Actor George Clooney, his father Nick, and four Congressional Democrats were among more than a dozen protesters who descended on the Sudanese Embassy on March 16 for the purpose of crossing, in a disorderly fashion, a police line.
The cast of characters? Along with Clooneys I and II, it included Reps. James Moran (D-VA), Jim McGovern (D-MA), John Olver (D-MA) and Al Green (D-TX). NAACP President Ben Jealous was also arrested, along with Martin Luther King III.
Clooney’s mid-day performance on Mass Ave was the finale to a 3-day tour in DC that included an impassioned plea to a standing-room-only crowd at the Council on Foreign Relations, and dramatic testimony delivered to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about the miserable state of affairs in the border region of Sudan. Omar al-Bashir’s military, operating out of Khartoum, is working assiduously to wipe out mostly Christian populations hunkered down on highly contested, oil-rich real estate to the south.
Clooney, who has frequently taken on the role of the world-weary activist in his films, accuses Sudanese President al-Bashir and the ‘same criminals responsible for Darfur’ of conducting a genocidal war against his own people, of starving, maiming, raping, and murdering them.
And he says it as if no one has ever heard it before.
Nightmare in Sudan
Sudan, divided since July 9, 2011, into an Independent Southern Sudan and a more powerful North—still called Sudan and ruled out of Khartoum—is presently engaged in a nightmare conflict waged largely along the 1,000 mile line that now divides the two countries. South Sudan is oil-rich, and western nations, including the US, have been investing heavily in the region since its independence, hoping to reverse its downward economic slide and transform the region into ‘a stable ally.’
The pipelines and refineries needed to process the oil, however, are located in al-Bashir’s Sudan, to the north, but instead of cooperating with South Sudan, the al-Bashir government in Khartoum, beneficiary of Chinese and Russian investment, is making a grab for as much as it can get of the oil producing real estate in the region of Abyei, where ‘Africa and the Arab world meet.’
Al-Bashir’s forces are targeting the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile, regions where sympathies favor the secessionist South, and the ongoing confrontation between the two Sudans has left civilians in along the border vulnerable to intensive aerial bombing, as well as attacks by roving ethnic militias with their own, ancient, axes to grind.
It’s a real mess, a foreign policy debacle with different state and ethnic actors driven by various, shifting motives (economic, national, religious, tribal) battling on multiple fronts in a region where might makes right and where outside intervention is highly unlikely. For too many reasons to discuss in this blog.
Listen. We’re talking about Africa—a region Transparency International calls ‘the most corrupt in the world.’ About oil. About serious sectarian rivalries with long-term consequences, geopolitical balance in a highly volatile area, and the competing interests of heavyweight stakeholders. We’re also talking about feuds between villages, between neighbors, between two guys living on opposite sides of the road that took root long before nationhood, or industrialization, or spiritual enlightenment was supposed to make a difference.
And George ‘The Activist’ Clooney knows this.
Yes, he does.
The Clooney Plan: Part I—Lean on PRC
Going on and on about ‘morals,’ and ‘right versus wrong,’ Clooney acknowledged (yes, he really said this—and to Congress) isn’t going to work.
I bet that set them back.
No, the actor has another, hardnosed solution: he wants the US to talk ‘money.’ Economic self-interest.
For Clooney, this is realpolitik.
You see, China, al-Bashir’s friend and long-term investment partner, is currently down about 5 percent of the oil it can normally depend on flowing from Sudan.
So Clooney’s suggestion is that the US should point this out to China and simply explain that it’s in China’s economic advantage to ditch its long-standing, set-in-concrete policy of non-intervention (read human rights) in the sovereign affairs of its investment partners and to lean on the al-Bashir government on behalf of the thousands of nameless Sudanese currently suffering and dying at their leader’s hands.
He also recommends ‘robust diplomacy.’
I love that phrase.
Picture the ever-caviling crowd at Turtle Bay (the same bunch who refused to apply the word ‘genocide’ to Darfur even after the US choked it out), hopped up on khat, demanding that China’s President Hu finally put the screws to ‘his friend and brother’—the term Hu used to describe Sudan’s leader when he visited Beijing in 2011—or else.
And if al-Bashir fails to apologize to the families of his victims by midnight tomorrow?
Grrrr…the UN kicks China off the Security Council, and the US refuses, absolutely, (ask H.R. Clinton who calls China ‘America’s banker’) to borrow any more money. Not one red cent.
Jog my memory
Let’s see. . .China’s the ‘friend’ to whom Sudan reached out, out, and out after the West took issue with al-Bashir’s performance in Darfur, right? The friend, according to al-Bashir, who came to Sudan’s economic rescue without imposing any ‘conditions’ (read human rights again) on foreign investment?
