Nearly six months of peaceful civilian-lead protests in Sudan succeeded in April in casting aside thirty years of brutal dictatorship. But with an economy flatlining and government institutions crumbling in the wake of decades of corruption and neglect, Sudanese of all stripes remain in the streets demanding the kind of democratic transition that eluded so many of their neighbors in the years since the Arab Spring began.
For nearly twenty years, the United States has been on this ride with Sudan—coercing, cajoling, and engaging the Sudanese to make peace with themselves and others. When US President George W. Bush appointed our first special envoy for Sudan, Republican Sen. John Danforth of Missouri, in the days preceding the September 11 attacks, Sudan was already a pariah state. On the US State Department’s list of State Sponsors of Terrorism—where it remains—Omar al-Bashir’s regime had played host to al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, supported the attack on the USS Cole, and attempted to assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
And yet, what Danforth and Bush knew was that if we wanted to address our own national security concerns in arresting the spread of Islamic extremism those efforts would necessarily have to occur in places like Sudan. In his parting report to the president, Danforth argued that the United States should not “own” any peace process in Sudan but be “cooperative and catalytic” to it, using our “energetic and effective” diplomacy. For nearly twenty years since, Danforth’s formula has characterized the US approach to Sudan. Until now.
Since Danforth, five subsequent US special envoys have worked to curtail violence in Darfur, avoid a new civil war and ensure the peaceful separation of South Sudan, and establish a robust counterterrorism relationship to safeguard US interests. Success has not been unmitigated, but it did earn the United States the reputation as a peacemaker and even a partner in maintaining stability in the volatile headwaters where the Arab and African worlds collide.
Today, Sudan is at another crossroads and the need for “cooperative and catalytic” US leadership is no less great. But at this perilous moment, where there is an opportunity for the Trump administration to summon years of built up leverage to ensure a lasting transition to democratic rule and regional stability in Sudan, will Washington answer the call? So far the answer seems to be no.