George Clooney yells 'fire!' about Sudan
George Clooney says he recently found himself sleeping overnight in a small hut in southern Sudan. A sign inside offered some blunt advice: If the structure catches fire, run outside and shout, "Fire, fire!"
On Tuesday Clooney came to Washington to do just that. In meetings with President Obama, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the Council on Foreign Relations, he did his best to raise the alarm about what threatens to be the world's bloodiest crisis in 2011 -- not Afghanistan or Iraq, but Sudan.
The huge African nation hasn't gotten much attention in the last couple of years, since the warfare and humanitarian emergency in Darfur somewhat subsided. But now a new, potentially even bigger crisis looms. On Jan. 9, a referendum will almost certainly mandate a declaration of independence by Southern Sudan, a large, oil-rich region populated mostly by Christians and animists that fought a two-decade long civil war with the mostly Arab and Muslim north before a 2005 peace deal.
The peace accord mandated the upcoming referendum. But the Sudanese central government, led by the indicted war criminal Omar Bashir, strongly opposes southern independence. Preparations for the referendum are running far behind schedule. Border disputes between the two sides have not been resolved, including control over a key oil-producing region. Both the north and the south have been using oil revenues to stock their armies with tanks and other heavy weapons.
So the danger is clear. "If we do nothing, if we turn our backs and walk away, 100,000 people, half a million people, a million people are going to die," Clooney said to a packed house at the Council on Foreign Relations. "We can either do something now, or come in afterward when there is a terrible mess to clean up."
Clooney recently joined the council, an organization mostly composed of corporate movers and shakers, foreign policy makers, and journalists; he's undoubtedly the only member who can brag, as he did Tuesday night, that "I was the two-time sexiest man alive." But unlike some Hollywood celebrities who dabble in international affairs -- Brad Pitt comes to mind -- Clooney comes across as serious and well-informed about his issue. He has traveled to Sudan several times; he just returned from a trip to the south with John Prendergast, one of the foremost Western experts on the region, who is a co-founder of the Enough Project.
The two concluded, as Prendergast put it, that "it is late, but not too late" for the United States and other nations to prevent a new war. The Obama administration neglected the issue until recently; having vowed in Oct. 2009 to pursue a carrots and sticks policy aimed at Bashir, the administration did little to follow up.
However, Clooney and Prendergast said they found Obama seized with the issue when they met with him and several of his senior advisers at the White House Tuesday. "You could feel the energy when we walked in that room," Clooney said. "It's palpable in the room -- it's, 'let's get on with this.' In the middle of a very political season, he [Obama] is involved. He knows all the things that we know and we were just there."
"President Obama a couple of months ago asked a lot of questions [about Sudan] and didn't like the answers," Prendergast said. "He lit a fire." A new special envoy, Princeton Lyman, has been dispatched to the region to join Scott Gration, the somewhat controversial former general who has worked the Sudan issue for Obama. An interagency group at the White House is meanwhile holding regular meetings to determine how the United States can advance the goal of a peaceful referendum and a settlement between north and south.
So what can the administration do? Clooney and Prendergast advocate a stronger mix of incentives and disincentives for Bashir. They point out that much stronger sanctions are possible, including the targeting of bank accounts and companies linked to the regime and its senior figures. More controversially, they say the United States should be prepared to normalize relations with Bashir and even consent to the suspension of his indictment by the International Criminal Court, if he makes peace with both southern Sudan and Darfur.
In the worst case, Prendergast said, the United States should be prepared to prevent the North from using its air force to indiscriminately attack the civilian population of the South, as it did in Darfur. That implies military intervention.
Though he spent the day meeting high level officials, Clooney said one of his aims was to motivate as many average citizens as possible to contact the White House and Congress and support aggressive U.S. action to prevent a war. "I don't think of myself as a journalist and don't pretend to be a journalist," he said. "My job is to show up, because cameras follow me. That is the best way to spend my celebrity credit card."
Clooney's alarm is a real one -- and "it''s a relief," as he put it, that Obama has focused on it. But preventing a war in Sudan at this late hour will not be easy -- nor will be marshaling support among Americans for an intervention in yet another Muslim nation. "I can be a polarizing figure, too," the actor said. If Sudan gets ugly, so might the debate on what to do about it.
| October 13, 2010; 12:30 PM ET
Categories: Diehl | Tags: Jackson Diehl
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