The Battle for Khartoum Exposes Waning U.S. Influence
If any outside power could help Sudan chart a path to democracy, it should have been the United States.
More than 15 years ago, when Sudan’s warring leaders decided to end Africa’s longest-running civil war, they turned to the United States, the world’s undisputed superpower, to broker the peace. Today, the United States is merely one in a crowd of diplomatic players and hardly the most decisive, seeking to resolve Sudan’s greatest political crisis in a generation.
More than 15 years ago, when Sudan’s warring leaders decided to end Africa’s longest–running civil war, they turned to the United States, the world’s undisputed superpower, to broker the peace. Today, the United States is merely one in a crowd of diplomatic players and hardly the most decisive, seeking to resolve Sudan’s greatest political crisis in a generation.
In the weeks since Sudan’s military leader, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, took control of Sudan’s transitional government in a military coup, the United States has been largely on the sidelines, distracted by fears of neighboring Ethiopia’s breakup, competing for influence with a number of regional players, and divided internally over how to respond to Sudan’s generals.
The Biden administration’s two top officials overseeing Sudan have clashed sharply over imposing sanctions on Khartoum’s generals, exposing a diplomatic turf battle that has complicated efforts to fashion a common U.S. strategy for resolving the African country’s monthslong political crisis.
The internal rift pitted Jeffrey Feltman, the U.S. envoy for the Horn of Africa who favors sanctioning Khartoum’s generals, against Molly Phee, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs who prefers a more conciliatory approach to Sudan’s military leaders. During a recent visit to Khartoum, Sudan, Phee refused Feltman’s offer to have his deputy accompany her on her meeting with Sudanese military leaders, according to several current and former officials familiar with the matter.
Feltman and Phee have since resolved their differences, according to a senior diplomatic source, who explained that the military’s recent agreement to release detained civilian Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, and restore his title, albeit with diminished authority, has put off consideration of sanctions for the time being.
A senior State Department official downplayed the dispute, noting that Feltman and Phee have known each other for years and share “mutual respect” for one another. It was only natural, the official suggested, that Phee, who once served as ambassador to South Sudan and who was recently confirmed as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, would assume the lead on the Sudan file, particularly since Feltman and his team are preoccupied with a major regional crisis in Ethiopia.
Sudan’s crisis offers a window into the messy and often convoluted nature of U.S. diplomacy as the United States’ unipolar moment vanishes. New regional powers, including wealthy Persian Gulf states, Egypt, China, and even Russia are seeking—and often finding—influence in Africa in ways that often run counter to U.S. interests. Sudan’s crisis also offers a case study in how Washington’s inattention to Africa over the decades has sown the seeds of waning U.S. influence across the continent, particularly on issues at the core of U.S. foreign policy, from the promotion of democracy and human rights to the war on terror.
Superpower it may still be, but the United States has suffered a series of stinging and humbling recent setbacks in Sudan.
Sudan’s generals have shown little deference to the United States’ envoys, launching their military coup within hours of Feltman meeting with Burhan and then departing the country. The military ordered a bloody crackdown on Sudanese protesters just one day after Phee paid a visit to Khartoum. Washington was not even consulted by the Sudanese government before Hamdok announced he had accepted an agreement with the military to reclaim his position as prime minister—but the military retained the right to stack the government with loyalists.
For Sudanese analysts, the lack of a coherent U.S. strategy feeds a creeping sense of U.S. diplomatic drift, which has allowed other regional powers to fill the void.
“If you asked me right now what the U.S. response [is], I couldn’t tell you in one sentence, and that is a problem,” said Kholood Khair, managing partner at Insight Strategy Partners, a Khartoum-based think tank, noting the United States during the Trump administration largely subcontracted its Sudan policy to its regional allies.
“I’m not sure to what extent the Biden administration realizes the legacy of the Trump administration effectively outsourcing Sudan and the wider region’s U.S. policy to the [United Arab Emirates] and Saudi Arabia,” she said. “There is still a legacy of that at play.”
