Secretary of State Madeleine Albright ordered mid-level US diplomats back into Sudan last week after a 19-month pullout precipitated by security concerns. The move is the beginning of the process to resume full diplomatic relations with the embattled East African state.
Africa's largest country by land mass, Sudan is better known for harboring terrorists, persecuting minority religious groups, and ceaseless guerrilla warfare. Still, only Secretary Albright, herself an uncompromising advocate of America's stance against terrorism and human rights violations, could make such a gesture without fearing misinterpretation of Washington's intentions.
However, closer analysis of political developments in the region suggests she may have had few other choices than to reengage Khartoum's Muslim fundamentalists in order to protect other, more vital US interests.
Topping the list of US concerns: Egypt's chronic water shortage and fears that disintegration of Sudan's territorial integrity could cause chaos at the mouth of the Nile, compromising Cairo's existing water allocations that flow the length of the Sudan.
At a time of heightened stress in the dysfunctional Middle East peace process, Egypt's attention and support are better directed toward rekindling reconciliation efforts than worrying about water.
This consideration is further complicated by reports that Saudi Arabia's agribusinessmen are eyeing Sudan's 200 million acres of arable farmland for large-scale investment. Riyadh's reasoning, shaped in part by heir-apparent Crown Prince Abdullah, is to develop food and water supply strategies that would make the region independent of American grasslands should Washington not see eye-to-eye with Saudi policies in the future.
Then, there's the coercion factor. For over a year, China has been steadily increasing its investment in Sudan's lucrative oil fields, estimated to hold some 3.5 billion barrels of highly desirable crude.
Beijing's UN Security Council veto against further sanctions on Khartoum may have been the penultimate negative inducement to reengage.
With little chance of success in containing Sudan's Muslim fundamentalists through tighter sanctions, and with China's guaranteed purchase of Khartoum's oil production assuring Sudan's economic revival, American policymakers may have concluded a change in course was not only inevitable, but essential to maintaining some leverage opposite Washington's only remaining ideological foe - Beijing.
There were positive inducements as well. The government of President Omer El Bashir has shrewdly conducted its peace campaign to end the country's bloody civil war by tactically retreating on virtually every point of contention with rebel factions in southern states.
The burden of completing the peace process has therefore shifted onto the shoulders of rebel leader John Garang, the only remaining holdout.
Having snubbed even the likes of Nelson Mandela with regard to peace talks with Bashir, Garang has lost clout with virtually every US policy institution except Congress, where he still curries favor with lobby groups fighting Christian persecution. Bashir has also made constructive overtures on sensitive issues like terrorism. For example, last April he invited US officials to bring CIA and FBI counter-terrorism teams to set up shop in Khartoum.
Nevertheless, Secretary Albright's decision is not without risks. Iran maintains close philosophical and military ties with Khartoum. While Tehran's new guard appears outwardly moderate, it remains to be seen whether the change is a lasting legacy or a passing fancy.
In a world where geopolitical relationships now change in a matter of months and years, not decades, Madeleine Albright is proving that America's foreign policy apparatus can develop preemptive, decisive, but measured responses to shifting sands in far-off places. More importantly, only she, with her reputation as a no-nonsense purveyor of US foreign policy interests, can do so without giving America's foes any wiggle room for further misdeeds.
In the case of Sudan, her message is clear: America is prepared to more fully evaluate any signs of change in Khartoum's behavior, but actions always speak louder than words.
* Mansoor Ijaz is chairman of New York-based Crescent Investment Management. He regularly advises US policymakers on Islamic and oil-related issues that concern US national security.