George Clooney And The Problem Of Selective Moral Outrage

On Friday, George Clooney was arrested while protesting outside the Sudanese embassy in Washington, D.C. A vociferous critic of President Omar al-Bashir's murderous policy in Darfur, Clooney denounced Khartoum's continuing assault on the residents of the Nuba Mountains, calling on the government "to stop randomly killing its own innocent men, women and children. Stop raping them, and stop starving them."

A large crowd is said to have gathered to watch the protest, which included Clooney being placed in plastic handcuffs alongside his father, the anchorman Nick Clooney. "It's actually a humiliating thing to be arrested no matter what you do," Clooney said to Andrea Mitchell, before he got pinched, "but I'm proud to be standing here with my father."

"When people ask you, 'Where were you and where did you stand?'," he explained, "I want to say I was standing on the right side of history."

While it's unlikely that any of us will ever hear that question posed directly, outside of our fantasies, Clooney is no doubt correct that thinking people need to determine the directions in which the world is moving, and stand in opposition when history takes a destructive turn -- as it so frequently does. And since Clooney has so outspokenly committed himself to this principle, it's worth considering for a moment the manner in which he has acted it out -- and what that might suggest about political activism among the American elite.

It's an elementary moral truth that people are most accountable for those actions and events in which they are directly involved. Clooney "has taken up the suffering of the Sudanese people as his personal cause," in the words of an adulating article by Lloyd Grove, published in The Daily Beast, and this is surely admirable: He has brought much attention to a series of atrocities that probably would have been underreported otherwise, and he may have thereby helped to bring about the settlement that ended the war in Darfur. These are real accomplishments. But what about a series of much less obscure atrocities, ones with far closer ties to George Clooney himself -- specifically, those being currently enabled by the man that Clooney supported for president of the United States in 2008?

To be sure, every cause needs its champions. But a true humanitarian is outraged by atrocities wherever they occur, not just when they’re committed by a villainous cast of Arabs in east Africa. And in order not to be a hypocrite, one cannot make a great preening show of condemning Sudanese atrocities while ignoring the crimes of one’s own country—especially not when one has been a fawning promoter of the powerful man who presides over those crimes.

While promoting his political thriller The Ides of March at the Venice Film Festival in September 2011, Clooney explained why he felt no need to pursue the highest office in the land. "As for running for president," he told a press conference, "look, there's a guy in office right now who is smarter than almost anyone you know, who's nicer and who has more compassion than almost anyone you know. And he's having an almost impossible time governing. Why would anybody volunteer for that job?"

Barack Obama may be smart, and he might be nice, but his relationship to America's overseas violence has been defined by cynicism and political calculation. He showed very little compassion to the Afghans whom he sentenced to death by prolonging America's war in their country; and he has similarly shown precious little understanding of the plight of civilians who live beneath American drones.

Obama got a lot of attention with his opposition to the war in Iraq. On Nov. 25, 2002, he gave a television interview that, sadly, ranks among the wisest moments of his public life. Asked to speculate about the effects of the looming invasion on the upcoming Democratic presidential primaries, then-state Senator Obama replied:

"If it has happened, then at that point what the debate's really going to be about is what's our long-term commitment there, how much is it going to cost, what does it mean for us to rebuild Iraq, how do we stabilize and make sure that this country doesn't splinter into factions between the Shias and the Kurds and the Sunnis."

This analysis was advanced indeed by the standards of the day. But of course it wouldn't be proper for a mainstream candidate to be in favor of peace, so Obama had to specify: He was only opposed to "a dumb war... a rash war," not war tout court. (The obvious possibility that war is by definition dumb and rash never entered Obama's rhetorical armamentarium.) His famous speech against the attack on Iraq was larded with qualification; in fact it opened with a repudiation of the event that featured it: "Let me begin by saying that although this has been billed as an anti-war rally, I stand before you as someone who is not opposed to war in all circumstances." Obama repeated this message, "I don't oppose all wars," four times.

And while it was a good start to support the Civil War and World War II, as Obama did early in the speech, that alone obviously didn't suffice to demonstrate one's martial bona fides. For this, the candidate-in-waiting needed a current war, and there was only one option. And so the occupation of Afghanistan was jammed into the tradition of the Emancipation Proclamation and the liberation of the Nazi death camps -- a neat trick of oratory.

The disingenuousness of Obama's position on Afghanistan was reflected in his empty offer to fight for the cause himself:

"After Sept. 11, after witnessing the carnage and destruction, the dust and the tears, I supported this administration's pledge to hunt down and root out those who would slaughter innocents in the name of intolerance, and I would willingly take up arms myself to prevent such tragedy from happening again."

What was stopping him -- besides a great destiny as the one who orders others into battle, and condemns civilians to death as "collateral damage," from a fortress thousands of miles away from any conflict?