This is a far cry from the influence Washington had 16 years ago, when the United States brokered a peace agreement in Sudan and then wielded its superpower influence to bring an entirely new country—South Sudan—into existence in 2011. (One famous mark of U.S. influence was a cowboy hat former U.S. President George W. Bush gifted to South Sudanese leader Salva Kiir Mayardit, which he wore consistently afterward.) If there was any outside power that could help chart Sudan’s transition to democracy, many analysts agreed it would—and should—have been the United States.
The United States and Sudan have seen radical ups and downs in diplomatic relations for decades, punctuated by then-U.S. President Bill Clinton’s controversial decision to bomb the al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant on the flimsy claim it was used to produce a nerve agent. Relations bottomed out in the early 1990s, when Khartoum hosted al Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden. Following the 9/11 terror attacks, Sudan’s then-military ruler, Omar al-Bashir, fearing a potential U.S. attack, sought to rebuild the relationship, offering to expand intelligence cooperation in the U.S.-led war on terror.
The U.S. helped negotiate an end to the country’s civil war, a festering conflict that pitted the Arab capital against the Christian and animist communities of southern Sudan. The 22-year conflict resulted in the deaths of around 2 million people from war, famine, and disease and forced millions more in the south from their homes.
Robert Zoellick, who as deputy secretary of state helped lead U.S. efforts to ensure implementation of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement ending the Sudan civil war, said there has always been a proliferation of foreign governments competing for influence over Khartoum. The challenge, he said, is finding a way to coordinate the vast network of diplomatic, development, and security players. “Diplomacy with Sudanese issues will always involve many neighbors with various and tricky agendas,” Zoellick said. “Khartoum has historically been a city oriented north along the Nile to Egypt and the power and cultural influences of the Arab world. The ties run back to Egyptian, Ottoman, and British imperialism.”
Confusion over who calls the shots in U.S. diplomacy hasn’t helped. Zoellick suggested the U.S. State Department has been weakened by the proliferation of special envoys, diminishing the United States’ diplomatic heft. Once the No. 2 official at the State Department, Zoellick commanded a vast diplomatic bureaucracy that could help coordinate diplomacy with key players, including the United Nations, African Union, China, Egypt, Turkey, and other African states, as well as tap into resources from the World Bank and regional development banks.
“Activists like the idea of special envoys because they think it signals high-level interest,” he said. But “special envoys often don’t have the diplomatic range and weight to work across the various countries and issues.”
“In this administration, the [National Security Council] staff seems to drive most policy. There has been an increasing trend toward [White House]-centered policy over the years,” he added, contrasting that with his experience at the State Department under former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and former U.S. President George H.W. Bush.
Then there’s the glaring absence of a U.S. ambassador in Khartoum. After decades of tension, Washington agreed to normalize ties and begin exchanging ambassadors with the new post-revolution government in late 2019. But nearly two years later, the United States has yet to send an ambassador, relying on career diplomat Brian Shukan to run the U.S. Embassy as chargé d’affaires.
Former U.S. President Donald Trump never nominated an ambassador, and U.S. President Joe Biden has yet to nominate one despite being in office for nearly a year. The State Department’s once special envoy to Sudan and South Sudan, Donald Booth, stepped down from that post. (Veteran counterterrorism official John Godfrey is widely expected to be nominated for the ambassador post, but so far, Biden has yet to make any announcement.)
“If the U.S. wants to really meaningfully engage with pro-democracy groups, it needs to have representation in [the] country,” Khair said. “The lack of a robust team from the State Department here means you’re constantly having to rely on these visits of Feltman or Phee coming in to make up for the fact that there isn’t an ambassador.”
Last month, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Kenya during his first trip as Biden’s top diplomat to Africa. While Sudan was a major topic of discussion, he didn’t make the short plane ride to Khartoum while he was there—sidestepping a tradition that nearly all past secretaries of state have honored.
