IN the last few weeks the new Sudanese leader, Gen. Abdel-Rahman Swaraddahab, has sought normalized relations with neighboring Ethiopia and Libya and their superpower ally, the Soviet Union. The Reagan administration has much to gain and little to lose from this process and should resist a knee-jerk reaction to oppose the Sudanese initiatives. An end to the hostility fostered between the Sudan and these three nations by former President Jaafar Nimeiry will help stabilize the current regime in Khartoum and enhance the security of the Sudanese nation, will facilitate the relief of starving Ethiopians and Sudanese, and will serve long-term American interests in the region. The new regime in Khartoum should be a great relief to the Reagan administration, which could have seen violent clashes in Khartoum between demonstrators and the American-trained and -equipped security forces of the unpopular and oppressive President Nimeiry. General Swaraddahab is a well-regarded, devout, but not fanatic officer whose family has long historical ties to Egypt, through its attachment to the Khatmiyya sect, which has fostered links with Egypt since the 19th century. It is clearly in the interest of the United States -- and of the Sudanese people as well, at least in the short term -- to see Swaraddahab's regime settle into stable rule in Khartoum. There are strong pressures on the new regime to establish a civilian -- and ultimately a democratic -- government. This may not take place, and it certainly will not occur if the generals continue to worry that younger, more doctrinaire officers might take advantage of political instability.
Rapprochement with Ethiopia, Libya, and the Soviet Union will enhance the security and stability of the new government for several reasons. First, hostile relations with each of these three states have occurred from time to time in Sudanese history, but such discord is not the norm. Regimes before Nimeiry -- both democratic and authoritarian -- had sought normal relations with neighboring states (especially Ethiopia) and with the Soviet Union. Diplomats in all areas of the Foreign Ministry and virtually all former officials of Nimeiry's and prior regimes were uncomfortable with the strong, personal hostility expressed by Nimeiry for Muammar Qaddafi, Mengistu Haile-Mariam, and the Soviet leadership. Second, there is simply no reason for the Sudan not to have good relations with the two neighboring states and, hence, the Soviet Union as well. Although Nimeiry and Colonel Qaddafi took opposing sides on the Egyptian-Israeli Treaty of 1979, they did permit a thaw in relations in the summer of that year, and there is no other issue that need divide the new Sudanese government and Qaddafi's regime. Disagreements over Chad, the Western Sahara, and other regional problems are longstanding issues over which Sudanese-Libyan relations have no major effect.
If there are no reasons for the Sudan to avoid normalizing relations with Libya, Ethiopia, and the USSR, there are pressing reasons for the new leadership to improve ties. While Libya presents no intrinsic threat to the Sudan, it can fund subversion against a regime in Khartoum, as it has in the past, and appears to be doing now with the potent southern rebel group, the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement. Ethiopia is, after Egypt, the Sudan's most important neighbor. Although it is not in a position to halt the flood of the Blue Nile as it rushes from the Ethiopian highlands into eastern Sudan, Ethiopia's position upstream on the Blue Nile is a potent psychological factor in relations between the two. More significant, the Sudan's vulnerable hydroelectric installations (such as the Roseires Dam) are quite near the Ethiopian border. A third strategic reason the Sudan should normalize relations with Ethiopia is the latter's ability to provide camps and facilities for southern rebels. Governments in Addis Ababa and Khartoum have held each other in mutual hostage situations for almost 30 years as each regime battled civil violence. Each has the capacity either to hurt the other seriously or to help the other achieve national reconciliation. Emperor Haile Selassie played a major role in the negotiations which led to the 1972 accord that halted the civil war in the Sudan for more than 11 years.
If these strategic reasons are not enough to prompt the new regime to seek normalized relations with Ethiopia and Libya, then the new government should do so to make clear that it is not simply a continuation of the Nimeiry regime under another name. Reconciliation with Libya and Ethiopia will be a popular act among the Sudanese people, who feel a fundamental affinity with the Ethiopians and have no particular animosity toward the Libyans.
A second set of reasons the US should support this reconciliation is that it will facilitate long- and short-term efforts to save the victims of famine in northeast Africa. Ethiopians and Sudanese governments have in the past been able to settle all outstanding problems between them (borders and refugees in particular), and such a settlement could be revived. Political refugees from Ethiopia have in the past been resettled in the Sudan (which suffers from underpopulation, not the reverse) in areas far from the border. Not only will immediate relief be easier with improved bilateral relations, but the long-term plight of the refugees and the starving of both nations will be more quickly and easily handled.
The United States has nothing to lose in Sudanese reconciliation with Libya, Ethiopia, and the Soviet Union. The Soviets are not particularly popular in the Sudan, and communism there has always been more of a rallying point for leftist intellectuals than a pervasive, pro-Soviet doctrine. When Nimeiry and his colleagues came to power in May 1969 they were very pro-Soviet: This was the least popular aspect of their regime at that time. A communist-led coup attempt against them failed in July 1971, principally because the communists did not have enough military followers to man the strategic points in the capital, or enough support from the noncommissioned officers and soldiers. The three days of the communist hold on Khartoum illustrated the lack of support for such a regime. Not only is communism in the Sudan an unlikely scenario, but Sudanese regimes have been able in the past to have strong relations with the United States and yet normal relations with the Soviets -- such as the military government of Lt. Gen. Ibrahim Abbud in 1958-64. Even Nimeiry was able to achieve nearly normal relations with both mercurial neighbors and the Soviets periodically in the 1970s while retaining a very strong security link with the US and Egypt. The Sudanese may be unhappy with the extent of American support for the obnoxious Nimeiry, but even Sudanese leftists are unimpressed by the Soviet largess: The only project most Sudanese can point to as a Soviet gift is the hospital at Soba.
The regime in Khartoum, the prospects for democracy in the Sudan, and the victims of starvation in adjacent areas of the Sudan and Ethiopia all have much to gain from Sudanese rapprochement with the Soviets, Libyans, and Ethiopians. The United States should support the Sudanese initiative, and resist the temptation to view the area in stark black and white. This approach did not serve American interests in the region when then-Secretary of State John Foster Dulles tried in the 1950s, and it will not be any more successful today.
Sally Ann Baynard is an associate research scientist at Foreign Area Studies of American University.