How coup in Sudan challenges Biden’s desire to support democracy

Ebaid Ahmed/Reuters
Sudanese demonstrators march and chant during a protest against the military takeover, in Atbara, Sudan, Oct. 27, 2021, in this social media image.
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Sudan’s military launched a coup this week mere hours after a U.S. special envoy warned Sudanese Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan against a power grab, the State Department said. Indeed, the United States condemned the coup and suspended $700 million in aid, but diplomats described the coup privately as a “slap in the face.”

If the U.S. response to Sudan rings any bells, it’s no doubt because just eight months ago a military coup against Myanmar’s fledgling democracy was also met with tough U.S. rhetoric but little action. Sanctions were imposed, but nothing that dissuaded Myanmar’s military leaders.

Why We Wrote This

Can the Biden administration exercise restraint in pursuit of democracy abroad? That is a question raised anew by the coup in Sudan, where the U.S. has invested time, money, and effort.

Some Sudanese voiced extreme frustration with the Biden administration’s policy of restraint.

“If the U.S. is genuine about its calls for democracy and democratic reform, it should be much more assertive,” says Samahir Mubarak of the Sudanese Professionals Association, a leader of the 2019 protests that toppled Sudan’s previous dictatorship.

Sudanese political factions have united in opposition to the coup, calling for “total civil disobedience” and a nationwide work stoppage that entered its fifth day Friday. A multimillion-person protest is planned for Saturday.

“The U.S. and the international community are talking as if they want us to return to the status quo of Oct. 24, but [that] has proven unsustainable,” Ms. Mubarak says.

Before a military coup and bloody crackdown on Monday flipped the narrative, U.S. officials believed Sudan had all the makings of a success story, a bright spot where Washington could encourage a post-revolution country’s march toward stable democracy.

The 2019 uprising that ended the rule of dictator Omar al-Bashir had led to a power-sharing deal between civilian protesters and the military, a three-year transition agreement brokered in part by the United States and the international community.

For Washington, the deal offered a clear road map without widespread bloodshed, instability, or repression.

Why We Wrote This

Can the Biden administration exercise restraint in pursuit of democracy abroad? That is a question raised anew by the coup in Sudan, where the U.S. has invested time, money, and effort.

Yet this week the U.S. issued a condemnation and suspended $700 million in aid to Sudan after the military dissolved the civilian government with which it had jointly ruled, arrested officials, and seized complete power. On Thursday President Joe Biden denounced the coup as a “grave setback,” urging the generals to restore civilian rule and put the country on a path back to democracy.

In fact, the military had acted only hours after a meeting Sunday between the U.S. special envoy to the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, and Sudanese Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. Ambassador Feltman had warned against a power grab, the State Department said, and stressed that such a move would call into question U.S. assistance and support to Sudan, which is facing 400% inflation and rising unemployment.

Diplomats described the coup privately as a “slap in the face” that reverberated from the region to the halls of Washington.

If the U.S. response to Sudan so far rings any bells, it is no doubt because just eight months ago – when the Biden administration was not yet a month in office – a military coup against Myanmar’s fledgling democracy was also met with tough U.S. rhetoric but little action. Some sanctions were imposed, but nothing that dissuaded Myanmar’s military leaders from pursuing their anti-democratic course.

It’s true that the Sudan coup has been met with a flurry of diplomatic activity – led by Secretary of State Antony Blinken – aimed at demonstrating that the international community is united in demanding a return to Sudan’s democratic transition. But so far there are few signs the military is listening.

“Restraint theory”

What Sudan is confirming, say analysts, is that while Mr. Biden wants to be the world’s defender of democracy, that defense, when it confronts serious backsliding, is not likely to extend much beyond sharp condemnation and eventual financial measures targeting anti-democratic leaders.

Moreover, some foreign policy scholars say, the world is witnessing the rise in the U.S. of what has been called restraint theory, which holds that wielding American coercive power – military or even economic – rarely yields positive results.

Marwan Ali/AP
Sudanese security forces are deployed during a protest a day after the military seized power in Khartoum, Sudan, Oct. 26, 2021. The takeover came after weeks of mounting tensions between military and civilian leaders over the course and the pace of Sudan's transition to democracy.

Better, therefore, the theory continues, to refrain from wielding that power so as to keep America out of trouble – the kind recently experienced in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya.

“We are seeing this theory put to the test in a series of foreign policy crises of varying severity, from Myanmar to Sudan, from the Taiwan Straits to Turkey,” says Peter Feaver, director of Duke University’s Program in American Grand Strategy and a former official on President George W. Bush’s National Security Council.

Calling the Biden administration’s emerging preference for restraint the “don’t just do something, stand there” policy, Professor Feaver says a growing chorus is questioning whether what might be seen as a post-Afghanistan reaction is going too far.

“No one is arguing for a U.S. military response” in any of the bubbling foreign policy crises Mr. Biden is facing, he adds, “but some are wondering whether the reflexive restraint policy is adequately securing American interests.”

Coalition of voices

Others say they are heartened by how Mr. Biden has shifted the U.S. to an emphasis on diplomacy, and emphasize that the exercise of soft power should not be underestimated.

