(Bloomberg Opinion) — Even on those rare occasions when the Trump administration makes the right call on foreign policy, it’s usually the wrong way, and for the wrong reasons. Its decision to take Sudan off the U.S. list of states that sponsor terrorism is a perfect example. A deserved reward for good behavior was given in a way that will undermine the credibility of Sudan’s well-meaning transitional government.
President Trump announced on Monday — via Twitter, natch — that the delisting would take place as soon as the government in Khartoum completed payment of $335 million in compensation to the families of Americans killed in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole and 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Those attacks by Al Qaeda were planned during the period Osama bin Laden was given sanctuary in Sudan by its dictator Omar al-Bashir.
Delisting is the right call, as I have long argued. Bashir was ousted last year by pro-democracy protests. Sudan is currently ruled by a transitional government, with power shared between civilians and the military. It is led by Abdalla Hamdok, a former United Nations economist.
The government isn’t perfect — the presence of military men in it is cause for alarm — but its performance has surpassed reasonable expectations. Hamdok has unleashed astonishing social and political reforms, exceeding the ambitions of other self-proclaimed reformers in the Arab world. These include abolishing the law against apostasy, ending punishment by flogging, criminalizing female genital mutilation and loosening prohibitions on the sale and consumption of alcohol.
Perhaps most astonishing of all, he has effectively ended 30 years of Islamic rule in Sudan, by agreeing to separate faith from the state.
Khartoum has also committed to an economic reform plan endorsed by the International Monetary Fund. And the transitional government has agreed on a deal with rebel groups, which allows for optimism about a lasting peace after decades of ethnic and religious blood-letting.
These feats are the more remarkable for being executed even as the Sudanese economy, poorly managed during the long dictatorship, struggled with the impact of the coronavirus epidemic: Inflation exceeded 210% in September, with the economy expected to shrink by 7.2% this year. This progress more than qualifies Khartoum for special consideration by the U.S. government and by the IMF, which has been slow to restructure Sudanese debt.
An administration more alert to the developments in Khartoum would have recognized the transitional government’s efforts months ago, and dropped the terror-sponsor designation. The compensation claim could have been pursued without it, and the government might have been better able to overcome the hesitation of foreign lenders.
Instead, President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, seeking foreign policy successes ahead of the presidential election, leaned on Sudan to join the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in normalizing relations with Israel. Hamdok was reluctant to go that far, but seems to have succumbed to the pressure.
It is conceivable, given the boldness of his other reforms, that Hamdok would have eventually agreed to diplomatic relations with Israel without American bidding. But now, he will appear to have done so under duress, which will undermine the credibility of the Sudanese-Israeli normalization.
It will also hurt the prime minister’s credibility: His critics can tar him as an American stooge. As to whether the timing of the announcement will move the needle for Trump on Nov. 3 — color me skeptical.
Having bowed to Pompeo’s bullying, the Sudanese are now counting on the Trump administration for quick economic relief. “We all know that Sudan is witnessing hardship and needs urgent assistance, so the U.S. would help with a package of aid and some money,” Finance Minister Heba Mohammed Ali told Bloomberg in a phone interview from Khartoum.
She shouldn’t hold her breath. Having done the delisting in the wrong way and for the wrong reasons, the Trump administration is unlikely to expend any energy to make sure it pays off for Sudan. But the removal of the American obstacle might inspire debtors to give Hamdok a break. And maybe, just maybe, it will allow the government in Khartoum to scrounge up some vital investments. Deserving better from the U.S., Sudan must take what it can get.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and Africa.
For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com/opinion
Subscribe now to stay ahead with the most trusted business news source.
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.