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Clooney Does Darfur

Nina Shea

Darfur is one of the gravest humanitarian crises of our time. A remarkable coalition of Jewish, Evangelical, Catholic, and Muslim leaders, and many ordinary citizens too, have joined the Darfur campaign, in the sincere hope that they can help end this tragedy. However the leading man at the Save Darfur Coalition rally in Washington on Sunday, and at a round of congressional meetings and television interviews the preceding week, was actor George Clooney. The last political performance of this Hollywood star was a barrage of strident Bush bashing during the 2004 presidential campaign. Now it seems that he is exploiting Darfur to do more of the same. This creates a major barrier to combating the genocide there.

While Clooney is sharply critical of the Bush Administration for its handling of Darfur, he does not disagree with the administration’s assessment of the facts. In September 2004, the United States became the first state to invoke the Genocide Convention (which was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1948) during an ongoing genocide. The Bush Administration unilaterally determined that Sudan’s Islamic Arab government and its proxy militia of Janjaweed tribesmen are responsible for carrying out racially and ethnically motivated genocide against Darfur’s three Muslim African tribes. Despite Khartoum’s denials and repeated attempts to obfuscate the issue, the American investigative team found “a consistent and widespread pattern of atrocities (killings, rapes and burning of villages)” against the non-Arab villagers. The team also found that 74 percent of those victims interviewed reported that the Sudanese military forces were directly involved in the attacks. The conflict, now three years old and spreading into Chad, is estimated to have taken over 200,000 lives and displaced two and a half million people. The Bush administration stands by its determination of genocide, the Save Darfur Coalition agrees with the president, and, in the meantime, the United Nations waffles.

Clooney, as well as other Save Darfur leaders, also agrees that the Bush administration has done more for Darfur than any other government. A quick review of American policy on Darfur over the last three years in fact shows a major effort on Bush’s part.

The U.S. is the largest, single international donor to Sudan, providing more than 86 percent of the food distributed by the World Food Program, and more than $1.3 billion to fund humanitarian aid, reconstruction efforts, and peacekeeping needs in Darfur, as well as other parts of Sudan. The administration has employed nearly every possible tool of diplomacy to press for an end to the violence there. It has raised awareness through speeches, public forums, and repeated, high-level trips (for instance, by the secretary of State, the undersecretary of State, the deputy and various assistant secretaries of State) to the refugee camps that Clooney visited for the first time just last month. The Bush Administration has enforced unilateral oil sanctions against Sudan, and has sought more stringent measures at the U.N. Security Council, only to be stymied by China, Russia, and Algeria—all staunch defenders of Khartoum. It voted for U.N. prosecution of war crimes against various Sudanese militants, and has given assistance to the seven thousand African Union peace keepers now in Darfur. It has worked behind the scenes to press for a successful conclusion to the ongoing peace talks.

Where Clooney and the Bush administration part company is over current tactics. Specifically, Clooney faults Bush for not having forced an end to the genocide. Perhaps Clooney can be excused for his simplistic conception of foreign affairs and diplomacy, but things are not so straightforward as he would have us believe.

The genocide could be ended tomorrow by the United States military. But nobody, least of all Clooney, is suggesting sending in the Marines (despite some of the cheap remarks, seemingly to the contrary, made by Clooney at the Washington rally). It could also be ended by NATO (an idea that was recently floated by theWhite House), but bin Laden’s tape last week explicitly calling for a “long-term war against the crusader thieves in Western Sudan” has dampened enthusiasm for that idea. The African Union forces that are currently in Darfur are almost universally discounted as small and ineffective.

So when Clooney urges a “multi-national” peace keeping force going into Darfur, he must be envisioning a large and powerful army legitimized by the inclusion of troops from other Muslim and Arab nations and sanctioned by the United Nations’ Security Council. And Bush would then have to be blamed for failing to persuade the Arab League and China to vote against their own economic interests in order to defend the human rights of insignificant, impoverished African tribes against the oil-rich Khartoum regime.

Never before has either China or the Arab League based its foreign policy on altruism. It would be remarkable if these dictatorships suddenly sacrificed self-interest in order to defend human rights that they routinely disregard within their own borders. It was the presence of China and various distinguished members of the Arab League on the U.N. Commission on Human Rights that discredited that body and caused it to be disbanded earlier this year. For this group, “never again” has no meaning. Clooney’s “solution” is preposterous.

Yet Clooney does not seem to have any intention of criticizing these countries—in his view, attribution of blame is to be reserved almost exclusively for the Bush administration. Rarely does he criticize any other government by name—not even the government of Sudan, the author of the genocide. His discussion of the facts of Darfur focuses on the victims and on the United States, not on the perpetrators in Sudan and their abettors in China, the Arab League, and the U.N.

Since seizing power in 1989, Sudan’s President Omar al Bashir has led a regime responsible for the deaths of at least two and a quarter million people, making him the bloodiest dictator alive. It is important not to forget that Darfur is Bashir’s second genocidal campaign against his countrymen. He waged the first against the African traditional believers and Christians of south Sudan, resulting in two million deaths, with most occurring over the period of a decade, beginning in the early nineties. Elie Wiesel characterized this as “genocide in slow motion.” Employing similar tactics to those now used in Darfur, the government, and the Bagarra tribal militias it armed, regularly bombed, burned, and looted southern villages, schools, hospitals, and food distribution centers; they enslaved and raped thousands of women and children; and they relocated entire villages into refugee camps. As in Darfur, deliberate mass starvation, accomplished in part by banning international relief, was the regime’s most lethal weapon.

The death toll in the South from a conflict that ended only last year represented ten times the number dead so far in Darfur. Clooney’s voice was nowhere to be found when this was happening. But still, why doesn’t he ever talk about it now and relate its many obvious similarities to Darfur? Mentioning Bashir’s role in the southern genocide would be an important means of pressuring the regime. Could it be that, since most of those deaths occurred during the Clinton administration, and President Bush took the lead in successfully ending it, Clooney sees no political gain in bringing it up? Could it be that he is more interested in shaming Bush than Bashir?

Clooney’s premise seems to be: if you find genocide, you are principally responsible for stopping it—and now—no matter what the obstacles. We all want genocide in Darfur to stop, and we should work for effective means to bring that about, but Clooney’s partisan approach to genocide in Darfur is a dangerous game. By heaping most of the blame on Bush for the intractability of the Darfur crisis—when he clearly deserves credit—Clooney deflects attention and opprobrium from Bashir and those who do have the power to stop it immediately.

Clooney’s antics will cause this and every future administration to think twice about ever again calling ongoing genocide by its rightful name. He risks betraying the beleaguered people of Darfur and setting a tragic precedent in the process. It is a foolish display by Clooney, but an abundance of wisdom has never been the fault of this self-righteous Hollywood crusader.

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