What will Bashir do next?

Congratulations Omar al-Bashir! You have just been indicted by the International Criminal Court on five counts of crimes against humanity and two counts of war crimes. You are the first sitting head of state to be wanted for arrest. Human rights groups, and even the ICC-skeptical United States, applaud the announcement. What are you going to do next?

There are two broad possibilities for how things might unfold. For the first time in history, the world will get to watch how a sitting head of state reacts to such damning charges.

First, there is defiance, and retaliation. The outcomes that Sudan watchers have feared are now on the table in the central African country. As the International Crisis Group writes in a statement today

Bashir’s regime has already issued veiled threats against the UN and AU missions in Sudan, the international humanitarian agencies operating there and Sudanese who support the ICC prosecution. It could also direct, or encourage, violence against the millions of displaced Darfuris living in camps in the war-torn region. There are signs that it may also declare a state of emergency and clamp down on internal political opposition, to show the Darfur rebel groups that they will not be able to use this development to their military and political advantage.

It could get ugly. In the worst-case scenario, experts see Bashir consolidating his power, kicking out aid workers, stepping up repression in Darfur, and even squashing the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the North and South signed just a few years ago.

But then again, as Luis Moreno Ocampo, the court's prosecutor, told FP just a few weeks ago, "For people in Darfur, nothing could be worse [than it is now]." Justice, at least, puts pressure on Bashir's upper cadre, and shows the people of Sudan that their leader is no longer immune. Negotiations with Darfur rebel groups, which were reopened on Feb. 17, will have to find a new interlocuter, says Ocampo. But that could be a good thing.

Overnight, the stakes have changed in Sudan. Justice looks possible, impuntity looks over, and internal unrest looks likely. What next?


Gordon Brown's lame White House visit

Commentators on both sides of the Atlantic have noticed that Gordon Brown's visit to the White House yesterday was not exactly the high-profile boost that the struggling prime minister was hoping for. In a break with protocol, Obama decided to skip the traditional side-by-side photo-op in front of the two nations' flags, didn't invite Brown to Camp David as both Clinton and Bush had done for Tony Blair, and kept their Oval Office press conference brief, to the point, and not all that cordial.

Dana Milbank, Washington's poet of awkward protocol, recounts the exchange between the two leaders:

Brown kept a stiff upper lip as he sat in the Oval Office yesterday as Obama, skipping the usual words of welcome for his guest, went straight to questions from the news services. Brown didn't get to speak for six minutes, after Obama had already answered two questions. Gamely, the snubbed premier tried to speak the president's language.

"I don't think I could ever compete with you at basketball," Brown said. "Perhaps tennis."

"Tennis? I hear you've got a game," Obama replied mildly.

"Yes, we could maybe have a -- have a shot," the prime minister went on.

"We haven't tried it yet," the president said.

"I don't know," Brown said. "I think you'd be better, but there we are."

Obama smiled faintly. Brown spent much of the session with both soles planted on the floor, his palms gripping his thighs.

The Guardian's Oliver Burkeman writes that the meeting "seemed to teeter on the brink of humiliation," for the prime minister noting that Obama had squeezed him in between a visit to the department of transportation and a meeting with representatives of the Boy Scouts. Obama's press secretary had actually set the mood a few days earlier:

Only days previously, the president's press secretary, Robert Gibbs, had caused consternation among British diplomats by referring to the special relationship as a "special partnership", which sounded rather non-committal - as if America were signalling that, henceforth, it wanted to be free to date other countries as well.

The Spectator's Fraser Nelson has a hilariously nasty take as well:

Brown looked like a groupie that had just been invited on stage as he sat in the Oval Office beaming from ear to ear beside the Messiah. It was a very different outcome to that he imagined: there was no podium to speak at, no formal press conference, no toothpaste sharing, none of the formalities that have been extended to Tony Blair. Brown was on the same losers chair that the soon-to-be-ex-Japanese PM was on last month.

So why did Obama snub Brown? Alex Massie speculates that Obama "has been briefed about the British press corps and sees no reason to humour them" with an extended press conference, but I think his motives are actually a bit colder. Obama's most powerful diplomatic weapon right now is his own international popularity, and he seems to be making it clear that he won't share it with just anybody. 

Obama giving the cold shoulder to Brown probably doesn't mean he has any less respect for the special relationship with Britain than any of his predecessors. More likely, and bluntly, he probably just thinks of Gordon Brown as a bit of a loser. Why roll out the red carpet for guys like Brown and Taro Aso who will likely be out of office soon anyway? Something tells me that when Dmitry Medvedev or Hu Jintao visit the White House, the Obamas will break out the good china.

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