sudan, hang two oversize portraits--one of Jesus Christ and the other of himself. On his desk, between a pair of hippo bookends, Kiir has placed a copy of the Devotional Study Bible next to an edition of Robert Greene's self-help book, The 48 Laws of Power. A former guerrilla in a rebel army called Anya-Nya ("Snake Venom"), Kiir now heads Southern Sudan's autonomous government, which wrested a measure of independence from Khartoum five years ago. His regime has long been a darling of Western donors. During the Bush years, especially, Kiir's blend of defiant nationalism and Christian piety resonated among hardline Washington ideologues seeking to reshape the Sudanese balance of power. Even in the more sober Obama era, the U.S. has been pouring more than $300 million annually into Southern Sudan--part of a vigorous effort to bolster Kiir's government before a referendum on full independence from the predominantly Muslim north scheduled for early next year.

Yet despite the open aid tap, Kiir's ambitious reform project is in trouble. Rights activists warn that Sudan's 22-year civil war, which ended in 2005 after more than 2 million people had been killed, could erupt again. Consultants hired by the U.S. government complain that American institution-building efforts are failing. During a recent interview at the president's compound in Juba, Kiir looked sick and drawn, sniffling and wiping sweat from his brow with a crumpled tissue. (He explained that he had been tested for malaria that morning, and the results had come back negative.) Even if Kiir's men can manage to keep the peace through the secession vote, Western diplomats warn that the region is frighteningly unprepared for independence. Kiir worries that America, beset by its own domestic crises, is losing interest. "We have always believed that America can do anything," Kiir said one recent evening, wearing a beige safari suit and sandals as he welcomed a reporter to his home. "But in our case, it hasn't happened. They have so many other commitments now."

Southern Sudan is shaping up to be a critical test of America's ability to reform distant trouble spots. The reformist impulse in American foreign policy is an old one. Yet the nation-building debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan have prompted new and uncomfortable conversations about the limits of American power. In an era in which trillions of dollars in American wealth can suddenly disappear, deficit hawks are wondering whether the U.S. can still afford to fund ambitious improvement programs abroad. At the same time, recent studies have suggested that African development aid has done little to stimulate growth--and in some cases has done more harm than good.

The Sudanese nation-building effort is a project President Obama inherited from his predecessor, who had a deep commitment to Africa. The Bush administration helped craft the peace agreement that ended the war five years ago; since then, America has injected some $6 billion into the country. America is the largest single donor to Sudan, and Sudan is one of the top recipients of USAID disbursements, behind only Afghanistan and Pakistan. Addressing the U.N.'s Millennium Development Goals summit last week, Obama renewed America's promise of assistance to the devastated country: "As others show the courage to put war behind them--including, we hope, in Sudan--the United States will stand with those who seek to build and sustain peace."

Foreign correspondents used to joke that there was almost nothing made of metal in Southern Sudan except guns, ammo, and the occasional fish hook. At the end of the civil war there were only three miles of paved roads in the entire massive region, roughly the size of France. …