The Dissent Channel: American Diplomacy in a Dishonest Age
By Elizabeth Shackelford
Review by Robert Whitehead
In the increasingly polarized politics of 21st Century America, bipartisan cooperation on diplomatic initiatives has become a rara avis. The successful establishment of an independent South Sudan was a notable exception. The administration of George W. Bush helped broker a cease fire between the government in Khartoum and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) in 2003 that led to the signature of the Naivaisha Accord in 2005. This agreement ended a half-century of armed conflict between the North and South and established a road map containing the formula for the future independence of the South. The Obama administration engaged in turn, and in July, 2011 the southern capital Juba celebrated the independence of the Republic of South Sudan, the world’s newest nation. Two years later South Sudan collapsed into a spiral of renewed conflict, this time between factions in the South.
Elizabeth Shackelford, who was posted in Juba at the time at the American Embassy as the the consular and human rights officer, chronicles in her book the disintegration of the elected government of South Sudan and the violence and ethnic cleansing that followed. Shackelford writes well, and her narrative offers a vivid first-person history of what transpired. Vignettes of her interactions with embassy colleagues, officials in the South Sudanese government and the diplomatic community resident in Juba are on target. Anyone with past experience in Juba will recognize at once this cast of characters. Some individuals nearly leap from the page. Occasional factual mistakes crop up – for instance, Vice President Riek Machar earned a PH.D. in mechanical engineering, not philosophy – but these do not detract seriously from the narrative. Shackelford emerges from behind her words as a smart, scrappy and compassionate individual.
Shackelford clearly intends this book to be more than a historical record of events. Her underlying theme is the moral imperative to make human rights the foundation of America’s foreign policy. She introduces this concept early on in a chapter, set in the macrocosm, that lists the successive failures of recent American presidents in the domain of human rights, starting with Richard Nixon and concluding with Donald Trump. She details the shortfalls of each administration: Nixon and the “Machiavellian” Kissinger in Chile, Argentina and Viet Nam; Ronald Reagan in seeking to reverse Jimmy Carter’s attempts to make human rights the cornerstone of foreign policy; George H.W. Bush for lip service to human rights while downplaying them in practice; Bill Clinton in Somalia, and Rwanda; George W. Bush in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo; Barack Obama in Libya and by the expansion of the drone program; and Donald Trump “flattening weddings, funerals and community events” with errant airstrikes. Jimmy Carter is partially spared for moving human rights front and center in foreign policy, although “his record was mixed when it came to action.”
This human rights theme recurs throughout the book on various levels. At one point, Shackelford states that when human rights and capitalism come head to head, commercial interests prevail. She cites the Barbary Wars, the 1853 Perry naval expedition to open by force Japanese markets to the United States, the 1898 annexation of Hawaii for sugar interests and 20th century meddling in Latin America in support of big fruit. At another juncture, she offers a paragraph apiece to major American successes in global leadership and human rights: the Marshall Plan, arms control and nuclear proliferation, the Camp David Accords, German reunification and the Paris Climate Accord. Shackelford admits that this is the view from forty-thousand feet, but it is also a prominent weakness of the book. An author is entitled to tout his or her values or express his or her point of view, but the rapid shift from the daily grind at Embassy Juba to global initiatives, which have generated tomes of scholarly work, and the jump from daily routines in South Sudan to racing through decades of history on a single page, is structurally challenging and can disorient of the reader.
Shackelford also places human rights front and center in the microcosm of Juba, and rightly so. She traces the origin of the conflict by quoting a minister allied with President Salva Kiir that “(we southerners) need an enemy because that is our history, so we look for new enemies.” This rehash of the old proverb that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” is apt. The long-term enemy of the South was the Arab leadership of Khartoum, but with its withdrawal in 2011, old ethnic and regional cleavages resurfaced, especially between the Dinka supporting Kiir and the Nuer backing Machar. Shackelford blames flawed policies of the United State and the United Nations for allowing this to happen, especially the failure to foster an institutional national army. This is a questionable assertion, as both Kiir and Machar facilitated the return to Juba of warlords and their private militias, most of them Nuer, without informing the SPLM’s outside supporters that this initiative was underway. The militias changed uniforms upon arrival, but not allegiances, and continued to follow the orders of their respective warlords. Subsequent outside attempts to amalgamate these factions into an institutional military force came too late and with too little. This chain of events was the fatal flaw.
The author takes exception with what she perceives as a toothless U.S. policy toward the Kiir government’s abuse of its citizenry. She charges that we have systematically ignored corruption, misgovernance and violation of human rights. She unleashes her frustration at senior policymakers that handled, or were handling, the South Sudan dossier. She singles out in particular former U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations Susan Rice, a longtime supporter of South Sudan, not only for ignoring Rwandan and Ugandan human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but also for also going easy on Kiir. She is equally frank in her assessment of Hilde Johnson, the former Norwegian Minister of International Development who became the first United Nations Special Representative to Juba after independence, and was there when conflict re-erupted, for refusing to take meaningful action against Kiir that might have forestalled subsequent events. American Ambassador Susan Page, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Senior Director at the NSC Gayle Smith come in for less trenchant criticism. Only Samantha Powers, who replaced Susan Rice at the UN, is credited for saying mostly the right things.
The United States has been the most generous donor to South Sudan, even before its independence, and Shackelford argues that the failure to leverage these resources to force change on the SPLM government was a squandered opportunity. This is possible, although cutting humanitarian aid, the largest component of U.S. assistance to a perpetually food-deficit country with scant medical or educational infrastructure, would have hurt the average person far more than elites with access to oil revenues. The government in Juba might have felt the pinch in other areas where there was demand — certainly in the military sector– but it is questionable how many concessions could have been leveraged from supply-driven resources for environmental and social programs backed by Washington constituencies, but for which there was limited government buy-in.
The book’s final chapters follow Shackelford as she departs Juba, takes a position in Washington, prepares a dissent cable calling for a different and more muscular policy towards South Sudan, leaves for the Nairobi Embassy to work with the office handling U.S. affairs in Somalia and ultimately ends up in Mogadishu. In the meantime, the dissent message has gone nowhere, and Donald Trump is elected president. Within a year, Shackelford sends a letter to then-Secretary of State Tillerson resigning from the Department of State and suggesting that he might consider the same (which later occurred, albeit by tweet rather than a letter). Despite the hopscotching structure of the narrative, the book is worth reading. It would be especially useful for those interested in joining the State Department because it provides a ground-floor view of how the State Department functions, and a primer for how things do or do not work. For those who follow events in Sudan and South Sudan, the narrative documents a pivotal chapter in the history of South Sudan, whether or not the reader agrees with Shackelford’s extraneous views.
Robert Whitehead, a career diplomat, was U.S. Ambassador to the Togolese Republic. He worked in Africa for 24 years and was assigned to Sudan three times, first as Chargé d’affaires in 2004-2005 during the Naivasha negotiations; subsequently as the first Consul General to Juba in 2006; and lastly as Chargé d’affaires in Khartoum from 2009-2011. He departed two weeks after the independence of South Sudan. He completed a recall to service in 2020 and has now re-retired to Florida.