George Clooney and the potential of celebrity power to avert civil war in Sudan

Journalists tend to roll their eyes when a Hollywood star arrives in a refugee camp, calling for action. But when celebrities bring global attention to a distant and confusing conflict, and when they call for sensible diplomatic action, their star power may actually do some good.

Molly Riley/Reuters
George Clooney, co-founder of 'Not On Our Watch,' and John Prendergast, cofounder of the Enough Project, take their seats before they deliver remarks on their recent trip to Sudan and on the in-country situation at an event held by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in Washington Oct. 12.

So, I got an email from George Clooney this week. Yes, that George Clooney. He wanted my help to prevent the outbreak of civil war in Sudan. It seems Mr. Clooney was busy this week. Many of my friends – all foreign correspondents – got the same email. My wife had the email laminated, nevertheless.

It’s easy to dismiss celebrities who get involved in political activism. I actually admire Clooney for his obvious dedication to this cause, and for his willingness to travel long distances for the pleasure of swatting mosquitoes in some dusty African refugee camp. If Clooney can use his star power to focus the world’s attention, for at least a moment, on a faraway humanitarian catastrophe, then he deserves admiration.

Imagine if Humphrey Bogart or Jimmy Stewart had taken a documentary film crew to Hitler’s Germany in the late-1930s and confronted us with the truth about the roundup of Jews, Gypsies, gays, and others. Perhaps it would have created an upswell in citizen activism that would have demanded the US to take action. Perhaps some innocent lives could be saved.

“We have a brief window of opportunity to do something that has rarely been done: stop a war before it starts,” read the e-mail from Clooney and John Prendergast, cofounder of the Enough Project, an antigenocide lobby group. “But if the international community is too hesitant or too late in its efforts – as was the case in Darfur – hundreds of thousands could die.”

Few question that the problem highlighted by Clooney and Mr. Prendergast is a serious one.

In January, Southern Sudan will hold a referendum in which its citizens are likely to vote for independence from the regime in Khartoum, which is led by President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity and genocide during the ongoing Darfur conflict. Khartoum has recently issued statements that it would not accept any outcome other than unity.

With rich oil fields to fight over and memories of a devastating 20-year civil war still fresh on Sudanese minds, this has all the potential to become Africa’s biggest conflict.

And yet, it's not enough to call for urgent action. The big question is what kind of action would create the desired effect.

In 2007, Mia Farrow lobbied hard for US corporations to boycott what she called China’s “Genocide Olympics,” because of China’s business relations with a Khartoum regime that was carrying on a war in Darfur. Mrs. Farrow acknowledged that Beijing seemed “impervious to criticism,” but added, “Imagine if such calls were to succeed in pushing the Chinese government to use its leverage over Sudan to protect civilians in Darfur.”

Don Cheadle, star of Hotel Rwanda, a film about the 1994 Rwandan genocide, says he realized he had to do something to stop another apparent genocide then looming in Sudan. So he funded a documentary called “Darfur Now,” and teamed up with Prendergast – a former Clinton administration official – to write a book, “Not on Our Watch."

"It is urgent that President Bush act ... to confront the Sudanese regime for the atrocities that it is committing and perpetuating to bring this genocide to an end once and for all,” wrote Mr. Cheadle and Prendergast.

It is the use of that word “genocide” that rankles journalists and aid workers the most. The line between a patent disregard for civilian life – a common trait of most war zones – and deliberate mass murder of a particular ethnic group can be razor-thin. And realistically, accusing a sitting president of genocide – with a pending trial in a European capital – is not exactly a great way to persuade that president from loosening his iron grip on power. In fact, with leaders who think they have everything to lose, it can create even more intransigence.

So how does one confront a regime? Economic sanctions? Diplomatic pressure? Military intervention? If we use the war against the Nazi regime as our moral magnetic north, then the first two options seem laughable. But at a time when the world’s greatest superpower – for the moment, the United States – has its military stretched out in Afghanistan and, to a certain extent, still in Iraq, the notion of military intervention is well nigh impossible.

Fortunately, Clooney and Prendergast – who recently visited South Sudan – understand the limits of US power. In their letter to me, and 22,999 others, they call on the Obama administration to “use robust diplomacy – in coordination with all our diplomatic partners – to ensure a successful referendum, and peace in the South and Darfur.”

“A combination of international pressure and robust diplomacy ended the last North/South war in 2005,” they write. “It can work again.”

Everyday aid workers and journalists in the field – who roll their eyes when a Hollywood starlet arrives in a shiny SUV, clad in over-pocketed pants and Chanel sunglasses, on a fact-finding mission – recognize the common sense of this approach. But with the referendum in South Sudan looming, I imagine there will be little time for snickering, and plenty of work for everyone to do, including George Clooney.

For what it's worth, Mr. Clooney, you're huge in Khartoum. If Sudan gives you a visa, go to the restaurant Papa Costa, a lovely downtown courtyard hangout, and you might hear a band of young Arab guitar-pickers playing "Man of Constant Sorrow," the same version you lip-synced in your film, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" They saw it on YouTube, of course.

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