The Great Sudan Policy Reset
In with a bang; out with a whimper. That will be the epitaph of the first U.S. ambassador to Sudan in more than a quarter century. The appointment of Ambassador John Godfrey in 2022 was heralded by the State Department, that sent him as a long-awaited normalization of the much-troubled U.S.-Sudan bilateral relationship. After more than two decades and six successive special envoys, Sudan was finally off the U.S. State Sponsors of Terrorism List in 2020 and broke free of its perennial state of violence that Washington could now envisage a traditional relationship with the former pariah state. But 18 months after its ambassador stepped foot on Sudanese soil, Washington’s exercise in wishful thinking is over as Sudan is fought over, and its population displaced, by two warring generals.
In its place will be a formulation many observers of U.S.-Sudan policy know well and which may ultimately be better suited for the moment that Sudan and the United States find themselves in. For months now, State Department officials have bristled at the criticism that Sudan was not receiving sufficiently high-level attention; arguing instead that the crisis there benefited from the attention of not one, but three ambassadors: Assistant Secretary for Africa Molly Phee, Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Mike Hammer, and Ambassador to Sudan John Godfrey. But with the country on track towards state collapse and no single official in Washington seemingly responsible for the policy, the appointment of a new envoy for Sudan at least offers a natural first point of contact.
What those same U.S. officials ignore is the lack of any thoughtful, or public, attention on the crisis in Sudan from either Secretary of State Blinken or President Biden and the signal that sends to U.S. partners about Washington’s seriousness. During Sudan’s short-lived experiment with civilian rule, Blinken and Biden were quick to praise Sudan’s inspiring pro-democracy activists. But as the situation in Sudan has spiraled downward—with more than half the country requiring humanitarian aid, nearly 20 million students out of school, famine looming, and the country itself suffering from the world’s largest number of internally displaced persons—the continued silence of senior U.S. officials has been not only deafening, but insulting. Many Sudanese clearly long for the days when previous administrations seemed to take their plight more seriously.
Enter a new special envoy, former Democratic congressman Tom Perriello, who arrives on the diplomatic scene with fewer constraints than the ambassador he notionally replaces, but perhaps with some new ones. His biggest constraint is, of course, the calendar. A political appointee arriving in the job in, potentially, the last year of the administration he serves is dealing from a weak deck already. The possibility that his interlocutors could simply choose to wait him out is quite real. Which is why it will be critical for him to be appropriately launched in the job: a public appearance with the secretary of state, where a set of U.S. priorities are clearly articulated, and photo opportunity with the president would signal to African presidents and Gulf sheikhs that Washington takes his mission seriously and that they should take him seriously too. Even better would be periodic, public check-ins with these leaders to test the “dotted line” access to them that has been promised.
And while Perriello served briefly, and with distinction, as Obama’s special envoy for the Great Lakes and Democratic Republic of Congo a decade ago, he is largely unknown to the rank and file who will surround him at the State Department and is unlikely to come in with a team of his own. He will rely on the in-house knowledge of State Department careerists, of whom the most knowledgeable on Sudan departed years ago. He should be allowed a senior advisor of his choosing who can help him navigate the snake pit of both Sudanese and Washington politics.
And while he will also inherit an embassy structure that, since the evacuation of the United States’ post in Khartoum last April, has been chaotic at best, he has the benefit of not having to manage mission staff. With a new crop of embassy officers temporarily reassigned to the U.S. embassy in Addis Ababa, where in fact very few Sudanese leaders have chosen to settle, and a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) mission for Sudan temporarily housed in neighboring Nairobi, the resources of the U.S. government remain as spread out regionally as Sudan’s now-vast refugee population. Finding a way to bring the considerable resources of the U.S. government to bear in Sudan should be a priority. Engaging vigorously with USAID administrator Samantha Power and UN ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield—both of whom are deeply committed to seeing Sudan emerge from its crisis but who have been denied allies within the State Department who share their passion and concerns—should also be a high priority.
Regrettably, unlike the ambassador he replaces, the envoy will not have the benefit of building ties to the vast majority of Sudanese themselves, most of whom remain trapped inside the country. And with U.S. Diplomatic Security Service currently refusing even the briefest of visits to Port Sudan, the de-facto capital and the only city in the country with regular international air service, he will not be able to set foot in the country in the foreseeable future. That leaves him to engage with many of Sudan’s self-declared political leaders and other elites who have managed to flee the country and establish comfortable lives for themselves abroad. As a first act, however, he would do well to visit as many diaspora and refugee communities as possible, whether in Cairo, Adré, or Juba. Members from Sudan’s heroic network of grassroots humanitarian leaders should be given an early audience so that he hears their stories and challenges firsthand before being told their concerns by those who claim to speak for them.
The third leg of the envoy’s work he will be expected to take on will be knitting together the patchwork of regional leaders and other international actors who are playing a role, for good and for ill, in Sudan. Currently, the United Nations, African Union, and regional group IGAD have all appointed special representatives which have produced little in the way of actionable progress. Similarly, Gulf states have convened a series of both public and secret meetings in Jeddah and now Manama. Attempting to merge these various initiatives is likely not a productive use of time given the calamitous state of Sudan’s fighting and humanitarian situations. Instead, his focus should remain on preventing these actors from making the situation worse by either imposing half-baked solutions from the outside or fueling the war with new weapons and financing. Achieving this will take more of the kind of high-level U.S. engagement that has so far been lacking.
Lastly, given the monumental list of challenges facing Sudan and the constraints imposed on the envoy by an election year in the United States, it is clear that the U.S. policy approach to Sudan needs to change. With at best a year in the job, Perriello is not going to fix all the things that currently ail Sudan. Ideally, he can articulate a clear and significant set of policy priorities, even if they remain modest, to demonstrate that the Biden administration is both active and engaged. For his own political future, he will want to demonstrate what he accomplished during his time in the job by pursuing the most essential tasks that could have real and immediate impact on Sudan’s suffering population.
The United States should immediately focus on the delivery of humanitarian assistance to avoid widespread famine; the protection of civilians who remain trapped between the warring sides, particularly in Darfur; and lastly, a ceasefire mechanism and monitoring system, all of which will ultimately create the necessary conditions to discuss an eventual political settlement and the return of some form of civilian, transitional government.
Fortunately for Perriello, he comes to the job with an outsider’s fresh eyes, an activist’s drive for measurable impact, and a politician’s feel for dealmaking. Moreover, he arrives with an ace in the hole: bipartisan support from an engaged Congress that has been clamoring for a more active and engaged U.S. role in Sudan since the fighting there broke out. He will want to keep his backers there well briefed and use them to help remove the bureaucratic obstacles that will undoubtedly litter the path toward measured change. If he is successful in the time he has, he will have nudged the United States back toward the kind of proactive and concerned policies that have defined the United States’ approach to Sudan for so long and delivered for the Sudanese something that has been in short supply since the start of the war: hope.
Cameron Hudson is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.