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Why Trump’s recent move on Sudan could backfire

Trump's reelection gambit to coerce Sudan into normalizing relations with Israel may have long term negative consequences.

Analysis | Washington Politics

With time running out on his re-election campaign, U.S. President Donald Trump is looking for every victory he can get. His latest attempt to find one is his announcement Monday that he will be removing Sudan from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.

In exchange for this apparent largesse, Sudan will pay $335 million to address lawsuits brought by families of victims of terrorist attacks, perpetrated by al-Qaida and similar groups who were, in the 1990s, permitted to operate out of Sudan by the long-time dictator, Omar al-Bashir.

Bashir was overthrown in 2019 in a bloodless coup, but even he, according to the State Department’s own reports, had taken steps to confront groups the U.S. considered terrorists over the intervening years. Saudi Arabia, which has been credibly accused of a far bigger role in sponsoring terrorist groups, has been working to convince the U.S. to remove Sudan from the list for at least a year.

The money may seem like a small sum within a national budget, but Sudan’s GDP is expected to reach only $9.7 billion in 2020, the fifth consecutive year of significant decline. In 2021, it is expected to drop again, to a mere $6 billion. Out of such sums, $335 million in cash is a considerable loss.

Still, one could argue that the cash is an investment, if it means that Sudan is removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. That designation prevents it from getting the assistance it needs from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, aid that could help stabilize Sudan’s economy. Annual inflation hit 200 percent in September, and the Sudanese pound has plummeted from 82 to 262 against the dollar since the current transitional government came to power 13 months ago, so Sudan is desperate.

But the agreement comes with great U.S. pressure on Sudan to join the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in establishing diplomatic ties with Israel.

The question of establishing ties between Khartoum and Jerusalem is highly controversial in Sudan. It aggravates tension between the civilian aspects of the current government — which draws its support from a popular and idealistic base, rooted in the movement for a democratic Sudan — and the military, which is struggling to keep its hold on at least some of the power it once had before the popular uprising.

Nevertheless, the Trump administration insisted on normalization with Israel as a condition for removing Sudan from the state sponsors of terrorism list. Washington has apparently agreed to remove Sudan from state sponsors list and offer an aid package before Sudan agrees publicly to normalization. Expectations that normalization is coming within days are high.

For Israel, an agreement with Sudan will have great symbolic importance. Khartoum was the site of the Arab League’s famous “The No’s” in September 1967, when the League declared that its policy, in the wake of Israel’s devastating victory in the Six-Day War, would be “no peace with Israel, no negotiations with Israel, no recognition of Israel.”

Aside from the symbolism, a Sudan-Israel relationship offers little to either country in the short term. Sudan has a long road to stability, and there will certainly be popular hostility toward Israel for the foreseeable future if there is no end to the occupation of the West Bank and the siege on the Gaza Strip. There will be limited opportunities for trade or military cooperation.

Indeed, even for Trump, the potential gains here don’t seem very great. Removing Sudan from the state sponsors of terrorism list is certainly something he can tout as a boon to the Sudanese, but it’s hard to imagine many of his potential voters being moved by that point. Adding in the deal with Israel will appeal to many of his followers, but those are votes he already has, and a deal with Sudan is far less significant to those voters than other boons Trump has granted Israel in the past.

Congress’s role

Congress will need to agree to Sudan’s removal from the list, and the administration will need legislation to protect Sudan from future lawsuits stemming from its connection to various militant groups including al-Qaida, Hamas, and others in the 1990s to make the deal work. While most observers believe Bashir cut ties with al-Qaida well before the attacks of September 11, 2001, there are concerns about lawsuits from 9/11 families, a group which, for obvious reasons, members of Congress do not wish to anger.

Congress has been working to craft legislation that would end legal claims against Sudan for these long-ago associations, but it’s complicated. Democratic Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that urged him to work with Congress to find the right legislation to fulfill Trump’s promise to Sudan and to address the concerns over further lawsuits related to 9/11 and other attacks on American military and diplomatic targets, in addition to those covered by the $335 million payment.

Menendez, the Ranking Member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, seems eager to find a way to get Sudan off the list, but also warned Pompeo, “Absent an acceptable resolution, passage of the legislation will be extremely difficult and likely impossible to achieve regardless of any commitments or escrow arrangement between the [State] Department and Sudan.”

Both Democrats and some Republicans are likely to press concerns from the families of victims of attacks on U.S. facilities abroad, and their respective positions will be affected in different ways by electoral concerns. It will be a difficult knot to untangle, and with only two weeks before Election Day, there may not be enough time before the country finishes voting.

Meanwhile, the people of Sudan continue to suffer a punishment for crimes they did not commit. Sudan should have been removed from the state sponsors list long ago, and certainly by 2017, when the United States lifted most of the other sanctions on Sudan.

The state sponsors of terrorism list is, itself, a dubious document. When Sudan is removed, it will include only Iran, North Korea, and Syria while excluding several states — most notably Saudi Arabia — which are widely believed to be at least as active in supporting militant groups as any country.

Other countries like Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan have been listed by the United States as providing “safe havens” for terrorists, which is exactly what Sudan did to merit inclusion on the state sponsors list.

The arbitrary nature of the list illustrates how unfair Sudan’s inclusion is, especially after the demise of the Bashir regime. It should not cost an impoverished country hundreds of millions of dollars to be removed from such a capricious list. Nor should that country’s removal from the list depend on it taking steps that will imperil its fragile progress toward democracy and risk exacerbating existing tensions within the fledgling government. Once again, even when the Trump administration tries to do the right thing, its self-serving motivations end up doing more harm than good.

Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo meets with Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, in Khartoum, Sudan, on August 25, 2020. [U.S. Embassy Khartoum photo by Alsanosi Ali]
Analysis | Washington Politics
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