That might have been a good thing. “Look at the pattern,” Khair said. “Feltman comes; the next day, there’s a coup. Phee comes; the next day: a massacre. When Blinken was in the region, I remember people telling me, ‘please say he won’t come because we can’t deal with more [defiance], if you will, from the military every time a senior American representative comes.’”
But others saw it as a missed opportunity to shape post-coup Khartoum. “Did it warrant a trip by the secretary of state? Yes,” said Cameron Hudson, a former CIA official and diplomat who is an expert on East Africa with the Atlantic Council. “Let’s look back at consequential moments in U.S.-Sudan relations. Colin Powell went there, Condoleezza Rice went there, [Mike] Pompeo went there, John Kerry went there. Find me a secretary of state who hasn’t been there in order to enable a breakthrough or ground-truth a critical decision that the United States was faced with. That has always been a part of the playbook. And Blinken chose instead to fly over Sudan at a very critical juncture.”
Sudan’s current crisis has roots in the December 2018 civil protests that hastened the fall of Sudan’s dictator, Bashir, who was ousted in a coup three months later, ending 30 years of rule. Almost three months after that, Sudan’s transitional military council signed a power-sharing agreement with a civilian alliance, setting the stage for a transition to democracy through general elections in 2022. The pact resulted in the establishment of a mixed civilian-military partnership. Two figures came to the forefront: Burhan, who chaired the Sovereignty Council of Sudan, and Hamdok, a former U.N. economist who became Sudan’s transitional prime minister.
Burhan launched a military coup on Oct. 25, detained Hamdok and several civilian members of his cabinet, and cracked down violently on protesters. The act drew tough words from Western capitals, including the United States, which demanded Hamdok’s release from detention and return to office. But the United States has wavered over whether to punish Burhan with a fresh round of sanctions or to work with him to try to put the country’s political transition back on track. So far, it has also shied away from referring to Burhan’s power grab as a “coup.”
On Nov. 21, Burhan struck a compromise deal with Hamdok that resulted in the restoration of his prime minister role and the release of some political prisoners, but it granted the military authority increased authority to stack the new government with loyalists. The agreement—swiftly denounced by leaders of the Sudanese protest movement—came several days after Phee’s visit to Khartoum, raising speculation that Washington may have blessed the deal. But several diplomats said the United States was not consulted on the final arrangement and had not agreed to back it.
The political pact has been vigorously opposed by pro-democracy protesters and weakened Hamdok’s political standing in Sudan.
Khalid Omer Yousif, a senior cabinet member in Hamdok’s government who was beaten and detained by the government at the start of the coup, said the Sudanese people are “disappointed” with the international community’s cautious welcome of the deal.
“It is not a sustainable deal,” he said. “It’s not going to last. Most of the people of Sudan are against it. They are now fighting in the street to resists this coup and to oppose this deal.”
“The United States has more power and leverage than any other international actor,” Yousif added, who was released as part of the agreement Hamdok struck with Burhan. But, he said, Washington has failed to sufficiently exercise its influence: “The people expect more. They believe that when there is a will in the U.S., there will be helpful engagement in this difficult moment in the history of Sudan.”
A State Department spokesperson said “while we were aware of and supportive of the negotiations,” the United States “did not facilitate nor mediate the discussions between Prime Minister Hamdok and General Burhan.”
“Despite its shortcoming, retuning Prime Minister Hamdok to office is a better alternative than a continuation of full military rule, especially given security forces’ violent repression of peaceful protests,” the spokesperson wrote in an emailed response to questions.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the United States would continue pressing the military to support a transition to civilian government to release political prisoners, end the state of emergency, and end violence against peaceful protesters.
“We will continue our efforts to support the Sudanese people’s unwavering desire for democracy,” the official said. “We are also pressing for the military and Sovereign Council to adhere to their pledge not to interfere in cabinet operations and for renewed dialogue to expand the inclusivity of the transition process.”
