Paul Pillar

Corrupting Counterterrorism

The Obama administration has made a new offer to the Sudanese government to persuade it to hold as scheduled in January a referendum in which southern Sudanese are expected to vote to secede. The United States has told Khartoum that if it lets the referendum proceed, Washington will remove Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. The referendum is important; if the government of Omar Bashir were to prevent the vote, the Sudanese civil war would likely resume. And because that government is understandably not happy about the prospect of the oil-rich south leaving Sudan, extra enticements may be needed. But the linkage is clearly artificial. Holding or not holding the secession referendum is a different matter from Khartoum sponsoring or not sponsoring terrorism.

This is hardly the first time in which the list of state sponsors of terrorism has been used as a tool for pursuing objectives other than counterterrorism. During the 1980s, when the United States was tilting toward Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War (during which time Donald Rumsfeld had his picture taken with Saddam Hussein), the United States removed Iraq from the list. A few years later, when Saddam invaded Kuwait, Iraq was put back on the list. Neither move was motivated by any changes in Iraq’s behavior regarding terrorism. North Korea was kept on the list well after it had gotten out of the terrorist business. It was finally taken off the list two years ago, for reasons having to do with cooperation on its nuclear program rather than anything having to do with terrorism.

Still on the list (along with Iran, Syria, and Sudan) is Cuba. The flimsy ostensible reason for keeping it there is that it provides a retirement home for some old members of the Basque ETA and a couple of Colombian groups. The real reason is a disinclination to do anything that looks like a political favor to the Castro regime. The incoming Republican chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the strongly anti-Castro Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, will do what she can to make sure this situation does not change.

As for Sudan, it had already done a lot as of a few years ago to clean up its earlier terrorist act, in which Khartoum in the early 1990s (it was placed on the state sponsors list in 1993) had become a meeting place for a who's who of violent extremists, as well as the home of Osama bin Laden. But any thoughts about delisting it were sidetracked by other issues, including the situations in the south and in Darfur.

As a matter of diplomatic tactics and political realities, these creative uses of the state sponsors list are understandable. Changes in the U.S. posture toward any regime seem to count for more than the appropriateness of the posture itself. Policy makers frequently have to find ways to get tough with, or to make nice to, a regime, depending on whether that regime's stock is going up or coming down. As a salient indicator of official U.S opprobrium, the state sponsors list is a tempting tool.

Using that tool for purposes other than counterterrorism, however, has costs. It cheapens the currency of counterterrorism. It generates confusion about where the U.S. really stands about terrorist-related behavior abroad. Even worse, it sends a message that the United States is not serious about counterterrorism because it is willing to use a major counterterrorist tool for some other objective that apparently has higher priority. This usage also makes it harder to call other states to account for their brazen misuse of counterterrorist tools and rhetoric for other purposes, such as the oppression of ethnic minorities.

It would be better to curb the temptation to use the state sponsors list for anything other than counterterrorism. As Michael Sheehan, a State Department coordinator for counterterrorism in the 1990s, stated when anyone wanted to hijack the state sponsors list for other purposes, “Use your own list—don't use mine.”