Hibiscus with Ginger

Academics and US Foreign Policy

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Recently, Nicholas Kristof published a piece complaining about the role of academics, their relevance in the public sphere, and their accessibility. Plenty of scholars have responded, either arguing that academics are accessible (just look at all the blogs!) or pointing to the economic systems that encourage them to write for an exclusive audience. One of the best responses I’ve read was by Daniel Drezner, a political scientist who points to the differences in incentives: in order to succeed, academics must make new arguments and be “cutting edge” while to be relevant for policy makers and the general public, they must express a general academic consensus. As a result, academic insights are more often sidelined in policy discussions where they would be quite useful.

This dynamic was achingly apparent a couple of weeks ago when the US House of Representatives assembled a subcommittee hearing on US policy towards Sudan and South Sudan. The stated goal was to begin creating a unified policy towards both Sudan and South Sudan, a goal justified in that the politics of the two countries will remained inextricably linked for the foreseeable future.

Understanding the links between Sudan and South Sudan seems like a good thing, but the discussion and the recommendations made were marred by cringe-worthy analysis of Sudan that ultimately obscured the challenges facing the countries and the abilities of the US to affect them. This was most apparent in the testimony of Walid Phares, who characterized Sudan’s government is a “jihadist regime” at war with five regions that it denies ethnic rights with an Arab supremacist ideology.

It wasn’t entirely clear what “jihadist” meant in this context—I assume he meant that the regime has an ideology linked to political Islam, but given that the term wasn’t contextualized, it’s hard to say. One can certainly agree that that the governing political party in Sudan is Islamist and has used religious conservatism in both its domestic and foreign policies in different ways. At the same time, that ideology isn’t why other parts of the country are marginalized (they were marginalized by other regimes that were less religiously oriented), nor is the government the sole Islamist organization in the country. I kept wondering when Phares would acknowledge that four of the five regions he pointed to were predominantly Muslim—or that one of the rebel groups in Darfur is also Islamist.

His characterization was also frustrating in how it conflated religion and ethnicity. Yes, there’s racism in Sudan (both on a personal and institutional level), but most of the ethnic discrimination that takes place in Sudan is connected to the way authoritarianism and power structures function. Most power comes through patronage networks—to gain access to resources (a job, government papers, etc), your way is much easier if you have a connection, and even easier still if that connection is prestigious. When someone gets a job with some power, whether it be political, economic, or social, he or she will be expected to take care of others within his or her networks. Patronage on the individual level then carries over to the national level; resources get allocated to central areas, where those in power are located.

Political parties make up one crucial aspect of this sort of patronage, but it isn’t exclusively political—people also take care of their extended families and friends using the same resources. For example, one is most likely to get a job or get promoted if part of the “right” political party, but one might also get the position if part of the “right” family or if one has a good friend in the department. These personal connections are described as wasta, and they function alongside political patronage to give greater opportunities to people from certain areas with certain pre-existing connections.

What are the implications for this sort of governance? At its core, this sort of system encourages corruption, since such networks actively hinder transparent government practices. It also promotes regional marginalization and institutionalized racism. Most “non-Arab” groups are geographically located in regions away from the central areas, and thus, have fewer connections that they can draw upon when making claims upon the state. Ethnic minorities (including the Nuba, Beja, and Fur) often have the least access to resources and do live in the most marginalized areas of the country, quite a long way from Khartoum.

Still, it would be a mistake to focus exclusively on an “Arab” vs. “African” divide—Arab groups living outside of the central areas are often marginalized as well. Even government-supported groups (whether “African” or “Arab”) often face poverty and a lack of infrastructural support in many parts of the country.

Discussions of the political dynamics in South Sudan, on the other hand, were almost non-existent at this hearing. There was much talk of South Sudanese leaders being long friends to the US, but very little discussion of what prompted the fighting in the first place. At one point, one of the panelists makes a comment that the “space for civil society has decreased,” without giving any explanation of how or why. Many have remarked upon the ways that the SPLM used the Comprehensive Peace Agreement to not only gain independence, but also to cement power, marginalizing other political parties. It’s in this context that journalists have been restricted and civil society has been hindered by the government, a government that is often using methods that the northern government used in the past. Those dynamics really should have been discussed more explicitly, since they are related not only to issues of democracy in the region, but also to the fighting that began in December.

Ignoring the political dynamics of South Sudan while painting an inaccurate portrait of the politics of Sudan helps to further an outdated and oversimplified narrative in which South Sudan is the “good guy,” persecuted by the villainous Sudan. One can recognize that people in South Sudan had (and have) legitimate political grievances without valorizing political leaders, many of whom have mixed motives and make questionable decisions.

Most importantly, such analysis makes it almost impossible for the US to craft coherent policy towards Sudan and South Sudan. Some of the suggestions given in the hearing make sense, but there are real trade-offs that weren’t discussed. Democracy promotion programs will likely hinder diplomatic efforts, as will discussions of justice and accountability. At the same time, all of these strategies may well be important in different circumstances and in different regions. Priorities must be balanced depending on the political and economic circumstances at play at any given moment, but that is only possible if policy makers keep in mind not only the different levels of influence in Sudan and South Sudan but also the underlying political phenomena that both countries are dealing with right now.

Overall, it was disappointing (although not surprising) that no academic voices were present to give perspective into these dynamics. It isn’t “cutting edge” or innovative to describe how corruption and authoritarianism function in a state, but understanding these things should be a prerequisite to any formulation of policy towards these countries.


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