For most of us, if we have a bad headache following a New Year’s party, the pain usually ends sometime in the evening on January 1st.
Unfortunately for President Obama, he can expect a headache to start around January 9th, with no clear end date in sight. This won’t be a party-related headache, but a foreign policy-related one.
January 9th is when, if the foreign policy-watchers are correct, the people of South Sudan are expected to vote for independence from the rest of the country.
For many Americans, January 9th will be the first them they ever hear about this long-suffering patch of Africa. After enduring decades of civil war and extreme poverty, South Sudanese see independence as a ticket to something better.
Some foreign policy pundits see in this desire for independence a chance to strike a blow at the Islamic government in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital. If South Sudan separates, the country will be cut in two, and the prestige of the Khartoum government will take a hit.
Other pundits see South Sudanese independence as way to reduce Chinese influence in Africa. Much of Sudan’s energy resources are in the south, and Chinese firms are developing them. An independent government in the south, freed from the Islamic influences that dominate Khartoum, might prefer to work with Western oil companies to develop the new state’s oil fields. That new government could tell the Chinese work crews to return home.
I can understand the logic of these pundits. The logic is straightforward enough, and seems rooted in a game many of us played as children – Risk.
But President Obama cannot think of the world as a giant game board. He has to think through all the political and economic consequences for the US that will result from South Sudanese independence. I can see two potential headaches for him ahead, related to South Sudan.
When I visited South Sudan in 2008 and spent a couple of days in Juba, the city that would become South Sudan’s national capital. An Australian newspaper correspondent recently noted that Juba has a “lack of paved roads,” no “city water main” and that its residents endure “seemingly incurable electricity shortages.”
Judging from this report, nothing much has changed in Juba from 2008. The quality of life for the vast majority of people living in Juba is low enough to make other Third World cities look almost like paradise in comparison. Turning Juba into a city of simple lean-tos would have been a vast improvement on the old, worn tents in which many people lived, from what I saw.
If South Sudan declares independence and the US recognizes it, the US will immediately be under pressure to do more than just open an embassy.
Uncle Sam will be asked to open up his (empty) wallet to South Sudan, and keep it open for some time. The US will have to provide aid to pave roads in Juba, for starters. Then will come demands for US help to build schools, hospitals, libraries, etc. Then the US will be asked to send military trainers to get a new national army into shape.
All of this will cost money that Uncle Sam does not have. Nor will Uncle Sam be able to get firm assurances that the US funding will be used as promised. A scandal of some kind is almost guaranteed, with US money disappearing into secret bank accounts, as often happens when rich governments provide aid to poor ones.
This will provide ammunition to gleeful congressional Republicans for their pot-shots at the White House. Let’s call this headache #1.
If the new South Sudanese government does decide to kick out the Chinese oil companies after declaring independence (even if the US privately advises against it), then the Chinese government will no doubt blame Washington for this.
That won’t be very helpful within the context of the current US-Chinese economic relationship. The US needs goodwill from China for the foreseeable future to ensure the American economy doesn’t sputter back into recession. This is headache #2, and it is potentially far more painful than headache #1.
For some in the foreign policy establishment, South Sudanese independence will provide a reason to break out the champagne on January 9th. In President Obama’s case, he may want to make sure he’s got some aspirin by his bedside. He may need it.