(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The most useful thing President Donald Trump’s administration can do immediately for Sudan is to take it off the State Department’s list of nations that sponsor terrorism. That designation severely restricts the country’s access to international aid, foreign investment and remittances, all critical to the survival of the new civilian-led government and to hopes for a smooth democratic transition in Khartoum.
But the White House should be mindful of the mistakes made by the administrations of Barack Obama and George W. Bush, which were too eager — and too credulous — in de-listing Cuba and North Korea. And it should learn the lesson of the American experience with Myanmar, where economic sanctions were removed too soon.
Sudan has been a designated sponsor of terror since 1993, and its new foreign minister, Asmaa Abdalla, has made it her top priority to get her country off the list. She has Egypt’s support, a welcome sign of improved relations between the long-squabbling neighbors. Gulf Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, keen to invest in Sudan, would welcome the removal of any restraints.
The most powerful argument for de-listing comes from Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, a former United Nations economist. He has promised to heal the economy, a program he reckons will need $8 billion in foreign aid in the next two years and another $2 billion deposited as reserves to boost the sagging Sudanese pound.
Delivering on his promise is Hamdok’s best defense against revanchism by the Sudanese military leadership, which agreed to a transitional government only under international pressure. The popular uprising that toppled the long-time military dictator Omar al-Bashir in April was fired as much by dissatisfaction with the economy as by a hunger for political freedoms.
The U.S. is not averse to de-listing Sudan: Indeed, Obama had begun the process at the tail end of his presidency; and before the uprising caused it to hesitate, the Trump administration had begun discussing de-listing as part of a counter-terrorism agreement with Khartoum.
If everyone is agreed, the de-listing of Sudan is a gimme, right? Not so fast.
The recent history of the list is not promising. President Bush removed North Korea in 2008, to save a nuclear deal that Pyongyang likely had no intention of honoring. Two years later, the Obama administration was threatening redesignation; Trump would follow through on that threat in 2017.
For his part, Obama de-listed Cuba in 2015, as part of his resumption of diplomatic relations. But Cuba’s failure to deliver on the promise — implied, if not stated — of political reform, not to mention its support of deepening repression in Venezuela, has recently prompted the Trump administration to consider imposing sanctions afresh.
But arguably the most cautionary of the cautionary tales in this regard is Myanmar, which was never on the list of terrorism sponsors, but under stiff economic sanctions during the long period of military dictatorship — not unlike Sudan’s. In 2012, the Obama administration began to loosen the sanctions after the start of a democratic transition — again, not unlike Sudan’s. In yet another parallel, this was welcomed by Myanmar’s neighbors.
Sure enough, investment and aid flowed. But the military retained considerable power, and soon thereafter, in cahoots with the elected government, it unleashed a campaign of terror against the long-suffering minority Rohingya community that turned into a genocide that continues to this day. In an embarrassing about-face, the U.S. was obliged to withdraw military assistance to Myamnar, and the Trump administration has had to impose sanctions on the military leadership.
How to prevent that from happening in Sudan? Delisting cannot be a half measure: Donors and investors will need a clear signal from Washington that it is safe to back the new government. At the same time, the Trump administration needs to keep a close eye on the generals, and ensure that they don’t change their minds about the democratic process.
The challenge for the U.S. is to make clear to Sudan’s top brass that any mischief will be met with swift sanctions, on individual officers and anybody who does business with them. (Punishing Myanmar’s generals might have an exemplary effect.) If this means donors and investors are cautious about associating with the military, that is no bad thing. Sudan’s economy will benefit from a more vibrant private sector, its polity from more active nongovernmental organizations.
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Bobby Ghosh is a columnist and member of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.
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