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Memo to Washington

International | Beyond empathy: A high-profile policy on Sudan needs careful behind-the-scenes calculations

Issue: "Aging in place," March 31, 2001

The Bush administration is beginning to focus on Sudan's nearly 18-year-old civil war between its Islamic regime in the north and the mostly Christian minority in the south. President George W. Bush has named Sudan in several recent foreign-policy speeches. On March 16, top White House aide Karl Rove convened a meeting of Sudan experts to discuss how to end the fighting there. A week earlier, Secretary of State Colin Powell had conducted his own brainstorming session on Sudan with State Department and National Security Council officials. In a widely quoted statement, Mr. Powell told a House committee: "There is perhaps no greater tragedy on the face of the earth today than the tragedy that is unfolding in the Sudan."

WORLD has been at the front lines in Sudan and in contact with church-based relief groups and with prominent religious and political leaders. Here's our four-point suggestion on what to do:

First, the United States must view the Sudan regime as a foe. The policies of Sudan's president, Omar el-Bashir, pose a threat not only to peace in the region but also to American security. Mr. Bashir invited radical Islamic terrorist Osama bin Laden to set up training camps in Sudan. News accounts tell of the government opening facilities for Saddam Hussein to produce weapons of mass destruction and Scud missiles. Khartoum bombers repeatedly hold target practice on relief operations run by Americans and funded, in some cases, by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

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For the Clinton administration, the politics of Africa were bottom-drawer stuff, making only for frivolous safaris or dead-end trade tours. That should change, and Sudan is a good place to start. A victory by Mr. Bashir over south Sudan's rebel forces would push radical Islamic rule toward the heart of Africa. With financial and military backing from China, Sudan could threaten bordering democracies, as well as oil tankers and other Red Sea freight. For the south Sudanese it would not mark the end of sacrifice, but the end of sacrifice with purpose. For their good and ours, the United States should help.

Second, a new U.S. policy should strive to neutralize the Bashir government's ability to wage war. Atrocities by government forces are well documented, and yet Khartoum continues to prosecute war and increase its ability to do so. Oil is the reason. A pipeline from south-central Sudan came on line in 1998. Within two years military expenditures by the government more than doubled. At the same time, according to a confidential report to the International Monetary Fund, the state-owned Bank of Sudan reported that agriculture was "undercapitalized" and cannot produce at previous levels. The UN World Food Program predicts that 200,000 Sudanese will die of starvation and malnutrition this year.

Clearly the government, at the expense of its citizens, is building up its war machine. For the first time in the war it has the revenue to support it. Khartoum is also receiving extra help from oil developers. China, in particular, is improving Sudan's infrastructure and aiding the military under the guise of oil operations. Relief workers have identified Chinese workers at both military and oil installations.

Sanctions block U.S. firms from participating in Sudan's oil trade. But sanctions are applied unevenly. Overseas oil companies-particularly Talisman Energy of Canada and PetroChina-are traded on the New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq. The United States granted a license to General Electric to manufacture spare locomotive parts for Sudan last year. Soft drink manufacturers lobbied successfully to continue importing gum arabic, an important natural ingredient in their beverages.

Talk of sanctions will hover like storm clouds over Mr. Bush and his pledges of free trade. So be it. There are exceptions to the rule. Sudan-with 2 million war casualties and 4 million displaced people-is an exception. But a political silver lining for Mr. Bush is that support for such restrictions extends from Christian organizations like Prison Fellowship and Family Research Council all the way to the other end of the spectrum, to the ACLU, the NAACP, the Congressional Black Caucus, a number of Jewish groups, and the U.S. Holocaust Museum's Committee on Conscience. If the presidential candidates had known how important these constituencies would loom in post-election vote counts, they might have mentioned Sudan sooner.

Third, the Bush administration must encourage good-neighbor policies. Bouquets go to democracies like Uganda and Kenya, while brickbats go to the European Union and United Nations. EU nations withdrew humanitarian aid to south Sudan as soon as they smelled crude. Meanwhile, the United Nations channels its aid to south Sudan via a corrupt program known as Operation Lifeline Sudan. Khartoum has veto power over its operations. Even after the government in Khartoum bombed OLS transports sitting on airstrips last year, UN officials renewed the arrangement.

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