But so what?
George is right, a ‘fixer’ (rent Michael Clayton—Newsweek calls it ‘a gripping thriller’), so the next scene has to be the one in which a high-minded US Department of State, led in this version by Chuck Norris, stands tall and reminds China that the ICC has arrest warrants out for al-Bashir, that China, itself a legendary violator of human rights, has no business egging him on with those ‘no-questions-asked’ billion-dollar deals for Sudan’s oil, agriculture, H2O, etc., and that redressing the decrease in oil that should be flowing to China today is far more urgent than what seems to be the PRC’s ‘short-term pain/long-term gain’ plan to sit back and wait to see if al-Bashir has the chops to seize, in the not-so-distant future, the whole ball of rice.
Recent reports indicate Khartoum is bombing Southern Sudan (even as I write) to discourage US and Chinese investors from making loans that would allow the independent Republic to construct its own refineries and build pipelines to Kenya and across Ethiopia to Djibouti.
Landlocked South Sudan shut down production last January after accusing Khartoum of stealing millions of barrels of oil sent north for transport, and increasing oil transit fees to $36 a barrel. South Sudan has also accused Khartoum of building and operating a ‘secret pipeline’ designed to siphon/steal oil from areas south of the border that divides the nations.
Since Southern Sudan owns 75 percent of the oil reserves, leaving the North with refineries and ports, it isn’t hard to read the minds of competing investors and powerbrokers in the US and China who have obviously figured out that it’s better to own the oil and build new technology to get it out of Southern Sudan than it is to own only the refineries and ports without access to the oil reserves.
Hence, al-Bashir’s military push to regain as much of the area surrounding the border between north and south, to subdue Southern sympathizers stranded just north of the border, and perhaps (do we think?) establish control over the oil reserves in Southern Sudan.
The US, which promised (almost) to lift the sanctions we imposed on Khartoum if it learned to share with its separatist brothers in the south, has replaced that carrot with some pretty harsh verbal sticks–so al Bashir is probably less concerned about making nice with Obama than he might otherwise be. He may even suspect that US support for peace in Sudan is really a stall, designed to buy time while western investors figure out how to cut Khartoum out of the oil game all together.
So back to the Clooney Plan, Part I, the notion that the shutdown in oil production in Southern Sudan is hurting China so much that the US can launch a pocketbook appeal and persuade the PRC to persuade al-Bashir to lay off the murder and mayhem his forces are raining down on the villagers of the Nuba Mountains.
Here’s the deal: Sudan exports about 61 percent of its oil to China. But the oil China imports from Sudan represents only a tiny fraction of the total amount of oil the PRC purchases each year–most of it still comes from the Mideast.
China has no economic incentive, none, nada, to lean on al-Bashir on behalf of Sudanese citizens caught in the crossfire. China and Russia looked the other way during Darfur—what is Clooney thinking?
Pay attention, George.
China, as you know, is our largest creditor, owning between 8-10 percent of US debt (roughly 15 trillion), debt which, as you also know, outstrips US GDP.
An exemplar of state capitalism, and a master currency manipulator, China has, not just the US, but the world on a string (Super Sad True Love Story?), and given its cultural and historic disregard for human rights and individual freedoms, Mr. Clooney may be overly optimistic, not just about China’s potential willingness to negotiate for short-term oil supplies, but also about the willingness of the US to get ‘robust’ with a government whose economic goodwill is as important to us as it is, apparently, to Sudan.
The Voice of Reason
Now, a lot of foreign policy analysts are going to tell you that panic (see above) is part of an extremist world view regularly voiced by hysteria-prone teabaggers, survivalists, and far-right talk show hosts—people lacking the long, measured view that ‘good form,’ or at least ‘rational self-interest’ inevitably acts as a check against the unthinkable.
They tell us that it is precisely because the US is so indebted to China that we are safe from that nation’s economic aggression—the “China needs us as much as we need them.” The US trade deficit—272 billion. More than a 500 percent rise in US exports to China since 2000. The economic version of MAD, right?
You’d have to out of your mind to upset this applecart.
Sadly, there is little room for ‘ wild card’ thinking in the hallowed halls of international foreign policy. Too dark. Too nasty. Too ‘theoretical.’
What we hear, instead, is one conference speaker after another call for and applaud the most minute gains (blips in an endless loop of violence) among nations still inimical to the rule of law and respect for human rights.
It’s ok. As long as we keep the lines of communication open, no matter who’s on the other end of the line, we’re bound to see progress.
