The Trump administration apparently sees America as dictatress of the world, which John Quincy Adams warned against two centuries ago. The people of Sudan are emerging from decades of dictatorship, but the Trump administration is treating the country as a puppet state. Rather than assist Sudan by eliminating economic sanctions which lost their justification years ago, Washington insists that the transitional government officially recognize Israel. If Khartoum genuflects, who knows what additional demands will follow?
The administration is using America’s economic clout to advance the Republican Party’s election agenda by browbeating North African Muslims to embrace Benjamin Netanyahu’s mistreatment of millions of Palestinians. Such is democracy promotion, Trump-style. So far the transitional Sudanese government has rejected the U.S. attempt at geopolitical extortion.
There isn’t a lot of good news when it comes to human liberty in the world today. There has been slippage, some significant, even in countries that have regular elections. And Washington has turned human rights into a political weapon, to be used against Trump administration adversaries, such as Iran, but ignored when addressing even more brutal allies, such as Saudi Arabia, which has been committing murder and mayhem in Yemen with US weapons and support. Indeed, some of the president’s closest international friends are ruthless dictators, such as Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and China’s Xi Jinping.
One bright spot is Sudan. In 1989 Gen. Omar al-Bashir staged a coup, replacing a tolerant democracy with a harsh Islamist state which spread bloody conflict throughout the region. Popular protests that began in December 2018 led to his ouster in a coup last year. Since then reformist civilians and hardline military officers have been working to create a new, hopefully democratic, government. The US should assist this process, but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cares more about the president’s reelection campaign than Sudan’s future.
In his early years in control Bashir hosted Osama bin Laden. Khartoum responded brutally to an insurgency in the south. Also murderous was ethnic, religious, and tribal conflict in Darfur and elsewhere. In response the US tagged the regime as a state sponsor of terrorism and imposed financial sanctions, and the International Criminal Court indicted Bashir for crimes against humanity.
Although Bashir continued to suppress domestic dissent and enforce Islamic law, he soon abandoned terrorism. He recognized that regime survival required staying out of Washington’s gun sites. Then Sudan accepted the Obama administration’s demand that Khartoum recognize the 2011 independence of South Sudan, sacrificing most of Sudan’s oil resources.
Nevertheless, sanctions persisted when the Obama administration reneged on its promises, unwilling to confront human rights activists who continued to target the Khartoum government. Only in January 2017, during his administration’s waning days, did Barack Obama finally suspend sanctions, an action made permanent by the incoming Trump administration.
Yet the state terrorism designation remained. The label, currently applied only to Sudan, Syria, North Korea, and Iran, no longer has any meaning since it is simply used to punish unpopular governments, which are prohibited from receiving foreign aid, purchasing weapons, buying "dual use" goods, and engaging in a potpourri of financial activities. For instance, Cuba long resided on the list even though it never engaged in terrorism. The label was a sop to Republican-leaning Cuban-Americans in Florida, who would have backed a nuclear attack on Fidel Castro’s residence if asked.
Syria was designated as a state sponsor of terrorism for 41 years, even though the admittedly oppressive Bashar al-Assad regime does not promote terrorism and has never threatened the US Being an enemy of Israel is all that matters to Washington.
North Korea last employed terrorism more than 30 years ago but was returned to the list last November as punishment for refusing Washington’s denuclearization demand. The relisting occurred during President Donald Trump’s "fire and fury" phase – when he was proposing genuine terrorism, nuclear war – before the exchange of "love letters" with the North’s Kim Jong-un. If Pyongyang really was a terrorist regime, why did the president celebrate the two leaders’ friendship?
Political, too, is Iran’s presence on the list. Tehran is an awful regime, but there are plenty of more tyrannical governments, starting with Saudi Arabia. Iran was added in 1984 and is routinely cited as the world’s worst sponsor of terrorism, but that has nothing to do with "terrorism" as commonly understood. Even the regime’s harshest critics don’t claim any direct involvement in any recent terrorist plots. Tehran’s chief adversary, Saudi Arabia, probably kills more civilians every week with Washington’s support than Iran does annually worldwide by itself. Obviously, the Trump administration’s fixation on Tehran has nothing to do with degree of evil represented or harm committed.
