Part of the problem of Sudan-US bilateral relations during the past few decades is that the professional diplomats have very little say in crafting an American policy towards Sudan. It was the lobbyists, activists and NGOs who played a crucial role especially after the outbreak of the second civil war.
With advent of the Ingaz regime and the escalation of that war those groups consolidated their efforts in a simplistic way mainly the Christian lobby that looked at the struggle as a persecution of Christians, and the Black Caucus that looked at it as targeting Africans by the Arabs, in addition to the liberals and human right activists, who are critical of Sudan’s human rights record.
The peak of this was the 2005 comprehensive peace deal that put to end two decades of civil war. The professional diplomats led by then Special Envoy John Danforth were of the opinion that the United States should pressure the rebel SPLM to give unity a chance and vote for it in the upcoming referendum. By doing so it would ensure having the South run its on affairs at the time it has a significant share in the central government, thus dilutes any Islamic extremist tendencies, and in addition the United States will not bear the moral responsibility of looking after the new state if the southerners vote for separation to have their new state.
The lobbyists and activists on the other hand were keen on separation and they got their way.
The bitter experience of the new South Sudan state led to some revisiting, where the professional diplomats started to raise their voice that bilateral relations should be based on mutual interests. The review conducted by the Obama administration and the partial lifting of sanction was the clearest signal in this respect. Then came the Atlantic Council report released last month on re-engagement as another example of this trend.
However, two troubling signs started to emerge out of late. The State department seems to be going through difficult times during the Trump administration that is putting into question its ability to perform its duties. The department is continuously undermined by statements and actions from the White House in addition to a 30 percent cut in its budget, at the time the majority of its senior positions remain unfilled and even growing number of career diplomats are leaving in droves and those staying suffer from lack of direction due to lack of policy.
So at the time the chance has arrived for the US professional diplomats take the upper hand in deciding about Sudan policy, their own house that is the State department seems to be waiting for a savior to put it back into order and functioning.
Then came the other troubling signal of nominating former governor and congress-man Sam Brownback as ambassador at large and envoy on religious freedom. He was one of 30 governors, who objected to Obama’s policy of resettling 10,000 Syrian refugees in addition to pushing for anti-Sharia bill aimed at keeping state courts and government agencies from using Islamic legal code and non-US laws when making decisions. During his term in the congress, Brownback was one of key figures in the Christian lobby that was supporting the SPLM and adopted positions anti to Sudan. He also visited Darfur during the heydays of rebellion in 2004 and helped pushing that Washington declare that a genocide was taking place in the region. So unlike his predecessors Brownback is not expected to adopt a low profile approach to his new assignment given his track record and passion towards the issue.
Moreover, his appointment puts under light the three issues added to the five tracks that the Obama administration worked out with Sudan and based in its performance it enacted a partial lifting of sanctions. Following the extension of the final decision by the Trump administration on sanction up to October, the State department and in a background briefing to journalists added the religious freedom, human rights and sticking to UNSC decisions on North Korea.
However, despite assurances conveyed to the foreign minister Ibrahim Ghandour from senior officials at the State department that sanctions will be lifted finally in October, but with the presence of Brownback such promise should not be taken for granted. And Sudan needs to work on a worst case scenario and see how to approach these new challenges and more important how to achieve a home grown peace with its people.
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