With its dying breath, the Obama administration delivered a parting shot to Donald Trump and decided to provisionally lift economic sanctions against Sudan after almost 20 years, citing “progress” in areas of human rights, ceasing hostile activities against the population, and counterterrorism. Besides having zero correlation with events on the ground in Sudan, this outlook belies a troubling reality: by normalizing bilateral relations, Obama is threatening national security by giving free rein to terrorist groups.
The government of Sudan has a long history of supporting terrorists. Sanctionswere first imposed by President Bill Clinton in 1997 on suspicions that Sudan had a hand in terrorism throughout the region. The regime of Omar al-Bashir hosted and supported a number of Islamic terrorist groups, including Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network, as well as extremists backed by Iran. Further sanctions were instituted in 2003, when Bashir responded to a rebellion in Darfur by slaughtering tens of thousands of civilians. Bashir was also charged with genocide by the International Criminal Court -- but has refused to accept the verdict and has managed to elude justice ever since the arrest warrant was issued.
Now, after decades of animosity, Obama has engineered a rapprochement. But this cessation of sanctions shines a bright light on Obama’s hypocrisy, as the former president himself had once been an advocate of stopping the genocide perpetrated by the murderous Bashir regime. In 2006, then-senator Obama spoke at the Save Darfur Rally to Stop Genocide, saying that “silence, acquiescence, and paralysis in the face of genocide is wrong.” He also remarked on the issue in 2008 during his presidential campaign, vowing not to “abandon the people, or turn a blind eye to slaughter.” Now, with the lifting of sanctions, Obama has done exactly that. His mendacity is exacerbated by the fact that Sudan remains on the list of state sponsors of terror, where it has been since 1993.
As justification for lifting sanctions, the Obama administration cited cooperation on counterterrorism and a reduction in hostilities. But reality tells a different story. Far from working towards peace, the Bashir government continues its genocidal campaign of killing, raping, and pillaging in Darfur in other regions of Sudan. Basic freedoms are suppressed, thousands of innocent people rot in prison, and torture is widespread. Sudan continues to fuel civil war in neighboring South Sudan by arming insurgents. Despite Obama’s claim that Sudan has cooperated on combatting terrorism, Bashir continues to support radical jihadists. The regime uses so-called “Peace Forces” -- which it pretends are for combatting illegal immigration -- to escort terrorists from Libya to Darfur. Such terrorists reportedly include members of Boko Haram and ISIS. From there, extremists have spread to Chad and the Central African Republic, further destabilizing the region.
Additionally, tens of thousands of terrorists from across Africa and Syria are present in training camps throughout Sudan. Whatever improvements the country has made are merely cosmetic, meant to entice the U.S. into ending sanctions while continuing to wreak havoc in the region. Predictably, Obama had just enough time left in office to fall right into Bashir’s trap.
The timing of the rapprochement is unfortunate, as Sudan’s economy is in dire straits. After the South achieved independence in 2011, oil revenues for Bashir’sregime plummeted. With the regime starved for cash and the economy ailing,discontent is brewing among the country’s citizens. It is likely only a matter of time before Bashir is forced to institute reforms or step down from power. But now, without the sanctions, Bashir will be given a vital economic lifeline with which to sustain his reign of terror in Sudan and beyond. With most sanctions gone, the U.S. is essentially depriving itself of a valuable tool for forcing genuine change in the country.
Obama got played by Bashir’s phony counterterrorism cooperation -- and it wasn't the first time he allowed an African president to take advantage of the United States in the name of the War on Terror. Because his country hosts the biggest American military base in Africa, President Ismail Omar Guelleh of Djibouti has been able to act like a loan shark towards Washington. After he got Obama to agree in 2015 to a doubling of the rent paid for Camp Lemonnier, Guelleh shamelessly evicted a secondary American outpost in order to make room for an even bigger Chinese naval base. On top of that base, Djibouti has also inked a number of economic partnerships with Beijing, prompting the country’s finance minister to blurt out that “China is much more important than any other long-standing partner.” It’s unclear why the U.S. keeps doling out more than $7 million in aid every year to Djibouti when faced with this overt hostility from the country’s government. The removal of sanctions on Sudan was just the latest episode in a series of embarrassing missteps.
Fortunately, the sanctions relief is not yet set in stone. There will be a six-monthprobation period to ensure continued progress on human rights and terrorism, after which the embargo may be reinstated. At the point, it will be up to Donald Trump to decide the fate of Bashir’s regime. Trump should heed his campaign promises and make fighting jihadi terrorists Washington’s number one foreign policy priority -- and keeping sanctions against Sudan should be a part of that strategy.
Encouragingly, his team of advisers is already taking a step in the right direction. It seems that the Trump administration will restructure the State Department to devote more resources to fighting terrorism. This includes strengthening the department’s Bureau of Intelligence Research, which produces critical analytical work despite being overshadowed by other intelligence agencies. In another encouraging sign, Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson called fighting terrorism, especially in terms of defeating ISIS, “the clear priority.”
With Obama now out of office, it will be up to Trump to change course. The new president should use the six-month review period to revoke Obama’s decision to lift sanctions on Sudan. Such a move would help fight global terrorism and bring an end to Obama’s legacy of letting America get played by tyrannical African leaders.