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Friends in need, friends in deed?

National | Making pacts with enemies is a risky way to win pals in the war on terrorism

Issue: "A patient nation," Oct. 13, 2001

One day before terrorists attacked the United States, on Sept. 10, the government in Sudan shut down the country's only English language newspaper, the Khartoum Monitor. The Monitor had harmed national unity, the government charged, when the newspaper accused the government of "having plundered the riches of the south," a reference to its forcible takeover of oil-rich land in south-central Sudan. The ban lasted only three days, but is a commonplace repression under a regime that regularly confiscates private property and displaces its own people. Sudan's radical Islamic government also has made a practice of hosting terrorists, including Osama bin Laden, earning it perennial slots on lists of state sponsors of terrorism all over the world.

None of those precedents has kept the Bush administration from courting Sudan, along with other nations once regarded as mere rogues, in its war on terrorism.

Two weeks ago Secretary of State Colin Powell pronounced himself "pleased" with Sudan's cooperation and said the Islamic government had been "forthcoming" in its efforts to comply with the United States. Under pressure from the administration, Congress shelved a bill to aid Christians fighting the government, the Sudan Peace Act, Sept. 24 just as it was being readied for final passage and the president's signature. On Sept. 28 the UN Security Council voted to end terrorist-related sanctions against Sudan after the United States agreed not to block such a move. It also lifted travel restrictions for Sudanese diplomats in the United States.

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Sudan is not the only country with a bad past to be reincarnated as an ally in the aftermath of September attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Sanctions against Pakistan are fading, along with denunciations of the repressive tactics of Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan. Across Central Asia and the Middle East, the Bush administration has reached out to predominantly Muslim regimes and post-Soviet dictators in search for leads and favors that could further isolate Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network of terrorists. In the black-and-white canvas of the war on terrorism-in the words of President George W. Bush, "Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists"-the diplomatic dealmaking is a campaign tending toward shades of gray.

Making friends of yesterday's enemies may be a shrewd show of realpolitik bargaining in the post-Sept. 11 world, but it offends many who have campaigned against radical Islam longer than Mr. Bush and his new coalition have. Those skeptics say the coalition can become too broad to have any depth-or teeth. Bartering with terrorist-friendly nations in the pursuit of terrorists, say critics, can lead in only one direction: handing the fox the keys to the henhouse.

"It's obvious we have to deal with regimes we don't like. There is no such thing as immaculate foreign policy," said Paul Marshall of the Freedom House Center for Religious Freedom. "But the United States is making a destructive deal with Sudan. Sudan is Islamic radicalism. And it is exporting it."

"The justice of our cause can hardly be disputed," said Smith College professor and Sudan expert Eric Reeves. "But one of the ugliest consequences of such a war will be the betrayal of moral principle amidst the fierce lust for intelligence about various terrorist groups."

In late September key members of the Bush foreign-policy team-including Walter Kansteiner, assistant secretary of state for Africa; FBI and CIA representatives-met in London with Yahia Hussien Baviker, Sudan's deputy chief of intelligence. That meeting reportedly opened intelligence channels with Khartoum, which has extensive dossiers on Mr. bin Laden and his operatives dating back to Mr. bin Laden's 1991-1996 residency in Sudan.

Shortly after that meeting the State Department announced that Sudan had arrested 30 "extremists" involved in plotting international terrorism. Asked by a reporter if the United States could be sure those were extremists and not just political opponents of the regime, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said, "I think we have enough information ourselves to know that." Pressed by reporters about whether the United States had the identity of those arrested, he said, "We do. You don't."

Critics of the new relationship with Sudan acknowledge that they are not privy to the administration's secret calculations; but they do not believe the signs of cooperation warrant this thaw. Unlike others, assistance from Sudan has come at no apparent cost. Pakistan, for instance, risks internal rebellion and regional conflict over siding with the United States. Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, and others become targets as they provide staging areas for U.S. military forces. "Sudan is not taking risks as a regime," notes Mr. Marshall. "It is exchanging information it could have exchanged anytime."

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