The following editorial first appeared in the Los Angeles Times:
Last fall, President Obama offered a sweet deal to one of the most reviled regimes on Earth: If the government of Sudan would allow a referendum on secession by the southern half of the country and abide by the election results, the United States would take steps to remove the country from the State Department’s list of terrorism sponsors. The election went off, the south voted overwhelmingly to secede, and now the administration is reportedly moving to honor its promise — to the chagrin of many human rights advocates who point out that the Khartoum regime committed genocide in the Darfur region and conditions there have not improved a whit.
Whether the administration should be rewarding the government for good behavior in the south even as it continues to commit atrocities in the west is a thorny foreign policy question. But we have a more straightforward one: Why does Washington keep a terrorism list, anyway? Do we keep countries on the list because they’re genuinely sponsors of terrorism, or because we want to punish their governments for other reasons? And if it’s the latter, which recent events seem to indicate, wouldn’t it be more honest and effective to keep separate lists, one for exporters of terrorism and others for human rights violators or other bad actors?
Designation on the terrorism list carries hefty economic sanctions, including a variety of financial restrictions, a ban on defense exports and sales and other penalties. There are currently only four countries on it: Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria. There were five until 2008, but the Bush administration removed North Korea to reward Pyongyang for cooperating on nuclear issues. After it became clear that the cooperation was illusory, the Obama administration considered putting it back on the list — but ultimately opted not to after a classified study indicated that Pyongyang wasn’t sponsoring international terrorism. Details, details.
North Korea is just one example of a trend: Countries get on the list by supporting terrorists, but ending that support is seldom taken as sufficient reason for delisting them. Although Cuba backed violent Marxist movements around the world during the Cold War, there’s nothing to indicate that it’s still doing so — but Washington doesn’t like Cuba, so it’s still on the list. Sudan was listed in 1993 because Khartoum was a den of radical Islamists at the time, harboring such notorious figures as Osama bin Laden and 1993 World Trade Center bomber Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, but today it’s reportedly cooperating with the U.S. on counter-terrorism efforts.
We’re in no position to judge whether Sudan is still a terrorism sponsor. But we do think that if the list is to be meaningful, then the only legitimate basis for delisting Sudan would be if it has ended its involvement in terrorism, not as a quid pro quo for holding the referendum. Using the list as a tool of coercion on other issues tells hostile governments that the U.S. doesn’t really care if they stop backing terrorists, and has other priorities it considers just as important. Economic sanctions against human rights abusers or nuclear proliferators are an excellent idea, but they should be kept separate from terrorism sanctions. And while we’re at it, if we’re going to delist Sudan, it’s past time to take another look at Cuba.