The Danger of Transactional Diplomacy

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The Abraham Accords, signed on the White House lawn in November 2020, solidified full diplomatic relations between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain. The Sudan and Morocco agreements are still being negotiated, but they are expected to have similar effects. 

 There is widespread speculation about the implications of these agreements. Given the paradigmatic shift in Middle Eastern relations, discourse has ranged from how normalization will realign the Middle East, to the opportunity these new relations offer to foster peace between Israel and the Palestinians. 

The significance of these agreements and pending agreements cannot be overstated: in Israel’s 72 years of existence, only Egypt and Jordan had formally recognized Israel as a sovereign state. Normalization with these four new countries will substantially reduce Israel’s diplomatic isolation in the region, bolster her economy through tourism and direct flights between these countries, and add to Israel’s legitimacy, a longstanding goal of the Israeli government, which has been battling international delegitimization for decades. 

However despite these undisputed triumphs, Sudan in particular raises serious global questions: that is, having established normalization with Israel as a prerequisite to Sudan’s removal from the U.S.’s official State Sponsor of Terorism (SST) list, the U.S. will have dismissed human rights and security improvements as a critical element of foreign relations, and denigrated the value of normalization. 

Stated differently, what is the value of linking Sudan’s removal from the U.S. State Departent List of State Sponsors of Terrorism to normalized relations with Israel? 

A brief history: Sudan was placed on the U.S. State Department’s SST list in 1993. Designation on this list is purely determined by whether the State repeatedly provided support to acts of international terrorism; no other criteria is considered. Sudan, dominated then by the National Islamic Front,  had aligned itself with militant, terrorist organizations like the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hamas, Hezbollah, and al Qaeda. Sudan was complicit in the twin bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998; involved in the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen in 2000; and gave refuge to Osama bin Laden, among other international terrorists. 

For years Sudan aggressively spread political Islam, providing aid to active terrorist organizations. But in 1999, Sudan signed the International Convention for the Suppression of Financing of Terrorism, signaling a willingness to cooperate internationally on the global fight against terrorism. And then, on September 11th, 2001, eight years after Sudan’s designation as an SST, al Qaeda launched an unprecedented terrorist attack against the U.S.  In the aftermath of the attach, President Bush’s remarks were unequivocal: “ Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” Sudan, not wanting to be on the wrong side of history and risk a ground invasion by the U.S. military, began cooperating with the U.S. in counterterrorism operations, expelling known terrorists from their borders.  Relations between the U.S. and Sudan subsequently improved, and the U.S. continued to utilize Sudan for security operations in the region. But talks of removing Sudan from the SST designation never materialized.

In 2004, any warmth between the U.S. and Sudan dissipated; fighting escalated in the western Darfur region as Sudan began massacring civilians and denied entry to the UN peacekeepers and humanitarian workers. 

Thus, the debate raged. Amidst the Darfur genocide, Sudan continued to cooperate with the U.S. in fighting terrorism. Relations were cold, but U.S.-Sudanese cooperation was constant. Why, then, with human rights irrelvant to the SST designation, would Sudan’s abhorrent human rights record be the linchpin maintaining their spot on the list of only four countries demarcated as state sponsors of terrorism– Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Sudan? Unique amongst those four countries, Sudan shared intelligence with the U.S. and cooperated on counterterrorism missions. And in 2007, the U.S. State Department announced that , with the exception of Hamas, Sudan did not openly support international terrorist groups. Yet, despite this, Sudan also suffered the burden of U.S. sanctions for 27 years, a conseuqnce of being labeled a state sponsor of terrorism. 

Security and human rights have always been two sides of the same coin, with countries historically encroaching on human rights in the name of national security. But the Sudan enigma supersedes this debate. In the following years, the conundrum raging in the Obama administration was not how can we cooperate with Sudan on security measures while they desecrate their population—a categorical human rights violation. Under the Obama administration, a different argument persisted: if Sudan collaborates with the U.S. on counterterrorism missions, and if they continuously share intelligence, then why, despite their reproachful human rights record, are they still being designated as an SST? To many, their continued inclusion on the SST list was merely a symptom of Washington lethargy.  

So, again, the status-quo persisted, with Sudan still labeled a state sponsor of terorrism, and the U.S. still utilizing what Sudan offered for security operations. Even the slight headway Sudan made with President Trump in 2017 with the lifting of sanctions resulted in more stalled negotiations. 

Until now. A 2019 civillian uprising gave way to a coup that ousted the Islamist govenemnt of  President Omar Al-Bashir, and paved the way for a joint civillian-military transitional government led by General Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan and Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdock. Human rights violations still persist, and those complicit in government violence during the 2019 uprising have not yet been held accountable for these crimes. However, during this transitional period, General Burhan and Prime Minister Hamdock have begun implementing critical reforms to help pave the way towards democracy.

Which brings us back to our initial question. Bashir was ousted in 2019, the new transition government  making concerted efforts to strengthen Sudanese civil society. While Hamdok has not granted aid workers unimpeded access to Sudan, under his regime there has been a profound improvement in both national and international aid worker’s access to Sudanese victims of heavy flooding, the pandemic, and political violence. This, in addition to the joint security and intelligence partnership the U.S. shares with Sudan, should have assured Sudan’s removal from the SST list. Yet, these efforts were not the catalyst for removal one would expect them to be. Rather, President Trump leveraged normalized relations with Israel as a prerequisite for the hoped for removal from the SST list, a move that should have been accomplished at least a decade ago, if not in 2019, and a move that is altogether unconnected to Israel. 

Many argue that this decision is not unexpected. Foreign policy has always been a series of negotiations, tethered to good-will, hinging on each side having something the other side wants. And under President Trump, foreign policy has been explicitly transactional.

Yet the U.S. shackling Sudan’s designation to normalization with a third country, Israel, far exceeds this transactional formula, and has grave consequences for the value human rights and international security offer to diplomacy. Historically, when established democracies negotiate with budding democracies, they tether aid to human rights—rewarding improvements in gender equality, free speech, and free press with increased aid or weapons sales. 

Sudan has not been formally involved in terorrism in years- they closed down the Popular Arab and Islamic Conference, their forum for terrorism, in 2000- and their human rights record has been improving since the regime change almost two years ago, though, as discussed,  human rights is unrelated to the SST. Ergo, removal from the SST list should have been inevitable. 

Yet, it wasn’t. Instead, President Trump chose to leverage normalization with Israel as the necessary exchange. Linking the SST to normalization with a separate country devalues security cooperation, intelligence cooperation, and improved human rights records. Instead, it suggests  that normalization is a backdoor to economic development and a reduction in global isolation, and secures humanitarian and investment agreements regardless of the country’s remaining records. 

Normalization between Israel and her neighbors in the Middle East has been a long march towards history. Israel’s pending  negotiations with Sudan should be their own singular achievement, it’s most  noteworthy element that the 1967 Arab Summit was held in Khartoum, and gave rise to the infamous three-no’s: no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, and no negotiations with Israel. The no’s have been negated, the march more pronounced than ever before. However, along the way, human rights, joint counterterrorism missions, and intelligence sharing have been sullied as dismissable achievements in the wake of exploiting unrelated diplomatic missions. 

About the Author
Shane Fischman Goldstein graduated with her JD from the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 2019. She holds an MPA in international security policy with a specialization in the Middle East from Columbia University, SIPA and a BA in history from Barnard College. She currently lives in New York with her husband where she is a litigator at a Manhattan law firm.
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