The once great Ottoman Empire went into a prolonged decline.  Rulers of peripheral territories attempted to make themselves functionally independent.  The most successful of these hustlers was Muhammad Ali, nominally the governor of Egypt.[1]  Among his other ventures, he launched an Egyptian conquest of the neighboring Muslim states south along the Nile.  That territory is called Sudan.  After his death, this “khedivate” went into decline, the British occupied Egypt to safeguard their own interest in the Suez Canal,[2] and an Islamist rebellion in Sudan got out of hand (from the Anglo-Egyptian perspective).[3]  Afterward, things cooked along very unhappily until Britain’s retreat from empire after the Second World War.  Over Egyptian protests, Sudan got its independence in 1956. 

            Independent Sudan has not had a happy history.  For one thing, hardly anyone had any notion of “democracy.”  There have been half a dozen military coups d’etat, but the reality is that two dictators ruled the country, one from 1969 to 1985 and the other from 1989 to 2019.  Army officers have entrenched themselves as the key government institution, raking in wealth along the way.  They aren’t much inclined to surrender their advantages.  Under external pressure they have been willing to make occasional cosmetic gestures toward a “democratic transition.” 

For another thing, British rule had papered over the conflicts between Arabs and non-Arabs, Muslims and non-Muslims, Arab Muslims dominated the North, non-Arabs occupied the western territory of Darfur, and the South is peopled by Christians and Animists.  Between 1955 and 1972, and then again between 1983 and 2005, civil war pitted North against South.  Overlapping this struggle, between 2004 and—to be honest—the present, the Khartoum government has waged war in the western territory of Darfur.  The North-South war ended with the creation of the new country of South Sudan in 2011.  Both conflicts were deadly in an extreme.  Huge numbers of refugees fled the conflict. 

Under very heavy pressure, the Muslim military leaders agreed to surrender territory to rebels as part of “peace processes.”  As is the case with “democratic transition,” the soldiers don’ttake these commitments seriously over the long run.  In both cases, they are just waiting for some other crisis in some other far-away place to divert the attention of foreign meddlers. 

At the end of 2018, an internal economic crisis led to huge demonstrations in the streets of Khartoum.  In April 2019, the soldiers tossed overboard the long-ruling dictator, Omar al-Bashir; in Summer 2019, they struck a deal with civilian opponents of the government.  Since then, Western governments, especially the United States, have been supporting a democratic transition.  Earlier in April 2023, two different factions of the soldiers fell out over who would actually rule. 

Is “Democracy” something that can be established in any culture?[4] The answer to that question rests with the choices of the “men with guns.”  Whether Washington likes it or not. 

[1] On this fascinating, complicated man, see: Muhammad Ali Pasha – Wikipedia 

[2] On their other activities, see: The Perils of Adventure 2 | waroftheworldblog 

[3] The movie “Khartoum” (dir. Basil Dearden, 1966) manages to make the whole thing dull.  The several versions of “The Four Feathers: (dir. Zoltan Korda, 1939; dir. Shekhar Kapur, 2002) are rather better movies without throwing more light on the subject.  See Rudyard Kipling, “Fuzzy Wuzzy.”  Fuzzy-Wuzzy by Rudyard Kipling (

[4] Walter Russell Mead, “In Sudan, Another ‘Democracy’ Push Fails,” WSJ, 25 April 2023, is seething. 

Making a Difference.

For a long time, Sudan had been the “bete noire” of humanitarian activists.  The government in Khartoum provided shelter to Osama bin Laden before American pressure mounted to such a level that he had to be invited to relocate to Afghanistan.  It waged a grisly war in the western province of Darfur.  This earned Sudan widespread condemnation for “genocide.”  Then it ramped-up a smoldering conflict between the Muslim north and the Christian/Animist South Sudan.  Eventually, the United States played a leading role in achieving national independence for South Sudan in July 2011.[1]

This arguably marked a considerable success for the foreign policy of President Barack Obama.  One question is whether it caused American diplomats to become too invested in that apparent success to see the possible flaws and even to correctly judge the character of the men who took power.   They owed their positions in part—but only in part—to American diplomacy.

Immediately, a problem arose: South Sudan wasn’t a “nation”; it was an agglomeration of tribes.  The two chief tribes were the Dinka and the Nuer.  Although bitter hostilities had pitted Dinka against Nuer in the past, the two groups united to fight the government of Sudan.  At independence, Salva Kiir, a Dinka leader became president, and Riek Machar, a Nuer leader, became vice-president.