Six years after that speech, Obama was carried into office by a sudden leftward shift in the country's political mood, which he seemed from the outset of his presidency determined to reject (much as he had rejected the antiwar character of the 2002 gathering at Federal Plaza). As the historian (and Vietnam veteran) Andrew Bacevich put it, "In choosing Obama rather than John McCain to succeed Bush, the American people acknowledged" the "definitive" failure of the neoconservative project "to transform the greater Middle East" through war. "Obama's election was to mark a new beginning, an opportunity to 'reset' America's approach to the world." Instead, after a months-long policy review process -- whose dithering length foreshadowed the ambivalence of its product -- Obama decided, in fall 2009, to send more troops into combat in Afghanistan, while also announcing a date for the start of their planned withdrawal.

So it was made official: The man who windily declared, at the conclusion of his speech against invading Iraq, that we should never "allow those who would march off and pay the ultimate sacrifice, who would prove the full measure of devotion with their blood, to make such an awful sacrifice in vain," was now asking American soldiers to do just that. For we would be leaving Afghanistan soon enough -- starting in 18 months. (The process is now to be completed at the end of 2014.) After that, there would be an eternity to undo whatever might have been achieved, if anything, by 30,000 additional troops.

"Who is more deserving of contempt?" Bacevich asked, comparing President Obama with his predecessor: "The commander-in-chief who sends young Americans to die for a cause, however misguided, in which he sincerely believes? Or the commander-in-chief who sends young Americans to die for a cause in which he manifestly does not believe and yet refuses to forsake?" I would add something essential that Bacevich omitted, which is the civilian toll that a war of occupation like Afghanistan necessarily entails. As General Stanley McChrystal, Obama's initial choice to run the war, was reported to have said in spring 2010 about incidents at American checkpoints: "We've shot an amazing number of people and killed a number and, to my knowledge, none has proven to have been a real threat to the force."

Bacevich's is the question that Obama supporters seem not to understand -- perhaps, not even to be able to understand. Bush was surely worse in terms of his impact on the world, but there is something truly frightening about the disconnect between the person Obama appears to be in unscripted moments -- intelligent, warm, empathetic, urbane -- and the manner in which his administration acts -- in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, in Yemen. Bush was always the same -- coarse, ignorant, aggressive -- and of a piece with his policies. Obama appears almost nihilistic in his willingness to endorse violence for what seem like political reasons -- i.e., the all-important demonstration of toughness. The 16 civilians killed in Staff Sgt. Robert Bales's shooting rampage in Kandahar province are only the latest casualties of Obama's decision to prolong a war that long ago passed the point of senselessness. As Amy Goodman recalled, "Two years earlier, the notorious 'kill team' of U.S. soldiers that murdered Afghan civilians for sport, posing for gruesome photos with the corpses and cutting off fingers and other body parts as trophies, also was based near Kandahar."

But none of this seems to register on the conscience of political activist George Clooney, whose work apart from Darfur has included raising money for victims of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, and 2001 terror attacks on New York and Washington. Having shown such concern for the suffering of his compatriots, as well as the overseas victims of natural disasters, shouldn't Clooney have been able to extend his empathy to the war-torn country invaded once again in the aftermath of 9/11? A Nexis search for "George Clooney" and "Afghanistan" brings up a single result: a satirical mention of the actor by the Orlando Sentinel, in connection with a Nightline segment featuring Ben Affleck covering a humanitarian disaster in the Congo. "If sending actors to other countries means more international reporting, I'm all for it," the Sentinel's writer concludes. "Perhaps some network will send George Clooney to Afghanistan. There's a story that needs more airtime."

Clooney's silence on this issue is shared by his fellow Hollywood Obama boosters. A 17-minute propaganda clip on Obama's greatness, put together by documentary producer/director David Guggenheim and narrated by Tom Hanks, touts administration successes like the auto industry bailout and the end of the war in Iraq but leaves Afghanistan "on the cutting room floor," according to RT. ("Instead, the audience is offered a reminder of the May 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden.")

The problem is not, as is sometimes claimed, that celebrities shouldn't speak out about politics. People are inherently political, implicated in power dynamics whether they want to be or not, and everyone therefore has the right -- if they've got the time and resources, perhaps the obligation -- to take up issues of social welfare, of war and peace, in public. (Moreover, world affairs do not require any special training or expertise to understand, despite the claims of some obscurantist academics.) But a star like Clooney is too involved with the establishment to provide a credible voice for the helpless and the victimized. He enjoys access to the royal court, taking "a place of honor at first lady Michelle Obama's side" during a state dinner for British Prime Minister David Cameron.

("The Descendants actor was in town to testify to the Senate about human rights violations going on in Sudan, but he decided to throw on a tux and attend the dinner later that night. He was placed at the VIP table, where he was able to chat with the first lady, as well as Cameron and President Obama.")

