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Thousands of protesters join ‘Save Darfur’ rally at the National Mall calling to stop genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan April 30, 2006 in Washington, DC. Alex Wong/Getty Images
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How Obama Went From Calling to Save Darfur to De-Sanctioning Sudan in His Final Days in Office

What was once a cause celebre for Jewish and human rights activists has become an afterthought in a new, more volatile Middle East

Armin Rosen
January 24, 2017
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Thousands of protesters join 'Save Darfur' rally at the National Mall calling to stop genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan April 30, 2006 in Washington, DC. Alex Wong/Getty Images

In one of the Obama administration’s last major foreign policy decisions, the outgoing president issued an executive order on January 13 lifting most of its sanctions against the government of Sudan, whose nominally Islamist regime had been accused of aiding terrorist groups and committing grave human rights abuses against its citizens. The move could bring an end to the National Congress Party regime’s decades of isolation and reverse the country’s economic plunge. More subtly, it exposes a shift in American Jewish political priorities.

Around 10 years ago, the Save Darfur movement—which sprang from a July 2004 summit that the American Jewish World Service, the Holocaust Museum, and Elie Wiesel organized—galvanized Jewish activists, who saw atrocities prevention as a special cause for a politically influential and historically persecuted community. Stopping the Sudanese regime’s alleged genocide against non-Arab ethnic groups in western Sudan became one of the great Jewish causes of the middle Bush years: On April 30th, 2006, tens of thousands of people flocked to a Save Darfur rally on the National Mall, to hear Wiesel, George Clooney, then-Senator Barack Obama, and others urge greater US action in ending the conflict’s atrocities. But when the US’s change in policy was announced earlier this month, the news barely registered beyond a small community of Middle East watchers and sanctions experts. There’s nothing on the move on the Save Darfur Coalition’s website—the group’s blog hasn’t been updated since 2015.

The Israeli government’s reported role in getting the sanctions suggests another change in mindset. If abuses in Darfur no longer galvanize American Jews, the Jewish state, which has repeatedly bombed alleged Hamas weapons shipments inside of Sudanese territory, is reportedly eager to bring Khartoum back into the family of nations. According to the Associated Press, Israel had “pressed the U.S. to adopt a friendlier relationship with Sudan” after the regime “cracked down on shipments of suspected Iranian weapons” to hostile groups. Back in October, Haaretz reported that Israel was lobbying both the US and European governments to rethink their approach to Khartoum.

So what changed? According to the January 13 executive order, the lifting of the sanctions was the result of Sudan’s new cooperation on counter-terrorism, helpful moves towards ending the civil war in neighboring South Sudan, and supposed progress towards reaching a political settlement with various armed and unarmed domestic opponents. Counter-terror cooperation has improved, and Khartoum has largely stopped meddling in the affairs of its southern neighbor. But the regime of Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, who is still under an International Criminal Court indictment for crimes against humanity, has made almost no progress towards internal political reconciliation—the issue that brought Save Darfur activists to the Mall over a decade ago. “Domestically, nothing has really changed,” says Ahmed Koduda, a commentator on East African affairs. “The Americans really wanted to get this done one way or another and needed to make it palatable to the advocacy community and American activists—they had to say, Sudan has cooperated on x, y, and z issues. But in reality, the regime has not done anything domestically to warrant this change.”

Yousif al-Mahdi, a Sudanese activist and economist, suggested that the U.S. sanctions were never really intended to shape the country’s internal affairs. “You do have a politically conscious group of Sudanese who see sanctions as a way of holding the government accountable for human rights and correcting all of these abuses,” he explained. “But to be very realistic and pragmatic, sanctions were never really about that and their lifting hasn’t been about that either.”

Instead, the sanctions were informed by various strategic factors: Sudan is still a US-listed state sponsor of terror, and a more Islamist iteration of the current regime sheltered Osama bin Laden in the mid-1990s. And until late 2015, the Sudanese regime was essentially Iran’s only Sunni Arab ally. Tehran helped Sudan set up one of Africa’s largest domestic arms industries, and used Sudanese territory and military infrastructure as a transit point for weapons intended for Hamas and Hezbollah. But in October of 2015, Khartoum abruptly switched sides in the Saudi-Iranian cold war and sent ground troops to join Riyadh’s coalition against the Iranian-supported Houthi rebels who had overthrown the government of Yemen.

The lifting of US sanctions is partially the result of Saudi lobbying. If the Israelis actually did back the lifting of sanctions, the move would further reflect Jerusalem’s convergence of interests with the Gulf States in countering Iran and reflect a certain willingness among Israel and the Gulf countries to chase identical diplomatic objectives at the same moment.

There was another major change leading up to the executive order: Americans stopped caring about Darfur, and Bashir’s regime viciously crushed much of the region’s remaining armed opposition. Even if the Obama administration’s 11th-hour move preserves sanctions related to the Darfur conflict, it will greatly enrich the regime responsible for committing atrocities in the country’s west—atrocities that then-Secretary of State Colin Powell labeled as “genocide” in September of 2004. “It’s a miracle for the regime,” says Kodouda of the sanctions’ removal. “The sanctions have been the No. 1 political priority for Khartoum and with this partial removal the regime has scored a major political victory and morale boost.”

In the mid-2000s, Sudan became an unlikely focus for activists—many of them Jewish—who envisioned a foreign policy animated by human rights and a unique American responsibility to end atrocities, instead of by narrow national security or economic interests.The Save Darfur movement was an idealistic attempt to break American complacency about the lone superpower’s supposed moral responsibilities. “Those of us who occupy this building during the week are aware of what is going on in Darfur,” one member of the Senate said at the April 30, 2006 rally. “We get busy,” he lamented. “We get distracted. And the searing images of children being slaughtered, and women being assaulted start fading from view and we start worrying about gas prices and we start worrying about elections and the priorities start drifting down, down, until we no longer recognize the moral urgency that’s required.” The rally, he said, could be part of an effort change that sad reality: “In every corner of the globe, tyrants, and terrorists, powers and principalities will know that a new day is dawning and righteous spirit is on the move,” he said at the close of his speech.

That senator was Barack Obama, and a little over a decade later, he would help to prove just how far those images of Darfur had faded from view, and how radical that fleeting, long-ago, Jewish-led attempt to shape American foreign policy around human rights had really been.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.

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