Nearly lost in the interregnum between Donald Trump’s election and inauguration, as we watched Democrats finally getting worked up about Russia’s role in the world and Hillary Clinton’s supporters questioning the legitimacy of Trump’s victory, President Obama did something truly shocking on his way out the door.
With minimal explanation, the outgoing president eased sanctions on Sudan.
It’s not clear why Obama did this, but it’s clear to many of those in the region that this move, unless reversed by President Trump, will harm poor people who face terror and have nothing.
Last Friday’s announcement is yet another instance of Team Obama needlessly hamstringing the new administration on a critical foreign-policy issue. The facts on the ground in Sudan and South Sudan do nothing to justify Obama’s end-of-days decision to lift the U.S. trade embargo against Sudan and unblock the Sudanese regime’s assets. On top of that, the Obama/Kerry State Department actually saw fit to instruct Trump on the art of the deal in U.S diplomacy.
"We've maximized leverage for them because we've handed them a large carrot and a large stick," an unnamed Obama administration official told the Wall Street Journal. His reasoning, if one can call it that, is that Obama’s last-minute executive order will give the new administration relief to yank back if Sudan fails to keep up the progress.
All this from an administration whose South Sudan strategy ended, according to The New York Times, "in tatters." It’s hard to believe that the real author of “The Art of the Deal” is going to believe that Obama and John Kerry are doing him -- or the poor people of Sudan and South Sudan -- any favors.
For starters, Obama and Kerry aren’t giving Trump and Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson any leverage they wouldn’t have had already if sanctions had been left in place. Trump and Tillerson could have still taken a fresh look at the situation and made a decision one way or another on sanctions. Now, they’ll have to reverse a decision on U.S. policy, however recent. How is that helpful?
Consider, as well, the substance of the Sudan issue. Human rights groups properly called the decision inexplicable. The Obama administration, for its part, argues that the government of Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir has made some “progress” on the counterterrorism front -- yet not enough that Sudan will lose its designation as a state sponsor of terrorism.
Even the “progress” on terrorism is open to question. As Eric Reeves of Harvard University told National Public Radio's Michele Kelemen, “the regime has done nothing really to deserve this … we've seen increasing repression in Khartoum and elsewhere with many arrests and newspaper seizures unprecedented in the two decades I've been working on Sudan.”
What’s not open to question is that Obama’s move to relieve sanctions, if not reversed by the new administration, forfeits U.S. leverage to end the repression and slaughter in this country, including the Darfur region. We’ve seen over the last eight years that throwing away U.S. power and influence -- “leading from behind” -- does not work. Maximizing leverage has always been a key to Donald Trump’s “Art of the Deal.”
Meanwhile, brutal and inconvenient realities remain in place while the Khartoum government’s assets are unfrozen and Sudan prepares to do business with U.S. companies. In addition to presiding over a nation that’s a designated state sponsor of terrorism, Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court on a warrant for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. The very week Obama eased sanctions, the United Nation's Panel of Experts on the Sudan issued its report on the North African country’s diverse horrors.
The report chronicled offensive military over-flights and the bombardment by the Sudanese Armed Forces in the Jebel Marra region, the targeting of humanitarian workers in Darfur, the looting and burning down of whole villages by government forces, the rape and murder of women and children. It’s all led to the large-scale displacement of the civilian population -- more than an estimated 2.6 million people in Darfur alone, “1.6 million of whom remain in camps across the region and in need of humanitarian assistance,” the U.N. panel said. These refugees are “routinely exposed to acts of violence, intimidation and insecurity both inside and outside the camps.”
The panel even mentions the possible use of chemical weapons, although, like much else in the report, this remains to be pinned down because the U.N. experts had yet to be granted access to Sudan to investigate.
Trump and Tillerson should take what steps they can to immediately reverse the out-going administration’s shameful eleventh-hour decision. If not, they will make Obama and Kerry’s shame their own. Democrats in Congress should start asking as many questions about Iran, Cuba, and Sudan (real state sponsors of terrorism) as they have about Russia in recent weeks.