Neither peace nor unity lasted very long.  First, Riek Machar lost his position as vice-president.  Then, in December 2013 civil war broke out between the Dinka and the Nuer.  Many people perished in the fighting.  The United Nations brokered a series of peace agreements that were honored only in the breach by the warring parties.  Deaths have mounted into the tens of thousands.  Generally, the Western press and humanitarian groups, like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, presented ample evidence of the mass killings to the Western public.  Generally, that public showed no interest in these events.

That left it to governments to decide what course to follow, then to make the case for their policies to the voting public.  Here the wheels came off American diplomacy.  Although the Obama administration had played an important role in creating the South Sudan, it failed to engage with the subsequent crisis.  By Summer 2014, humanitarian groups were urging the United States to use an arms embargo and targeted economic sanctions (of the sort rapidly applied to Russia after it re-took the Crimea from Ukraine) to try to restrain the killing.  However, division ruled in the American government.

In Summer 2016, the United States urged the U.N. to authorize the sending of 4,000 additional peace-keeping troops to the capital city of Juba.  In September 2016, the American ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, got the government of South Sudan to agree to admit additional peace-keeping troops.  It appears that President Kiir only agreed to this to get Power to go back to Washington.  So, far none have actually been allowed into the country.

By November 2016, with the Obama administration headed for the exits, Power finally won support within the government for an American proposal to the U.N. to impose both economic sanctions and an arms embargo.  In late December 2016, the U.N. Security Council rejected this proposal.

Why?  Perhaps because the Russians opposed sanctions, and African countries didn’t want to impose sanctions.  Perhaps because it is safe to defy an outgoing administration.[2]

[1] Somini Sengupta, “Failures on South Sudan Highlight the Limits of U.S. Diplomacy,” NYT, 19 January 2017.

[2] And not just for foreign countries.  This is the second recent article implicitly critical of Samantha Power as more theatrical than effective.  See: Helene Cooper, “From a Fateful Motorcade,..,” NYT, 6 January 2017.

What did we learn from the Report of the 9/11 Commission? III

Osama bin Laden seems to have encountered Sayidd Qutb’s philosophy through the tape recordings of a Palestinian evangelist named Abdullah Azzam, while attending Saudi Arabia’s Abdul Aziz University in the late Seventies. (p. 82.) Bin Laden adopted this worldview and only the conversion of everyone everywhere to his version of Islam would end his war with them. (pp. 76-77.)

Then the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to support a threatened Communist regime. The Afghans fought back and devout Muslims from all over the world came to participate in the “jihad” against the Soviets. While the CIA channeled immense amounts of American aid to the “mujahideen through the Pakistani intelligence service (ISI), a parallel private network—the so-called “Golden Chain”—also raised money in Saudi Arabia and recruited fighters for Afghanistan. Osama Bin Laden and Abdullah Azzam played an important part in this latter effort.

At some point Bin Laden developed “a vision of himself as head of an international jihad confederation.” (p. 86.) When, in April 1988, the Soviets cried uncle and announced their plans to leave Afghanistan by the end of the year, Bin Laden and Azzam cast around for a new enemy to attack. Azzam argued for struggling to create a pure Islamic state in Afghanistan, then attacking Israel; Bin Laden argued for a global war. (p. 84.)

In fall 1989 Hassan al Turabi, an important Islamic fundamentalist leader in Sudan, invited Bin Laden to use Sudan as a base of operations. Turabi had a vision of Sunni and Shi’a putting aside their religious differences to make common cause against Israel and the United States. (p. 90.) Did Azzam oppose this move? On 24 November 1989 Azzam died in a car bombing. At the time, the bombing was attributed, but which now looks suspiciously like Bin Laden settling the debate.

Bin Laden then accepted al Turabi’s invitation. He sent men to begin buying property, while he himself returned to Saudi Arabia. Soon afterward, Iraq invaded Kuwait and threatened Saudi Arabia. A broad international coalition formed, led by the United States, to oppose a move that threatened the stability of the world oil market. Between August 1990 and April 1991 Bin Laden made himself deeply unpopular with the Saudi government by bitterly criticizing its decision to ally with the United States rather than calling on Islamic volunteers to oppose the invasion of Kuwait. By this time he was already profoundly anti-American. (p. 87.)

