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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.

By Jackson Diehl  | October 13, 2010; 12:30 PM ET
Categories:  Diehl  | Tags:  Jackson Diehl  
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This could be a boost for Obama if he steps up. A ton of people will furious over a foreign sucess with all that's going wrong at home, but I say a win is a win. Something has to break this unholy deadlock. Obama needs more confidence and he'll be a better leader. A strong result in Sudan could give him that boost he needs to take the reins psychologically. As long as Congress holds us all hostage with their partisanship, the home front is doomed anyway. Might as well get something done and I can't think of anything better than stopping another genocide, basically, for free.

Posted by: wheresmykeys | October 13, 2010 2:36 PM | Report abuse

And we should dump blood & $ into that hell hole why? Sorry, we have enough problems at home to deal with. Besides, we are out of $.

If Clooney wants money and blood, he can take up voluntary collections. Then, he'll see the light.

Posted by: illogicbuster | October 13, 2010 3:55 PM | Report abuse

Two wars is about the limit for a single country. Time to get England, France, Spain, and Germany together as a force to bring peace to the Sudan. If we do get out of Afghanistan, we might be able to lend a hand.

Posted by: Martial | October 13, 2010 6:29 PM | Report abuse

Southern Sudan is not a "hell hole". It is a real place with real people who want to be part of a new self-governing nation. It is in the US's own economic self-interest to support this effort, but more importantly it is the right thing to do.

Posted by: Seattle3 | October 13, 2010 7:11 PM | Report abuse

You can support Sudanese refugees right here in DC and meet a Lost Boy and founder of an organization to provide development aid to south Sudanese communities. Please come to 18th St. Lounge near DuPont Circle next Wednesday, Oct. 20, from 6:30 - 7:30.

$30 suggested donation gets you an open bar and the opportunity to contribute to an incredibly important cause.

The organization is called Rebuild Sudan. For more information, please go to for more information.

Posted by: saunterer | October 13, 2010 8:12 PM | Report abuse

Clooney needs to just move there and shut up. Just another Hollywood self serving POS. BHO won't do jack to help them either. Meet again with him next year and talk about it some more. Talk, talk, talk. Actor meets poser meets actor.

Posted by: BadNews | October 13, 2010 9:17 PM | Report abuse

We, the saintly and righteous American People, must deliver Shock n' Awe followed by some Iraqi Freedom for the people of Sudan.

There is no limit to the amount of good we can perform through our one talent, war.

Posted by: motorfriend | October 14, 2010 12:06 AM | Report abuse

Don't worry George, we'll pick option 2. Coming in afterwards. No oil or oil interests in Sudan.

Posted by: jkarlinsky | October 14, 2010 7:26 AM | Report abuse

Clooney is right, we're much better off taking preventive action than cleaning up the mess tat could result from doing nothing. What happened in the Balkans i the 90's should serve as a lesson for what the results will be if we stand by as one religious group goes about trying to destroy another. Though the US and European governments finally responded after worldwide public opinion recoiled at repeated massacres of Muslims by Serbs, the cost in blood and money would have been much less if action had been taken sooner.

The northern Sudanese need to be warned that any interference or violent action toward the south over the referendum will be met by swift and lethal action by the west. This is the only thing that will deter the north starting another bloodbath.

Posted by: woodbriar | October 14, 2010 4:48 PM | Report abuse

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