Why jeopardize that by insisting on justice for the Afghan people? It might be argued that Clooney needs to preserve good relations with the powerful in order to advocate effectively on behalf of the Sudanese, but again, a person who acted out of principle would be just as outraged by NATO's bombings of Afghan civilians as by Khartoum's Antonov raids on inhabitants of the Nuba mountain region. ("There's a difference," Clooney explained at a meeting convened by that august body, the Council on Foreign Relations, "between two armies fighting and what the Geneva Convention calls war crimes -- the indiscriminate bombing of innocent civilians.") There were armed rebels among the black Africans living in Darfur, but that didn't justify the atrocities of the Janjaweed.

Ultimately, the problem with Clooney's selective approach to humanitarianism is that it implicitly perpetuates the pernicious notion that atrocities are things carried out by other governments, not our own. There is also something undeniably neoimperialist about his rhetoric. Clooney is a founding member of something called the Not On Our Watch Project; in what sense, exactly, do events in east Africa take place "on our watch"? Clooney has been doing his best to literalize this "global policeman" trope, initiating (with former National Security Council member John Prendergast) the Satellite Sentinel Project, which takes pictures of the conflict zone in Sudan from outer space. ("We are the anti-genocide paparazzi," Clooney is reportedly "fond of saying.") This has got to be hugely popular with the authoritarians in the U.S. government: There's nothing like a fig leaf of respectable humanitarianism to justify a massive apparatus of surveillance and control.

Pretending that we are responsible, through the mechanism of some poorly defined gaze with apparently global scope, for crimes perpetrated without our support is a perfect means of drawing attention away from the heinous actions of our own government. (And the genocide in Darfur was surely accomplished without American support; according to the U.S. embassy, "In October 1997, the U.S. imposed comprehensive economic, trade, and financial sanctions against the Sudan.") In addition to being a near-ecstatic Obama backer, Clooney is an American taxpayer, one who gives more than most to the U.S. government; what about "Not On Our Dime"? Even by the suspect standards of slogans, "not on our watch" is uncommonly empty: To give some sense of how empty, it suffices to mention that George W. Bush, that great humanitarian, is said to have scribbled "NOMW" in the margin of a report he received early in his administration on the Rwandan genocide.

Even Clooney's proposed methods betray an obliviousness about the history of U.S. power. At the Council on Foreign Relations event, Grove reports that Clooney "suggested the U.S. make a concerted effort to track down the Khartoum government's foreign bank accounts -- which they're using to purchase weapons and ammunition. 'We should track that down -- find it, freeze it, and make it harder and harder for these guys to spend their money,' Clooney said. 'Tighten this noose and make Khartoum a very small place to live.'"

Although denying criminals access to their money is a worthy law enforcement goal, Clooney's wild west language smacks of the reckless economic aggression that killed hundreds of thousands of children in Iraq during the 1990s. Despite the death toll, such commercial strangulation (to adopt Clooney's lethal metaphor) has not fallen out of favor with Western policymakers: Thursday brought news that Iran had been cut off by SWIFT, the company that handles international financial transactions. The AP warned of "unintended consequences," reporting that the move could "possibly hurt Iranian households that depend on remittances from relatives living abroad," since many expatriates--"including opponents of the current regime" -- routinely wire money to their families back home.

Clooney realizes that people live in Khartoum other than Omar al-Bashir and his henchmen, yes? Inevitably, the ones who feel the pain of such attempts to squeeze an offending country are the people, not the leaders. And the people of Khartoum have already tasted American justice: In 1998, cruise missiles destroyed the city's Al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in retaliation for the embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya. (Osama bin Laden had lived in Sudan but left in 1996.) One employee was killed, eleven were wounded, and tens of thousands of Sudanese are estimated to have died because of the resulting dearth of necessary medicines. U.S. claims that the factory was producing VX nerve agent and had ties to Al Qaeda were shown to be false.

This is why it was no surprise when the Sudanese rallied around Bashir after the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for his arrest in March 2009. ''Down, down USA, down, down CIA,'' a crowd in Khartoum chanted at the time, ''there is no God except Allah, the USA will not govern us." Kenya's Daily Nation observed that "the ICC had finally succeeded in uniting the entire Sudan behind their dear leader," and noted that "despite the U.S.'s declaration that it supports the warrant for Mr. Bashir, Washington does not recognize the ICC and has even passed a law in Congress that protects its military personnel from any trial by the ICC." Bashir's declaration at a rally, that he was the victim of a double standard which "saw killings by Israeli forces in Gaza and killings by U.S. forces in Iraq go unpunished," was undoubtedly the defense of a villain; it also happens to be true.

When an audience member asked how the regime in Khartoum might be brought to justice, Clooney responded with an unfunny joke about his Italian vacation home, according to Grove: “We could have a surprise party in Lake Como for Omar al-Bashir. ‘Come on over! It’s a great party!’ And have the ICC waiting for them.” In addition to chasing after an easily demonized official enemy, George Clooney ought to start the difficult work of calling on his own government, led by his own favored politician, to stop killing civilians.