The Hollywood Actor’s Burden

Why are those, like George Clooney, who opposed Bush's war in Iraq now calling on the president to 'Save Darfur'?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

Was it really only a few weeks ago that George Clooney, ER doctor turned Hollywood star, was winning accolades from doe-eyed and sometimes panting reporters for his apparently ‘brave stand’ against President Bush’s war in Iraq?

Then, Clooney was the pin-up of the ‘Bring Our Boys Home’ lobby: he was in Syriana, a conspiratorial thriller about America’s noxious role in Middle Eastern politics and the grab for oil, and Good Night, and Good Luck, a black-and-white homage to journalists who stood up to Senator Joseph McCarthy in the Fifties which doubled up as a barely disguised plea for journalists to do the same with Bush today, especially over the Iraq war. The Guardian’s Mark Lawson gushed that Clooney had become ‘the commander-in-chief of Hollywood’s anti-Bush forces’. Others asked: ‘Clooney – is he the new US opposition?’ In an almost unwatchable interview on BBC’s Newsnight, Kirsty Wark stared dreamily into Clooney’s eyes as he held forth on everything from war to censorship to truth in journalism (1).

How things change. Today Clooney is leading the demand for US intervention in the Darfur region of Sudan. This man who was so cynical about America’s motives in the oily politics of the Middle East led a ‘Save Darfur’ rally on Washington on Sunday, calling on the Bush administration to ‘do something’ about the ‘first genocide of the twenty-first century’. ‘We cannot turn our heads and look away and hope that this will somehow disappear’, he said. ‘Because if we do, they will. They will disappear…. An entire generation of people will be gone.’ (2) And where he previously encouraged journalists to criticise Bush for his actions in Iraq, this time he called on them to critique the president for his inaction over Darfur: he asked his dad, a journalist, to make Darfur a ‘higher-profile story’ in order to pressure America into acting.

In the space of a few weeks Clooney has gone from anti-war warrior to effectively the pretty-boy mouthpiece for US imperialism, for the idea that it is up to the likes of America to save Africans from themselves. Normally you might ask: who cares what a celeb thinks? But many, including those in power, do seem to care – Clooney is being invested with the gravitas and authority to speak for Darfur that he so clearly does not deserve. And it isn’t only Clooney. Some of the same journalists who wrote scathing reports about America’s impact on Iraq are now in Darfur asking when the ‘international community’ will come to help a beleaguered people, and presenting the conflict there in simplistic, almost child-like terms as a battle of good and evil in which we must assist the good guys. Yet, as any reading of African history (presumably not Clooney’s strong suit) would reveal, such interventions to ‘save Africa’ always end up making things worse by exacerbating tensions and entrenching divisions.

This turnaround reveals an essential truth about the widespread anti-war sentiment of the past two or three years: it is shallow and changeable; it was a tactical disagreement over the timing and conduct of the Iraq war rather than a political challenge to the right of Western intervention or an exposé of the West’s pretensions to be a force for good in an out-of-control and often immoral Third World. As a result, anti-war feeling can easily become a pro-war demand. Outrage over the bombing of Iraq can easily transform into outrage that the international community is not doing more, in this instance, to punish the Sudanese government, rein in the Janjaweed rebels, and ‘Save Darfur’. Because it was motivated by a kind of narcissistic sense of moral outrage, rather than by a critique of the idea that the West has a moral responsibility to intervene in other states’ affairs to protect the downtrodden, today’s anti-war politics can just as readily serve the Western powers as embarrass them – and just as easily encourage as oppose destabilising and destructive interventions.

It is striking the extent to which opponents of the Iraq war are doing exactly the same with Darfur as they attacked Bush for doing with Iraq and more recently Iran: reducing it to a simple black-and-white issue and calling for a moral crusade to make it all better. Bush was lambasted by Clooney, numerous other celebs and media commentators for believing there was such a thing as good and evil, and that America was good and Saddam was evil. The president was mocked (and rightly so) when he implied that God had advised him to intervene in Iraq; more recently he was ridiculed for reportedly having a ‘messianic vision’ of ‘saving Iran’ (3).

Yet now Clooney declares of Darfur: ‘It’s not a political issue. There is only right or wrong.’ (4) Got that? There are no political or territorial questions in Darfur to worry your pretty little heads about; it is a simple morality tale of bad guys beating up on good guys. Likewise, serious reporters are presenting the conflict in terms that even Children’s Newsround would balk at. On BBC News the other night Orla Guerin, also previously known for her apparently cutting-edge accounts of power politics in the Middle East, followed around a young girl and her mother whose family had been killed by Janjaweed rebels, and told us how they had lost their mango trees and had their ‘dreams shattered’. No attempt is made to interrogate or analyse the dynamics of the conflict and what is at stake. There have long been tensions in the poverty-stricken region of Darfur; in an area where resources are scarce, there has been conflict over land and also grazing rights and dwindling water supplies. Since 2003, various rebel groups made up of ethnic black Africans – including most prominently the Sudan Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement – have been attacking government targets, accusing Khartoum of favouring the mostly nomadic Arab communities of Darfur over the black Africans who also live and farm there. Janjaweed rebels, an Arab force, have responded by attacking black African villages, with the duplicitous support of Khartoum according to some accounts. Currently talks are taking place in Nigeria to find a solution to the conflict. But never mind all that – this, apparently, is not a political issue.