It is poverty, we are told, which engenders ruthlessness. And it is prosperity, gleaned via ‘global free trade,’ on which ‘clean nations’ and ‘good men’ are depending to transform the hearts and minds of the less enlightened.
Not just the bank accounts of a select few.
Denial Springs Eternal
Interestingly, this is the same kind of thinking, this wildly progressive faith that men will be guided by the self-evident benefits of long-term solutions and ‘the greater good,’ that led Alan Greenspan into the dark night of his and our economic soul in 2008, when the former Fed Chairman admitted that he had been led astray by his belief (a bold blend of moral optimism and rationality) that ‘US banks would be guided by a concern for the long-term self-interest’ of the financial services industry.
But it was the nation’s bankers (well, how was Greenspan supposed to know—with that Ivy League POV and the Adam Smith tie?), the guys who created bad investments, hawked them to customers, and then bet against them, who ended up chasing his or her own personal fortune, his or her own ‘short-term self-interest.’
Let’s go back even further, to a European Community which believed, prior to WW II, that Germany’s drive toward rearmament and its push to ‘regain’ real estate which at various times in history had rested within its borders, was a reasonable, inevitable, and even healthy historic development.
Given the devastation of WW I, it was ‘inconceivable,’ argued thinkers, that Germany–not the people, not its leaders, but the nation–might choose to go down that road again.
But Hitler and his cronies proved once again the old verity at the heart of the scorpion and tortoise tale—the inescapable addiction of criminals to short-term plundering, to getting all you can get while you can get it, regardless of the risk to themselves and the civilization on whose back they ride.
Criminals are by nature opportunists. Speculators in markets, including politics and foreign policy, where ‘old school’ managers and investors routinely opine that concern for the health and survival of the whole will, in the end, fend off the predatory impulses of ‘rogue players.’
How many ‘ends,’ both economic and political, do we have to experience to question this wisdom? And what does this mean for the relationship between China, the world’s ‘no strings attached’ financier, and its customers—including Africa and the US?
Who’s on First?
A terrific post by Joel Davis, an FPA blogger, points to an argument made by Robert Kagan in his book, The World America Made.
Davis presents us with the notion that while theorists often focus on the character of the international community (in which the US has taken the lead over the past century, with positive results), he agrees with Kagan that the character of its leaders are equally important in determining the motives and choices of governments and the course of history.
Kagan offers as a nice rebuttal to those who focus more on the character of the international system rather than the character of the leader of the system. Yes, we have international system defined by the U.N. and several regional groups, so does it really matter who leads? It does, just ask the people of Libya. An international system dominated by Russia or China would probably have a made a very different call there.
FPA blogger Derek Catsam offers us another interesting post, great graphics, a map designating Chinese investment across the African continent, and an overview which invites the reader to choose his or her own side
In China’s Piece of the African Cake, Catsam writes that Chinese investment in Africa could be (and I’m guessing he means in the best of all possible worlds) ‘a mutually beneficial situation.’ African nations need the money and welcome a partner who respects African sovereignty and imposes no ‘conditions’ (human rights a third time around) on the money. Could be good, says Catsam, last graph, first half of article.
But wait, the author advises….Africa’s looking to China (and Russia) might fill in the gaps left by the post-Cold War desertion of the Western powers, and might even be preferable to the exorable relationship Africa endured under colonial rule—but be careful, Catsam counsels…
Chinese involvement in Africa is a dual-edged sword. . . . the question remains whether many African states are inviting unintended consequences much like those they faced during the Cold War when they largely represented pawns in a geo-political game. It’s savvy to look east as long as doing so does not preclude continuing to peer westward as well. Indeed, looking both ways and not going all-in with any particular partner, however seductive, might just provide the best path for true growth, development, and political autonomy.
Yes, Mr. Catsam, right on the money. And your readers no doubt agree with your conclusions, as do I.
But are Africa’s leaders listening?
What about Omar al-Bashir—the ICC-indicted war criminal who sleeps like a baby on his official state visits to China and Russia?
I’m also thinking that ‘west’ and ‘arrest’ might sound too much alike to al-Bashir—semantic conflation which might prove an obstacle, maybe, to his treading that ‘best path’?
Question: is al-Bashir selling those oil and agricultural contracts to his friends in the east to enrich the national treasury, to build infrastructure and a new economy for the people of Sudan?
Or is his land grab, his support for ‘ethnic conflict,’ his campaign against ‘rebel forces’ on the border or in South Sudan driven by the simple criminal desire to increase/consolidate supply, sell it off to the highest, no-questions-asked bidder, and steal the profits?
