George Clooney brought his admirable fight for human rights in Sudan to Washington this week. In meetings, press conferences and congressional testimony, the Academy Award-winning actor blasted Sudan's leaders for committing genocide in Darfur and elsewhere, China's government for enabling them, and the international community for turning a blind eye. Yet somehow the one political leader whom Clooney has a chance of influencing, the one who is in the best position to make a difference in Sudan, escaped the actor's attention. Once again, Barack Obama managed to evade the ire of Hollywood's Darfur advocates.
Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and other Hollywood luminaries are the founders of Not On Our Watch, a project that, according to its mission statement, "draws upon the powerful voices of artists, activists, and cultural leaders" to combat human rights abuses around the world. "Where governments remain complacent," they promise, "Not On Our Watch is committed to stopping mass atrocities and giving voice to their victims."
Much of their good work has been focused on Darfur, the part of Sudan where Arab militias sponsored by Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir have slaughtered hundreds of thousands of black Africans. Al-Bashir has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for his role in the genocide. In recent months, al-Bashir has turned his murderous attention to the non-Arab tribes inhabiting the Nuba Mountains region of southern Sudan. Clooney's Satellite Sentinel Project uses satellite imagery to document al-Bashir's atrocities.
Documenting is one thing. Influencing policy -- especially the Obama administration's policy -- is another.
Hollywood's close relationship with President Obama is well known. Will Ferrell's $35,800-a-plate fundraiser for the president last month is just the latest of many expressions of strong support for Mr. Obama in Tinseltown. Why not use this relationship to lean on the administration regarding Sudan?
During the 2008 presidential campaign, candidate Obama (appropriately) chastised the Bush administration for its inadequate response to Darfur. But the Obama administration's own response has been troubling, to say the least.
Despite the ICC indictment, Sudanese president al-Bashir has openly traveled to numerous countries, including major recipients of U.S. aid such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia -- yet President Obama has never criticized them for hosting him. Instead of confronting and challenging the al-Bashir regime, U.S. envoy Scott Gration advocated giving it "cookies" and "gold stars" (his words) for minor improvements in its behavior. While paying lip-service to "bringing those responsible to justice," Gration spoke of having al-Bashir tried by a local (read: slap-on-the-wrist) Sudanese court instead of the International Criminal Court.
It gets worse. Gration's successor, Princeton Lyman, recently admitted that the Obama administration's real policy is not to put al-Bashir behind bars, but to accept him walking free and even remaining in power. Lyman told the London-based Arabic daily Asharq Al-Awsat in December: "Frankly we do not want to see the ouster of the [al-Bashir] regime, nor regime change... It is not in our interests to see the ouster of the regime in Sudan, for this will only create more problems."
Lyman's blunt admission represents a major shift in U.S. policy. It should have provoked howls of protest from Not On Our Watch and likeminded groups. Sadly, there was no such outcry.
At one of George Clooney's appearances in Washington this week, he was asked "how members of the Khartoum government can be brought to justice." Clooney replied with a joking reference to al-Bashir's Italian vacation home: "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."
Very funny. But also revealing, in a way Mr. Clooney did not intend. Doesn't he know that the International Criminal Court has no police force of its own? It can't arrest anyone. It relies on governments to send their policemen or soldiers to apprehend war crimes suspects.
U.S. forces are quite good at capturing fugitive killers -- we all remember how they intercepted the murderers of American tourist Leon Klinghoffer, and how they brought Panama's Manuel Noriega to justice. President Obama should be sending U.S. forces to Lake Como, or wherever else they could wait to ambush Omar al-Bashir. But so long as U.S. policy is "no regime change" in Sudan, no such action will be taken.
Which is where the Hollywood crowd comes in. George Clooney took time out from his Sudan activities in Washington last week to attend a glitzy state dinner at the Obama White House. Bad move. He should have been outside with a picket sign -- just as he was in 2006, when he was one of the keynote speakers at a huge rally for Darfur near the Bush White House. To give this administration a pass smacks of a double standard.
When the people of Darfur needed George Clooney to speak truth to power in 2006, he did it. That's what the people of the Nuba Mountains need today.