Khair and activists in Khartoum (some of whom declined to speak on the record) also rebuked U.S. officials for engaging only with military and political officials and not engaging with resistance groups or pro-democracy activists, who played a key role in fomenting the uprising that ousted Bashir from power. But they have praised another branch of the U.S. government for supporting pro-democracy protesters: U.S. Congress.
U.S. lawmakers are taking on a more active role in Sudan policy to compensate for the apparent diplomatic vacuum in the executive branch—particularly Sen. Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; Sen. James Risch, the top Republican on the committee; Democratic Sen. Chris Coons; and Democratic Rep. Gregory Meeks, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Lawmakers have taken a tougher line than administration officials. Phee, for example, tweeted she was “saddened by reports of violence and loss of life” in Sudan in response to Sudanese security forces massacring more than a dozen protesters a day after she left Khartoum. Risch replied to the tweet with a much sharper message, saying the massacre “adds to the list of tragic incidents committed by Sudanese military leaders & proves they cannot be trusted w/ the responsibility of protecting & governing the people.” Coons, for his part, tacked on a provision to the defense authorization bill that would require Washington to sanction the coup’s architects.
“That more than anything was a shot across the bow for the military,” Hudson said, adding it was likely a major factor in convincing Burhan to reinstate Hamdok. “It’s very clear to me the biggest influence didn’t come from the State Department. It came from Congress. They are much stronger than anything coming out of the State Department right now.”
U.S. diplomatic disengagement has left an opening for an array of often competing regional powers promoting their interests in Sudan, and they mostly align with Sudan’s military leadership.
For Persian Gulf powers, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Sudan is a bread basket, leading to investments in agriculture and deeper security relations to check efforts by Iran to use Khartoum as a hub for channeling arms to its proxies in the region.
In recent years, Sudan’s military has sent thousands of troops to Yemen to fight for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in their war against Iran-backed Houthi insurgents. In Libya, Sudanese paramilitary forces—known as Rapid Support Forces and headed by Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (or Hemeti), a senior official in the new government—have fought alongside the Libyan National Army, headed by Khalifa Haftar, who has backing from Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia.
Egypt, which maintains an extensive intelligence presence in Khartoum, is said to wield enormous influence over Sudan’s military. “The Egyptians are calling the shots,” said one Sudanese official who served in Hamdok’s transitional government before being ousted by Burhan after the coup. The United States, the official said, still commands sufficient influence and power to check the ambitions of its own allies, including Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. “With Egypt, it’s not the same story.”
Sudan, meanwhile, has joined a small group of Arab nations—including Bahrain, Morocco, and the United Arab Emirates—that signed the landmark Abraham Accords, which established relations with Israel. Even before the signing, then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held secret meetings with Burhan, who had been a key player in normalization talks between Tel Aviv and Khartoum for the past two years. While the United Nations and democratic governments in the West denounced the military takeover and expressed support for reinstating the civilian-led transitional government, Israel has not.
Members of Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency, secretly visited Sudanese military leaders days after the coup, according to an initial report on the Israeli news site Walla! NEWS. The delegation met with Abdel Rahim Hamdan Dagalo, a deputy commander in the paramilitary force that participated in the coup, to discuss how the military takeover would impact normalization efforts, the report said. The deputy commander had also been part of a Sudanese military delegation that visited Israel weeks before the coup. In a sign of Israel’s growing influence, Blinken urged Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz to use the government’s influence over Sudan’s military rulers to end the coup and restore civilian leadership.
For Hudson, the arrival of new power brokers in the region—and the lack of U.S. leadership there—lays bare the fruit of two decades of wandering diplomatic attention.
“Yes, there’s been a U.S. vacuum, but you also have this competition of new entrants coming in, and they’re playing a much bigger role,” Hudson said. “It looks like we are less able to shape outcomes, less able to thwart malign actors. That is a reversal of 20 years of diplomatic investment.”
FP intern Zinya Salfiti contributed to this report.
Update, Dec. 3, 2021: This article was updated to include a reaction from the U.S. State Department.
Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer
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