Celebrities' skirmishes with the law typically involve substance abuse or drunk driving. So let's give actor George Clooney a round of applause for breaking the mold. He was arrested outside the Sudanese Embassy in Washington, D.C. last week, protesting the latest atrocities committed by the Sudanese government against non-Arab tribes in the Nuba Mountains. Good for him.
Just one small problem, though: he got arrested at the wrong address. He should have been over at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Getting arrested at the Sudanese Embassy in 2012 is a bit like getting arrested at Nazi Germany's embassy in 1941, to protest Hitler's atrocities against the Jews. Not that what Sudanese dictator Omar Bashir has done, or is doing, to non-Arab tribes in Darfur and Nuba is exactly the same as the Holocaust. (Although civil libertarian Nat Hentoff did memorably refer to him as "Africa's Hitler.")
Still, genocide is genocide and if you want to stop genocide, polite appeals to the perpetrators are not usually every effective.
If George Clooney wants to influence what Bashir does, he should address himself to the nearest world leader who is in a real position to influence Bashir: the president of the United States.
Not so long ago, Clooney seemed to understand that fact. In 2006, he came to Washington for a "Save Darfur" rally not far from the White House. At a press conference beforehand, he mocked the excuses that various governments were making for not trying to stop the Darfur genocide, such as the claim "that the U.S. government is stretched thin militarily." At the rally itself, Clooney charged that "the United States [read Bush administration] 's and United Nations' policies [regarding Darfur] are failing--and citizens must demand change."
Ironically, Clooney was flanked at the press conference, and followed at the speakers' podium, but a U.S. senator for whom "change" was about to become a calling card: Barack Obama. "If we care, the world will care," Mr. Obama declared. "If we act, then the world will follow."
Since taking office, however, President Obama has demonstrated that the opposite is also true. When the United States does not act, nobody else will, either.
Bashir was indicted by the International Criminal Court for genocide. Yet he when he has traveled to countries that are major recipients of U.S. aid, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Mr. Obama has never criticized them for hosting him, much less taken any action to try to apprehend Bashir. Is it any wonder that no other country has tried to arrest him, either?
The idea of establishing a no-fly zone over Sudan used to be high on the agenda of Darfur advocates. Major-General Merrill A. McPeak, who co-chaired Barack Obama's presidential campaign, called for it several years ago. So did Joe Biden, when he was a senator, and Susan Rice, before she became the Obama administration's ambassador to the United Nations. Now almost nobody talks about it.
In fact, it seems the cat's even got George Clooney's tongue. During an interview with Chris Wallace on Fox News this weekend, Wallace repeatedly asked him what he thought the Obama administration should do. Clooney bobbed and weaved.
First, Wallace asked if he "would like the U.S. to put pressure on China," which has been propping up the Bashir regime. Clooney said that "throwing guilt their way doesn't really work." Instead of pressure, the U.S. should say to China that we should all "work together to solve the problem."
So Wallace tried again-- "Would you like to see the U.S. get involved in imposing, as part of an international coalition, a no fly zone, or bombing the Sudan air force?" Clooney responded that one has to be "realistic" because "in the real world, we're not going to see NATO in there, we're not going to unilaterally--certainly, we're not going to be acting." Which is what more than a few people said about Libya, just before NATO and the U.S. "went in there."
Give Wallace credit. He tried one more time-- "What do you want [President Obama] to do?" Clooney's answer: more "meetings with the Chinese" and "use all those techniques we've learned going after terrorists to find [Sudan's] money." How about this idea: use all those techniques we've learned going after terrorists to go after Bashir? U.S. commandos have certainly captured terrorists and their ilk around the world before.
"This issue transcends politics," Clooney said emphatically at that 2006 press conference. It's time he proves it--by being as specific, focused, and forceful about the need for action from the Obama administration as he was when it was the Bush administration that was the target of his Sudan protests.