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Top Counterterrorism Envoy Could Be First U.S. Ambassador to Sudan in Decades

Experts said Washington needs an envoy to help shepherd Sudan’s tenuous transition to democracy.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Sudan’s prime minister and Sovereign Council chief attend an economic conference.
Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and Sovereign Council chief Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan attend an economic conference in Khartoum, Sudan, on Sept. 26, 2020. Ashraf Shazly/AFP via Getty Images

The Biden administration is narrowing the list of potential candidates to be the first U.S. ambassador sent to Sudan in decades, and a top counterterrorism official is at the top of the list, according to three current and former U.S. officials familiar with the matter.

John Godfrey, currently the U.S. State Department’s acting counterterrorism envoy and a seasoned Middle East diplomat, is a leading contender to be the first U.S. ambassador to Sudan since 1996, when the United States broke diplomatic ties with Sudan over its support for al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

The United States announced it would normalize relations with Sudan and exchange ambassadors in late 2019, following a revolution in the country that ousted one of the world’s most brutal dictators, then-Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. At the time, then-U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hailed the decision to elevate diplomatic ties with Sudan as a “meaningful step forward in strengthening the U.S.-Sudan bilateral relationship.”

The Biden administration is narrowing the list of potential candidates to be the first U.S. ambassador sent to Sudan in decades, and a top counterterrorism official is at the top of the list, according to three current and former U.S. officials familiar with the matter.

John Godfrey, currently the U.S. State Department’s acting counterterrorism envoy and a seasoned Middle East diplomat, is a leading contender to be the first U.S. ambassador to Sudan since 1996, when the United States broke diplomatic ties with Sudan over its support for al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

The United States announced it would normalize relations with Sudan and exchange ambassadors in late 2019, following a revolution in the country that ousted one of the world’s most brutal dictators, then-Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. At the time, then-U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hailed the decision to elevate diplomatic ties with Sudan as a “meaningful step forward in strengthening the U.S.-Sudan bilateral relationship.”

But although the new transitional government in Sudan dispatched an ambassador to Washington, the Trump administration never reciprocated.

Six months into his administration, U.S. President Joe Biden also has yet to announce his choice to be ambassador to Sudan, but the State Department is expected to recommend Godfrey’s name to the White House, the current and former officials who spoke to Foreign Policy said.

The State Department and National Security Council declined to comment on the matter. “No personnel decisions are final until they are announced,” an NSC spokesperson said in an email.

Experts said the long absence of a U.S. ambassador is having a negative impact on U.S.-Sudan ties. It also poses a lost opportunity for Washington to help shape Sudan’s tenuous transition to democracy and re-introduction it to the international financial system after 30 years of isolated authoritarian rule under Bashir.

Nicole Widdersheim, a senior policy advisor for the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, said the lack of an ambassador sends a signal that the United States isn’t prioritizing Sudan’s democratic transition to the level it should. “If Cuba all of a sudden had a democratic revolution … don’t you think we would send an ambassador in the months to follow?” said Widdersheim, who previously worked on African affairs for the U.S. Agency for International Development and the National Security Council.

“The U.S. is a leader in humanitarian and development support to the transition and was critical to Sudan’s reentry into the international financial system,” said Joseph Tucker, an expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace and former U.S. diplomat and aid official specializing in Sudan. “Not having an ambassador gives the impression that U.S. political investment in the transition is lacking.”

Sudan’s shaky transitional government is tasked with preparing the country for elections in 2024, but experts warn that behind-the-scenes power jockeying threatens to fuel political crises that could roll back the country’s progress. Abdalla Hamdok, Sudan’s prime minister, warned of “cracks and divisions” within the country’s broad civilian coalition in a recent interview with the Economist.

Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, a former general under Bashir who heads the country’s ruling council that oversees Hamdok’s civilian cabinet, has emerged as the country’s major power broker, but he is also grappling with fissures within the military. Another power center is Mohamed Hamdan “Hemeti” Dagalo, the deputy head of the ruling council and a former warlord who heads a paramilitary force that emerged from the militias responsible for widespread atrocities in Darfur, in western Sudan.

Experts and officials said having an ambassador on the ground is critical for Washington to navigate the complicated corridors of power in Khartoum.

If Godfrey is nominated by the president, a matter that officials cautioned is still in the works, it will likely still take many months before Sudan finally receives its first U.S. ambassador in decades because of cascading delays in the Senate confirmation process. Biden was slow to name ambassador nominees during his first months in office, and now Republican Sen. Ted Cruz has vowed a blanket hold on all State Department nominees, including career diplomats nominated to ambassador posts in Africa, over a dispute with the Biden administration on a controversial Russian gas pipeline. If that dispute isn’t resolved, it could push back the confirmation of many ambassador posts well into 2022, several State Department officials and congressional aides said.

Godfrey, a career senior foreign service officer, is currently the acting State Department coordinator for counterterrorism and special envoy for the global coalition to defeat the Islamic State. Godfrey held multiple posts across the Middle East and North Africa during his time in the foreign service, and from 2013 to 2014, he served as chief of staff to then-deputy secretary of state William Burns, who is now Biden’s CIA director.

One U.S. official familiar with the matter described Godfrey as a smart choice for the ambassador post, saying his experience in the Middle East will be an advantage given the outsized influence Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other Middle Eastern powers have in Sudan.

For a quarter of a century, the United States and Sudan had only exchanged chargés d’affaires, lower-ranking diplomats than an ambassador, to head their embassies, reflecting the frosty relations between the two countries.

Before Bashir was ousted in the 2019 popular revolution, the United States under both the Obama and Trump administrations quietly worked to ease strains with Bashir’s government and lift some U.S. sanctions on Khartoum. That process accelerated after Bashir’s removal from power and a transitional, civilian-led government was installed under Hamdok.

A year later, the United States rescinded its designation of Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism, a label dating back to 1993, due to Bashir’s support of prominent terrorist groups and leaders, including al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. The designation turned the country into an international pariah and cut it off from most of the international financial system.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump agreed to lift the terrorism designation after pressuring Sudan to normalize relations with Israel. Sudan also agreed to pay $335 million to settle legal claims with victims of terrorist attacks in the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen. The agreement followed years of painstaking legal negotiations with the victims, State Department, and Congress.

The diplomatic breakthroughs brought relief to Sudan’s transitional government and opened the country’s anemic economy to support from the International Monetary Fund and other international economic assistance organizations. The Sudanese government is still struggling to revive its economy, particularly amid the indirect effects of the coronavirus pandemic that could further imperil the transitional government.

“Important progress is being made, but as Prime Minister Hamdok noted recently, there are tensions within civilian and security elements and between them that add up to a political crisis,” Tucker said. “If not managed, tensions could erode the foundation laid by citizens during the revolution and create space for spoilers.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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