Lack of key appointments may have forced the Trump administration to push back the deadline.
The White House announced this week it would put off any decision on Sudanese sanctions by an additional three months, a delay that former officials and Africa experts say reflects internal chaos inside the U.S. government.
“The [Trump] administration is still getting up to speed. There are no political appointees managing the Africa portfolio,” said Cameron Hudson, a former senior State Department and White House official. “They just don’t have the team in place to make that informed decision.”
Days before President Barack Obama left office in January, he signed an executive order that offered trade sanctions relief to Sudan and reversed two decades of U.S. policy meant to punish the country for terrorism and egregious human rights violations. The decision set a July 12 deadline on the incoming Donald Trump administration to determine whether or not to make the reversal permanent, a decision conditional on the Sudanese government in Khartoum making “sustained progress” in counterterrorism, humanitarian access, and ceasefire preservation, among other demands.
But this week, the Trump administration came face to face with the deadline before it had even appointed key Africa positions within the State Department and the White House, suddenly confronted with mounting pressure to make a controversial decision without input from qualified senior officials.
The lack of appointments within the administration prompted speculation within Africa circles in Washington that Trump would likely kick the can down the road and delay making his decision for at least another few months.
Despite a plethora of warning signs, Sudanese officials announced this week that they expected a permanent reversal from the Trump administration and were looking forward to further sanctions relief.
“As far as rational thinking goes, I am confident there is going to be a positive response,” Sudanese Ambassador to Washington Maowia Osman Khalid told Foreign Policy in a private meeting on Tuesday afternoon, adding that he believes his government had fulfilled the requirements laid out by the Obama administration.
Khalid, for his part, said that “no gaps in Trump’s administration should justify any negative outcome of not making the crucial decision of lifting sanctions from Sudan completely.”
Trump’s decision, which still offers Khartoum hope for a permanent reversal in October, is sure to come as a disappointment to the African country, which has been hit by Trump’s travel ban.
While Sudan “has made significant, substantial progress in many areas, the Administration has decided that some more time is needed for this review,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement released Tuesday night.
Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour said on Wednesday that his government “regret[s] the issuing of this decision, which came after a long period of dialogue and interaction with the U.S.”
But it does not come as a surprise to Sudan watchers, who were aware that delayed appointments and disorganization within the Trump administration added to uncertainty about the looming decision.
One analyst who has worked on Sudan during both Democratic and Republican administrations said that within the Trump administration, “low to mid-level people are carrying on the best they can with no one above them giving direction to them.”
“There is no special envoy, no assistant secretary of state, and no one in the White House,” he said.
Another American privy to conversations surrounding the pending decision said that the lack of personnel made the timeline set by Obama administration unworkable.
“More than anything, I think this is a bureaucratic delay,” he said. “We understand it’s a very unorganized White House. It’s not just the Africa people who aren’t in place but many others, and that’s the bottom line.”
Opposition on Capitol Hill to rolling back sanctions also seemed to reinforce the likelihood Trump would delay his decision. Last week, a bipartisan group of 53 lawmakers penned a letter to the president requesting that he delay the decision “for one year or until your Administration has been able to fully staff the Department of State and National Security Council, and you have named a Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan.”
The special envoy position, like many other senior administration posts, still sits empty six months into Trump’s term.
But a senior administration official involved in the process insisted that had nothing to do with the White House’s decision to delay. “I would not draw any other conclusions based on staffing right now,” the official said Wednesday on a background call to reporters.
Washington is also pressuring Khartoum to cut ties to North Korea in its global push to ratchet up pressure on the Hermit Kingdom. The U.N. accused Sudan of conducting arms deals with Pyongyang earlier this year. That’s a “continual concern we have with the Sudanese government and we’ve expressed that all along,” the senior administration official said.
A wide cast of characters critical of Sudan’s human rights record, ranging from actor George Clooney to conservative Christian groups, may have also contributed to the delay. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s has been accused of war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity. The International Criminal Court put out its first warrant for his arrest in 2009, but he has thus far evaded detention.
The Obama administration relief rolled back some, but not all U.S. sanctions on Sudan. Khartoum still faces heavy legislative sanctions and sanctions related to being classified by the United States as an official state sponsor of terrorism. The executive order also doesn’t touch debt relief, which could be a key point of leverage over Khartoum in future negotiations.
Sudan is saddled with some $40 billion in debt, crippling an already anemic national economy. “The number one thing they want is debt relief,” Hudson said. “It’s not like the government of Sudan is completely off the hook if this goes through.”