What the anti-war critics really disliked about Bush’s moral posturing over Iraq, and to a certain extent Iran, is that it was unsophisticated: it was a bit too Christian and crass and clumsy for their tastes. They much prefer a secular, supposedly ‘humanitarian’ form of moral posturing, one which discusses conflicts in terms of ‘right and wrong’ rather than using the archaic categories of ‘good and evil’. However, the end result is precisely the same: someone else’s conflict, other people’s trials and tribulations, are reduced to a simple story that apparently has a simple solution – the intervention of the international community. Difficult questions about politics, territory, resources and development, and also about how Western intervention in Africa, including in Sudan, has proved disastrous over the decades, are discarded in favour of saying ‘we are good, they are bad, let’s act’. That might make Clooney and Co feel all good and moist about themselves, but it is unlikely to do anything to assist anyone in Darfur or Sudan more broadly.

It is also striking how uncritically the critics of the Iraq war accept the West’s and primarily America’s presentation of the conflict in Darfur. Where they were critical of the bull talked by Bush and Blair about Saddam having ‘weapons of mass murder’ with which he posed a threat to world peace, they accept America and Britain’s argument that what is taking place in Darfur is a ‘genocide’ and thus requires the attentions and possibly the intervention of the international community. There is no doubt a grisly crisis and a bloody conflict taking place in Darfur – although it is difficult to work out the truth of what is going on. According to different reports, 50,000, 180,000 or maybe 400,000 have been killed. Yet it is worth keeping our critical faculties about us and asking why this civil war was labelled a genocide. In July 2004 American and British officials went on a fact-finding expedition to ‘determine whether genocide is being committed in the Darfur region’ (5). Shortly afterwards, then US secretary of state Colin Powell decreed to the world: ‘We conclude that genocide has been committed in Darfur and that the government of Sudan and the Janjaweed bear responsibility, and that genocide may still be occurring.’ (6)

The motivation for announcing there was genocide in Darfur was not to help the people there or to think up a solution to the conflict. Rather it was a cynical stunt, designed to divert attention from the mess that was (and still is) postwar Iraq. Powell’s declaration, and a visit by UK foreign secretary Jack Straw not long after to lambast the Sudanese government, was shaped more by the fallout from Iraq than by events in Sudan. As Gulf War II proved both a practical and political disaster – leaving Iraq in a mess and causing continued embarrassment for the British and American governments at home and abroad – Washington and London launched an intervention-lite in Sudan, hoping that posturing over a conflict that could be presented in black-and-white terms (and with no WMD to worry about) would help them win back some of their moral authority and meet with little opposition. Powell cynically used the emotive word genocide to describe what is in fact a depressingly familiar civil war for Africa – and he did so for self-serving political and moral reasons. Yet his critics over Iraq lapped it up. They forgot that he had been at the forefront of presenting seriously dodgy evidence to justify the Iraq war in 2003, and greeted him as the oracle of truth on Sudan (7).

The disagreements over Iraq were, it seems, temporary and insubstantial. It was not a clash over whether the West has the right to determine the fate of other states; indeed, Clooney told Kirsty Wark on Newsnight that he opposed the Iraq war because inspections and sanctions were working. In other words, we shouldn’t have invaded because intrusive weapons inspections were allowing us to keep an eye on the regime, and sanctions (which caused great hardship to Iraqis) meant we could punish the regime without having to bomb it. Now, very many of those who opposed the war in Iraq are in agreement with those who authored the war in Iraq, at least over Darfur.

If anything, the moral crusade in Darfur being demanded by those who found the invasion of Iraq to be too cynical – too motivated by realpolitik, or by the desire for oil, or by the wish to install a US-friendly regime – is even more self-serving and conceited than the kind of military interventions they criticise. The West’s attempts to install a government in a foreign land are profoundly undemocratic and, as we have seen in Iraq, usually an unmitigated disaster. However, they do at least express some kind of desire to design and direct real events. The posturing over Sudan, on the other hand, is really only about making themelves feel better. It is a self-regarding mission by various American and European celebs, activists and journalists to imbue their own lives with a sense of purpose and mission by denouncing ‘evil’ and defending ‘good’. And if it is acted upon – if the international community accepts their invitation to end evil in Darfur – the consequences could be disastrous for the peoples who live there. Far from being resolved, their problems and conflicts would likely be exacerbated by an intervention that viewed their territory in simplistic terms of right and wrong, where one side are apparently pathetic victims who need protection and the other side evil-doers who deserve punishment.

Pretty much all that anti-war commentators and activists had going for them was moral outrage. And such outrage, unanchored by political convictions, can easily flit from being aghast at Bush in Iraq to being aghast at the absence of Bush in Sudan. People in Darfur may end up paying a heavy price for the moral outrage felt on their behalf by what passes for an anti-war movement today.

Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.

(1) Talking to Clooney, BBC News, 23 February 2006

(2) Clooney, dad speak out for Darfur, AOL News, 27 April 2006

(3) See Stop fighting a fantasy war over Iran, by Brendan O’Neill

(4) Clooney, dad speak out for Darfur, AOL News, 27 April 2006

(5) Sudan to face ‘genocide’ inquiry, Guardian, 28 July 2004

(6) Powell declares genocide in Sudan, BBC News, 9 September 2004

(7) See Powell doesn’t wow, by Brendan O’Neill

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Topics Politics


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