“The U.S. government is not without levers; we have some important levers in Sudan,” says Makila James, a former deputy assistant secretary for East Africa and The Sudans. “The first of those is that we are standing strong with the [Sudanese] who want to see this transition go forward – the young people and the women who delivered this transition in the first place.”

“Don’t get me wrong,” Ambassador James adds, saying she would like to see “a stronger response” from the U.S. But she also recognizes that the diplomatic path the administration is taking is unlikely to yield results overnight.

“It takes time to assemble a coalition of voices, and the administration is right to recognize that a coalition of Western powers, regional powers, and neighbors is what this situation calls for.”

She finds particularly encouraging how the administration is tapping into the African Union, which she says has emerged in recent years as a strong advocate of Africa’s democracies.

A dispiriting turn

In Sudan, once a source of regional instability, Ambassador Feltman was directly involved in assisting the transition and supporting the civilian government.

Sudan TV/AP
The head of Sudan's military, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, announces in a televised address that he was dissolving the country's ruling Sovereign Council as well as the government led by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, in Khartoum, Sudan, Oct. 25, 2021.

Washington was also quick to funnel economic aid so that the now-deposed civilian prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, could hold up tangible benefits of democracy to the Sudanese people despite the austerity measures and hyperinflation.

“Within USAID, there was a real suggestion that Sudan could be the next success story of stabilization and development for the U.S.,” says Jonas Horner, senior Sudan analyst at the International Crisis Group.

Washington also was engaging regional actors with varied political and economic interests in Sudan and ties to its military, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, to prevent them from acting as potential spoilers.

For veteran diplomats working on the region, the coup landed as a “body blow.”

“I think if you are in the State Department right now, you have to be wondering: If we spend this much diplomatic time, obligate this many financial resources, and we still cannot get it right, what are the prospects of democratic transition in Chad, Guinea, and Mali – or elsewhere?” says Cameron Hudson, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center who served former U.S. envoys to Sudan.

“Washington is not the dominant actor it used to be. This has broader implications for our ability to shape events across this entire region.”

Some Sudanese voiced extreme frustration.

“If the U.S. is genuine about its calls for democracy and democratic reform, it should be much more assertive about what is happening in Sudan,” says Samahir Mubarak of the Sudan Professionals Association (SPA), a union that led the 2019 protests that toppled Mr. Bashir.

“Just the utter idea that it would cross the military leadership’s minds that they could safely carry out this coup right after they met with Mr. Feltman, this shows that not enough was done,” Ms. Mubarak says via rare access to a private internet line from Khartoum. “It doesn’t read well.”

Coup’s cost to Sudan

After the U.S. froze $700 million in aid, the World Bank followed suit and suspended $2 billion in grants.

Already this year, the U.S. had provided $377 million in humanitarian aid to Sudan, making it the largest humanitarian donor to the country.

The suspended aid included wheat for subsidized bread, cash assistance to the most vulnerable families, and funding for health, energy, and transitional justice projects.

Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters
People protest in front of the headquarters of the Committee to Dismantle the June 30, 1989 Regime, in Khartoum, Sudan, Oct. 6, 2021. The activities of the group, which seeks to undo vestiges of the corruption of the deposed Bashir dictatorship, were frozen by the coup leader this week.

None of the earmarked funds were destined for the military, and none of the funding had passed through the hands of the civilian government, raising concerns that the move will only hurt the Sudanese people without persuading the military to change course.  

“The military doesn’t care who receives humanitarian aid and who starves – they are literally shooting peaceful protesters in the head,” says one Sudanese protester via Facebook who prefers to remain anonymous and derides the funding freeze as a “PR move.”

Yet, despite the crackdown, and to even activists’ surprise, Sudanese are turning out en masse to protest the military power grab, suggesting that the fate of Sudan’s democracy lies more in the streets than in American influence.

Sudanese political factions, divided only a week ago, have united in opposition to the coup, calling for “total civil disobedience” and a nationwide work stoppage that entered its fifth day Friday.

Sharing power “unsustainable”

Sudanese protesters are preparing for a multimillion-person protest Saturday to send a message to the generals that their demand for civilian rule is undeterred.

Now protesters say they will remain in the streets until power is completely handed over to a civilian government, refusing any role for the military.

“The U.S. and the international community are talking as if they want us to return to the status quo of Oct. 24, but a status quo of sharing power with the military has proven unsustainable,” says Ms. Mubarak of the SPA.

“We are very concerned that the military has proven not to be a trustable partner,” she says. “And we have a good memory of who stood on our side and who did not.”

Yet if Sudan’s coup suggests a waning of America’s superpower status, even some experts who see American retrenchment in Mr. Biden’s foreign policy say that if anything is likely to move the U.S. to more robust action, it could be the president’s close association of democratic values with U.S. interests. 

“Biden is especially likely to feel the pressure to move off of a [restraint] posture because his rhetoric about promoting democracy as a counter to autocracy is so pronounced – as pronounced as any since George W. Bush,” Professor Feaver says. “Those are precisely the American interests that are implicated in Myanmar and Sudan.”

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