Punishing Sudan Is Not a Strategy

But Engaging a Bad Regime Could Make It Better

Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir at the presidential palace at Khartoum, Sudan, January 17, 2017. Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah / Reuters

On a bitterly cold Washington morning eight years ago, a newly sworn-in president took to the inaugural podium and leveled a challenge to the world’s worst governments. “Know that you are on the wrong side of history,” a resolute Barack Obama said, “but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” In the years that followed, Obama followed through on his pledge by initiating strategic openings to both Iran and Cuba. In the final weeks of his presidency, he likewise announced a shift in policy on Sudan—another country with which the United States has long had hostile relations—including the easing of sanctions. He was right to do so, and now President Donald Trump should carry forward what his predecessor started.

Although the move came conspicuously late in Obama’s tenure, it is in fact the culmination of an initiative that began nearly two years ago through a series of bilateral talks. The initiative marked a recognition that Washington stood a better chance to achieve its goals in Sudan through a smarter, more flexible diplomacy—one that combines both pressure and engagement.

A corrupt and brutal regime has held sway in Sudan for a quarter century. It concentrated power in its capital city while marginalizing and violently suppressing citizens in outlying regions—Darfur, the Nuba Mountains, and Southern Sudan. For two decades, Washington pursued a policy dominated by economic sanctions, pressure, and isolation. The goal was to force Sudan’s regime to change, and, if that failed, to force regime change. And for two decades, that policy failed: Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s government has not undertaken the domestic reforms necessary to create a peaceful and more inclusive system of governance, nor has it been dislodged.

Washington’s punitive approach was lacking in two ways. First, pressure works best when it is applied in conjunction with a full range of global actors. And second, it must be complemented by a strategy to engage

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