A crucial step

In a brief statement this afternoon, President Obama announced the appointment of Maj. Gen. J. Scott Gration to the position of special envoy for Sudan. This appointment comes almost exactly two weeks after the decision by the Sudanese government to expel 13 international aid organizations from Darfur. This is a critical time for Darfur, and it is heartening to see such a close advisor of the president appointed to fill this crucial role.

Despite some concerns about his lack of formal diplomatic experience, General Gration, a retired Air Force officer, brings a number of positive qualities to the position-let’s face it, you don’t become a general in the Air Force without learning diplomacy.

Perhaps the most important quality for General Gration is his close, personal friendship with President Obama. Having the ear of the President is critical for anyone who is tasked with addressing the issues in Sudan-as one of President Obama’s trusted advisors, General Gration will likely be reporting directly to the President and will be uniquely positioned to influence US policy toward Sudan.

Along with his friendship with President Obama, General Gration also has a close relationship with Africa. The son of missionaries, Gration was raised in the Congo where he and his family were frequently forced to flee outbreaks of violence-eventually becoming refugees themselves. General Gration is an expert on Africa, speaks Swahili fluently, and has worked on village projects in Uganda and other African nations. General Gration knows Africa; he isn’t going to need to spend months getting up to speed on the internal politics and cultural norms of Sudan-this will save valuable time; time that many in Darfur simply don’t have.

The appointment of an experienced combat pilot and military leader also sends a not-so-subtle message to the Bashir regime-the Obama administration has chosen to send a warrior instead of a bureaucrat. Bashir has a lengthy history of attempting to mislead or intimidate international representatives-neither tactic is likely to work with General Gration.

All things considered, what General Gration lacks in formal diplomatic experience is more than made up for by his impressive military career, his unique connection to Africa, and his close friendship to President Obama.

But none of that will matter if General Gration isn’t given the mandate and authority to really drive the Sudan portfolio. His appointment is a crucial step forward, but it comes at a critical time for the people of Darfur. General Gration’s first test will be how he handles the increasingly precarious humanitarian crisis.

Welcome, General Gration. It’s time to roll up your sleeves.

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