The chief complaint against Iran is that it underwrites Hezbollah and Hamas, quasi-governments engaged in conflicts that sometimes grow hot with Israel. Even today Washington supports far worse: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, United Arab Emirates. As claimed by the administration, Tehran deserves censure for engaging in assassinations, but they have never been considered terrorism. Anyway, Saudi Arabia does the same: two years ago its consulate in Istanbul became an abattoir, the site of the gruesome murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. And who can forget Washington’s multiple failed attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro and more successful killing of Iran’s Qasem Soleimani? Maybe Washington should designate itself as a state sponsor of terrorism.
Applying the label to Sudan is truly bizarre. Last year the State Department declared: "Sudan has taken steps to work with the United States on counterterrorism. Throughout 2019, despite political turmoil that led to the ouster of the former president and the formation in September of the [civilian transitional government], the Sudanese government continued to pursue counterterrorism operations alongside regional partners, including operations to counter threats to US interests and personnel in Sudan."
The ousted Bashir, no friend of humanity or liberty, set this course years ago. He even cut relations with Iran four years ago, which helped win removal of financial sanctions. Now an entirely new, and reform, government has taken his place. The only sensible policy would be to lift all economic sanctions and bolster Khartoum’s difficult move toward genuine, liberal, and stable democracy. The transition inevitably will be difficult. Why burden the Sudanese people with crimes committed years ago by a dictator who oppressed them?
Because the administration wants a pre-election boost, irrespective of the cost to Sudan.
With an election approaching Pompeo cares about little other than politics. How better to pose as a friend of Israel than to force the weak, unstable authorities in Khartoum to sign onto the Trump administration’s pro-Netanyahu campaign? In this case, that means agreeing to recognize Israel before Washington will remove its outdated and unjustified terrorist designation.
This is outrageous geopolitical extortion. But why stop there? Washington could demand a declaration of war against Iran, expeditionary troops to invade Venezuela, a promise to vote in lockstep with America at the United Nations, agreement to contribute even more forces for Saudi Arabia’s murderous war against Yemen, support for Washington’s global campaign against China, and more. Why let an opportunity slip by to turn Sudan into Washington’s all-purpose global factotum?
The problems with the attempted administration shakedown are many. First, continuing misuse of the terrorism designation further drains it of any meaning and blackens America’s reputation. The Trump administration already has pushed Europe toward Russia and China in desiring to create alternative payment systems to avoid US sanctions on everyone to enforce American demands big and small. In Sudan Washington is squeezing a vulnerable civilian administration attempting to move the country beyond dictatorship.
Second, in the long list of America’s priorities, getting Khartoum to play nice with Israel is no where near the top. The United Arab Emirates is an important state which shares a major interest with Israel, fear of Iran. Midwifing that agreement was an accomplishment. Brutalizing a small, more distant, vulnerable, and largely unimportant nation to follow suit is a bizarre misuse of influence. The administration is targeting Sudan simply because the transitional government is vulnerable to economic pressure.
Third, the reaction within Sudan to Washington’s demands has been hostile as anyone would expect. Reported the Washington Post: "Sudanese negotiators feared a rushed recognition of Israel, without a large-enough economic relief package to sweeten the deal, could turn popular support against Sudan’s precarious, unelected transitional government." Imagine how Americans would feel if another state was similarly attempting to take advantage of their nation’s weakness to advance its own political agenda. No one likes to be treated as of no account.
Perhaps the Trump administration mistakenly assumed that Bashir’s ouster triggered a wild outpouring of Zionism in Sudan, with the Sudanese people celebrating six decades of harsh Israeli rule over Palestinians and erecting monuments to Netanyahu across the country. Alas, it did not. There would be no better way to undermine Khartoum’s civilian authorities than to ostentatiously humiliate them and force them to publicly demonstrate their servitude to Washington by endorsing the continued mistreatment of millions of Arab Muslims.
Indeed, the administration is undermining an unsteady transitional government in which authority over foreign affairs is unsettled. The administration’s imperialistic move risks the new reform government, and especially the role of civilians, in the process. Cameron Hudson of the Atlantic Council called the issue "highly controversial," adding: "Were it not for the US, this would not be a topic of public debate."
