Just weeks ago, every major network was breathless for George Clooney and news from Sudan. The Clooney left the building and predictably, so have the dozens of cameras and breathless interns, who waited for a glimpse of or a glance from the actor and activist who took Washington, DC by storm. After a trip to Sudan and South Sudan, Clooney delivered impassioned testimony before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. His firsthand account included a powerful video, where the suffering of the Nuban people was highlighted with graphic, inescapable clarity.
The Nuban people, of the Nuba Mountains, have been a self-sustaining society since Biblical times. Agricultural and pastoral by nature, they are now targets of Sudan President Omar al Bashir's ethnic cleansing campaign. Like Darfur, the Nuba Mountains are ground zero for a genocide in the making. Bashir's forces use rape, destruction of infrastructure, blockading food production and aid delivery in concert with aerial bombardments and shelling with Chinese made rockets. Across the Nuba Mountains, to South Kordofan, the Blue Nile and Abyei, suffering is choreographed by Bashir and his henchmen like Ahmed Haroun who shares Bashir's distinction as an indicted war criminal.
Beyond the brief uptick in coverage that surrounded Clooney's visit, the reality is this: he and his Satellite Sentinel project have done more than President Obama, UN Ambassador Susan Rice, acclaimed anti-genocide activist and NSC Multi-Lateral Affairs Director Samantha Power, and the entire Department of State combined.
Once upon an inauguration, the president's rhetoric seemed so powerful. His team kept former President George W. Bush's feet to the fire during all eight years of his presidency. They excoriated him and shamed him, his administration and the leaders in Britain and France and at the United Nations until they took action. Thousands displaced, thousands suffering, thousands dead. When George W. Bush took action it resulted in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, a cessation of much of the violence, and put South Sudan on the path toward status as a sovereign nation -- which they became July 9, 2011. From Obama's team there was a brief moment of acknowledgment before they returned to talking points accusing Bush of not doing enough.
If so many lives had not been lost, the hypocrisy of President Obama and his team declaring how he has restored America's reputation in the world might be comical. It is not. Because in Sudan, war crimes and mass atrocities and the tools of genocide are deployed daily. On Obama's watch, even as the U.S. has the presidency of the United Nations Security Council this month, there is no action. Only a few statements and discussions of sanctions. Nothing tangible.
In particular, Samantha Power's silence on the subject is deafening. Once a person who wrote eloquently about "Bystanders to Genocide," she now works closely with Susan Rice who was one of the "people sitting in offices" that Power once critiqued for inaction. The contrast is beyond a disappointment; she won a Pulitzer Prize for her book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, on the very issue of U.S. inaction.
Her own words, from The Atlantic in 2001:
Why did the United States not do more for the Rwandans at the time of the killings? Did the president really not know about the genocide, as his marginalia suggested? Who were the people in his administration who made the life-and-death decisions that dictated U.S. policy? Why did they decide (or decide not to decide) as they did? Were any voices inside or outside the U.S. government demanding that the United States do more? If so, why weren't they heeded? And most crucial, what could the United States have done to save lives?
Despite the absence of leadership from Power or Rice or President Obama, advocacy has continued. Act for Sudan, the Enough Project, Clooney's Satellite Sentinel, United to End Genocide and many Sudanese diaspora groups have continued their work.
The cognitive dissonance required to believe President Obama prioritizes the people of Darfur, the Nuba Mountains, South Kordofan, the Blue Nile, Abyei, Southerners trapped in Khartoum and Sudan, and suffering all along the border with South Sudan, is astounding. His support for and dispatch of assets to assist NATO's efforts in Libya, the escalation of rhetoric towards Syria's Assad regime, even Obama's language about Afghanistan being the good war, all demonstrate he is not shy about using force when he deems it necessary. Or politically beneficial.
The impunity with which he allows Omar al Bashir to operate is a tragedy. Since 1993 when Bashir's name hit the wires as the dictator that gave safe haven to Osama bin Laden, only one president made any tangible effort to confront Bashir. George W. Bush was compelled to action, with considerable credit going to advocates and foreign policy experts who understood America should not stand idle as genocide occurred. Bush's legacy includes a tremendous focus on and advocacy for ending genocide, developing and funding the U.S. component of the Millennium Development Goals, prevention of malaria and the landmark President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. Bush understood this investment would demonstrate the U.S. commitment to a comprehensive foreign policy, knowing instinctively honey rather than vinegar will bring us new relationships and allies for the next century.
After World War II, the Greatest Generation came home. They fought valiantly. They brought the Holocaust to an end and freedom rang out once again. It is worth noting the stains on the record of President Roosevelt and his Secretary of State, Cordell Hull. Though Hull is called the 'Father of the United Nations,' this distinction came only after he looked away as genocide cost six million lives.
Our nation must live up to the best ideals and our foundational belief in individual liberty. Strong diplomatic efforts can bring success, just as a cross border aid delivery would mitigate the immediate suffering in South Sudan. Ultimately though, history will judge President Obama not only on his domestic achievements and the soaring rhetoric he employed, but also on his foreign policy and the content of his character.