A camp for internally displaced people that started after a civil war broke out more than two years ago in Juba, South Sudan, on March 3, 2016. (Photo: Tyler Hicks / The New York Times)
Beginning in the 1980s, the efforts of an eclectic, bipartisan coalition of American supporters — Washington activists, evangelical Christians, influential congressional representatives, celebrities, a presidential administration focused on regime change and nation-building, and another that picked up the mantle — helped “midwife” South Sudan into existence.
Perhaps no country in Africa received as much congressional attention. And on July 9, 2011, its Independence Day, President Barack Obama released a stirring statement. “I am confident that the bonds of friendship between South Sudan and the United States will only deepen in the years to come. As Southern Sudanese undertake the hard work of building their new country, the United States pledges our partnership as they seek the security, development, and responsive governance that can fulfill their aspirations and respect their human rights.” In August 2012, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking in Juba, was emphatic that the US “commitment to this new nation is enduring and absolute in terms of assistance and aid and support going forward.”
What are the ongoing obligations of a midwife? How solid are the bonds of friendship between the United States and South Sudan? How solemn was Obama’s pledge of partnership and Clinton’s of enduring support?
For years, the United States has dumped untold billions of dollars into regime-change operations, nation-building schemes, military interventions, and interminable wars in the Greater Middle East. Iraqis and Afghans, Syrians, Libyans, and Yemenis have grappled with the consequences. South Sudan was a different type of American intervention, but the results turned out to be sadly similar for its people.
The United States provided some roads and electricity, built up the army, and poured a great deal of money into the new nation. Now, it’s reduced to providing humanitarian aid as part of an international effort to fend off the famine that’s forever knocking on the young country’s door. For all I know, the red beans [a boy I encountered] was picking out of the dirt [around a makeshift airport in South Sudan] were “from the American people” — as big bags of US Agency for International Development sorghum, rice, lentils, and other emergency staples are branded the world over.
But is that enough?
Is it enough for a man to feel ashamed and leave a rail-thin child to pluck spilled beans from the dirt? Is it enough for a country to pledge enduring commitment and instead provide just enough food aid to keep the nation it fostered on life support? This is not to say that the United States has offered a trivial sum.The approximately $1.3 billion spent on relief efforts since the country plunged in civil war in 2013 is significant.At least until you realize that a year of ineffective efforts bombing the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria cost about three times that amount.
“The United States will support the people of South Sudan as they begin the implementation process, but it is imperative that the parties remain committed to peace,” National Security Advisor Susan Rice announced on August 26, 2015, after a peace deal was signed between Salva Kiir and Riek Machar. “Together, we must help South Sudan implement the agreement, to stave off famine, to stand steadfast and united against those who block the path to peace, and to hold accountable those who have committed atrocities.”
Since the civil war began, American officials have made a series of similar statements to little effect. Whether this peace deal holds or crumbles like the many cease fires before it, the United States faces a choice: Will it lavish the sort of taxpayer dollars it normally devotes to war-making on its foster child or will it leave this fledgling, fractured country with beans, platitudes, and little else?
TRUTHOUT PROGRESSIVE PICK
Nick Turse talks to the people who have managed to survive the grim reality of modern warfare in South Sudan.
“The United States will continue to support the aspirations of all Sudanese,” declared President Obama at the close of his statement on South Sudan’s Independence Day in 2011. “Together, we can ensure that today marks another step forward in Africa’s long journey toward opportunity, democracy, and justice.”In nation-building projects from Afghanistan to Iraq, military interventions from Libya to Yemen, military aid efforts from Mali to Burkina Faso, the United States has turned out to be remarkably inept when it comes to providing opportunities, the basics for democratic polities, or justice of any imaginable kind. Invariably, such normally military-oriented or -led American endeavors have ended in failure, disappointment, and in a number of cases outright fiasco.
As South Sudan was midwifed into nationhood “by any means necessary,” atrocities from the 1990s and earlier were swept under the rug, only to have them resurface in recent years. Will history repeat itself? Will the United States and its international partners make every conceivable effort “to hold accountable those who have committed atrocities” in order to help achieve a permanent peace? Or will they take an easier road — one that silences the guns of today only to have them ring out anew with even greater fury at the dawn of some distant tomorrow — or perhaps even sooner? It remains to be seen whether the United States will “stand steadfast,” step back, or walk away from the nation it spent so much time and effort ushering into existence — and whether it matters at all what course South Sudan’s foster parent charts.