The military cares little about embassies and is inclined to give in. Gen. Mohammed Dagalo, deputy head of the Sovereign Council, observed: "Now, whether we like it or not, the removal is tied to" normalization. However, civilians must worry about democratic legitimacy. Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok told the visiting Pompeo, perhaps America’s most political secretary of state: the issue "needs a deep discussion within our society." An unnamed Sudanese official complained to the Post of "pure blackmailing" which "is potentially undermining the transitional government."
Pushing the new authorities to subordinate themselves to the administration’s election agenda risks further political upheaval, which could further empower the military, the greatest stumbling block to reform. Warned Jeffrey Feltman of the United Nations Foundation: "if normalization is seen as resulting from exploitation of Sudan’s economic and humanitarian desperation, it will be even more polarizing among the public, accelerate the erosion of support for the transition, and expose the prime minister to the machinations of those within Sudan who are opposed to reform and, ironically, to the very regional actors that Israel and the [United Arab Emirates] view as their primary adversaries." But democracy is of little concern to a president who celebrates his ties with ostentatious oppressors from Mohammed bin Salman to XI Jinping.
Also tied up in the talks is a $335 million court settlement over Sudan’s involvement in the 1998 al-Qaeda attack on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. This issue could become as problematic as the terrorism designation. Observed Hudson: "Without legal peace, the families of victims from the US embassy bombings in East Africa in the 1990s, with enforceable legal judgments against Sudan, will soon be empowered to deny Sudan access to US capital markets, pursue any asset of Sudan found in the United States, and impede potential business deals through a discovery and subpoena process – effectively dampening any potential US investments in the country and negating may of the curative effects of being removed from the terrorism list."
Some legislators nevertheless demand that Sudan be held accountable. Yet Khartoum essentially has gone through geopolitical bankruptcy. Today the country looks nothing like the Sudan of 22 years ago. Under Bashir Sudan abandoned terrorism and made peace with southern rebels; a popular uprising ousted him; an unstable civilian/military authority is attempting to chart a new political path; last week the transitional authorities signed a peace accord with several largely non-Arab rebel groups.
The current government’s most important priority is not satisfying Trump’s election imperatives but meeting its own people’s needs. Noted Jonas Horner of the International Crisis Group: "Sudan’s economy is in freefall and here has been limited international assistance." The desperately poor nation, subject to brutal US sanctions for decades, is a mess. Where is the transitional regime to find hundreds of millions of dollars to pay the world’s richest nation, which maintains sanctions for nonexistent terrorist activity?
One of the great ironies of a president who proclaimed his policy to be "America First" has been to place the US last in formulating Middle Eastern policy. At almost every turn Trump has subordinated what is best for America to other government’s interests – assisting Saudi Arabia in destroying Yemen, subsidizing Egypt as it becomes a prison state, and squeezing Sudan’s reform government to overlook Israeli oppression of Palestinians.
Of course, it would be good for peace and stability if Arab nations reconciled themselves to Israel’s existence. So too with Khartoum. Indeed, the Sudanese have taken some steps toward rapprochement. Earlier this year Sudan’s de facto head of state/government, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, met with Netanyahu. Khartoum then allowed Israeli airliners to fly through Sudanese airspace.
However, the more dramatic and public step of inaugurating relations requires at least public acquiescence, if not support. Even if the government agreed to relations they wouldn’t survive if resisted strongly by important political interests and factions.
It is worth remembering the so-called May 17 Agreement negotiated in 1983 between Israel and Lebanon, which envisioned peace and normal diplomatic relations between the two states. However, Lebanese Muslims opposed the deal and the Christian-dominated central government, embroiled in a civil war in which the Reagan administration foolishly intervened, collapsed. Along with it went the normalization process. Today Lebanon turns away visitors whose passports contain an Israeli stamp.
The administration should eliminate purposeless sanctions which hobble Sudan’s future Noted Feltman: "Washington’s first priority should be a successful transition in Sudan and the creation of a unified government with popular legitimacy that’s able to make the type of historic decision that an Israeli-Sudanese peace agreement would be." But that requires leaving the decision to Khartoum rather than attempting to impose it from Washington.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.