In April 1991 he escaped from Saudi Arabia and established himself in the Sudan. For the next few years Bin Laden worked hard at building covert international networks for finance and operations. He called his group al Qaeda. In this effort he seems to have had the strong support of Hassan al Turabi. The Sudanese leader created a “Popular Arab and Islamic Conference” as a forum for “violent Islamist extremists” who came to confer in the Sudan. Most of these groups forged links to al Qaeda. (p. 90.) Sudan also provided a safe haven for other terrorists who would attack surrounding Arab countries.


Thomas H. Kean and Lee H. Hamilton, The 9/11 Report: The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2004).

The Perils of Adventure 2

Charles George “Chinese” Gordon had some odd helpers in extending the British Empire.

Romolo Gessi (1831-1881) had an exotic background (his father was an Italo-Armenian employed on the Levant in the British consular service) and an adventurous disposition.  He served as an interpreter with the British Army during the Crimean War (1854-55).  Here he first encountered Gordon.  In 1859 he fought as a volunteer with the Sardinian Army against the Austrians.  After the completion of the “Risorgimento” he started a business in Rumania, where he again met Gordon.  In 1873, when the khedive of Egypt appointed Gordon governor of the province of Equatoria in the Sudan, he invited Gessi to join him.  On Gordon’s orders Gessi circumnavigated Lake Albert.  Bent out of shape by perceived slights from the Egyptian government, Gessi resigned.  In 1877-1878 he tried to reach western Ethiopia from the valley of the Blue Nile.  This expedition came to nothing, so he answered a new call from Gordon who had been appointed governor-general of the whole of the Sudan.  He made Gessi governor of the Bahr al Ghazal province and ordered him to suppress the slave trade.  The leading figure in that trade was Suleiman al-Zubayr.  Gessi chased Suleiman, then killed him in battle.  Meanwhile, Gordon had been replaced by an Egyptian governor who dismissed Gessi.  Gessi had fallen ill and died at Suez on his way home.

Eduard Schnitzler (1840-1892) had a mundane background and an adventurous disposition.  He studied medicine, receiving his degree in 1866.  Unlike most doctors–German or otherwise, now or then–Schnitzler had no interest in a comfortable life, social respectability, and an early tee-time.  No sooner had he graduated from the University of Berlin than he signed up with the Turkish government.  From 1866 to 1875 Schnitzler was in Ottoman employment in the Balkans.  Not only did he kick over the traces by rejecting conventional employment, but he also took a Muslim name, Mehmed Emin.

In 1875 Gordon hired him as medical officer for Equatoria in the Sudan.  Emin impressed Gordon with his administrative abilities.  In 1878 the Khedive of Egypt appointed Emin as governor of Equatoria province when Gordon resigned.  In 1881 the Mahdist revolt began farther north.  This cut off Emin from all contact with the outside world.  Emin continued to rule Equatoria for the next seven years.  In 1888 Henry M. Stanley arrived to “save” Emin in the same way that he had “saved” Livingston.  Unlike Livingston, Emin went down to the coast with Stanley.  Then the German government, belatedly becoming interested in Africa, asked Emin to lead an expedition to establish German territorial claims around Lake Victoria.  The expedition did not work out well.  Eventually, Emin sent most of his caravan down to the coast to safety, while he remained behind to take care of those members of the expedition who had fallen ill.  Arab slave traders murdered him in Kanema.

Rudolf Slatin (1857-1932) just had an adventurous disposition.  He grew up in Vienna and studied business.  His father died when he was sixteen, so the boy got a job in a bookstore.  In Cairo, Egypt.  Cairo seemed exotic, but not exotic enough.  He went up the Nile to Khartoum with a German businessman, then to Kordofan with a German ornithologist, then back to Khartoum because of a rebellion.  He met Emin Pasha, who promised to recommend him to Gordon, but Slatin had just turned 21 so he had to go back to Austria for his army service.  After fighting in Bosnia, Slatin accepted an invitation from Gordon to come to the Sudan.  Slatin served as governor of Darfur (1879-1883), then was a prisoner of the Mahdists (1883-1895), then made a daring escape, then wrote a good book, then helped defeat the Mahdists (1898), and then helped govern the Sudan (1899-1914).  The rest of his life was quiet.  Comparatively.