Sudan-China: Partners in Crime?
These, I know, are not polite questions, but they certainly deserve discussion (don’t they?). This is a global organized crime blog. And I’m not finished.
The fact is that China is on a no-holds-barred buying spree in Africa (Sudan, Nigeria, and Angola–Bad Boys all–are the Big Three), acquiring the continent’s present and future natural resources, including water and agricultural rights, from (history demonstrates) a shifting lineup of corrupt leaders who pocket millions wired at warp speed to foreign accounts—where the money accrues in US dollars.
So Clooney is correct in his assessment that money carries more clout than do appeals to conscience—just not the kind of chump change he thinks may tempt China to demand better behavior from al-Bashir.
Let’s talk China, George, with a population of roughly 1.3 billion producers, and 0 consumers, a capitalist oligarchy exercising state control of production, a government in this for the long term, a place where people are not (and have never been) the priority.
A quick digression: do you know what the Chinese people call their Great Wall?
‘The Long Graveyard.’
The tribute is to the millions of Chinese workers reputedly buried in or under that 4000+ mile span of stone. Work on the Wall continued for more than 2000 years and, at one point, no less than 70 percent of the Chinese population was engaged in hard labor, 24/7, to make it happen.
Take a moment.
You know David Cameron, right? The UK Prime Minister and special Obama friend? Well, it seems even ‘our closest ally’ is waving a red flag about the ‘Chinese Invasion’ of Africa.
David Cameron warned African states over China’s ‘authoritarian capitalism’ last week, claiming that it is unsustainable in the long term. In possibly the most critical comments made by a modern British Prime Minister about China’s growing global influence, Mr Cameron admitted the West is increasingly alarmed by Beijing’s leading role in the new ‘scramble for Africa’. China has poured billions into Africa in recent years – buying up natural resources and infrastructure while asking few questions about some of the unsavoury regimes involved.
You’re worried about ‘crimes against humanity’ along the Sudanese border?
Consider this: who’s going to feed Africa when the last time native farmers see their crops is when they help local workers, under the supervision of the Chinese military, load them into cargo planes bound for Beijing?
LA County? The Motion Picture Association of America? Dreamworks?
I’d start planning those fundraisers now…
Back on Topic
Here’s what you want to know, George, and probably didn’t get a chance to ask the Obamas or Hillary Clinton over dinner at the White House: why isn’t our government (it’s their job, after all) on top of this?
Maybe you assumed the answer was because ‘your issue’ has been pushed onto the back burner—as you said, Iran and Iraq are dominating the news.
Diplomatic, but not necessarily true.
Cynics might suggest a big reason DC isn’t focusing on Sudan because ours is an elected government (with constituencies who generally focus on America First), whose leaders understand that a commitment ‘to fix’ any dilemma (particularly foreign) that cannot be remedied in four, six, or eight years (or ever) is a gamble no one seeking reelection wants to take.
President Obama just told Benjamin Netanyahu he doesn’t think it’s the right time (before the upcoming US election) for Israel, our major ally and firewall in the Mideast, to respond to Iran’s nuclear threat. And Israel has decided to agree. We have no hard evidence that Ahmadinejad has a nuke ready to launch.
What the US administration does seems to have is a hard-enough hunch that confrontation with Iran (even if we’re just the guy behind the curtain), with an almost guaranteed shutdown of the Straits of Hormuz, is no place a man facing re-election in six months wants to be.
Short-timers, folks who have to keep campaigning to hold onto their jobs or to get the next one (and this includes a lot of people engaged in the ‘business’ of foreign policy as well as governance), focus on immediate survival—their own, their party’s, their organization’s, sometimes even the nation’s.
And while it’s always makes for resounding rhetoric to plead for the interests of ‘generations yet to come,’ the real challenge, 99 percent of the time, is just to get to tomorrow morning. (As a very senior US official told me in Europe re Uncle Sam’s lackluster investment in the United Nations: “We’re only here to play defense…”)
There’s also this: our foreign policy priorities in the US focus on our ability to maintain the lead (or at least keep up ) in the increasingly uncertain game of global finance and trade.
‘Fighting Global Crime’ is much further down that list of foreign policy priorities, with the exception of terrorism–which, in addition to threatening lives, also stands to bring down the global financial/trade system mentioned above (and you can chicken-and-egg this to your heart’s content).
Down even further, way, way, waaaay down, is the concern–the real muscular, willing to cut-off, give back, or just not take the money in the first place kind–for human rights.
We will speak up (women’s rights, sex trafficking, child soldiers, the slaughter in Homs), sure.
But ante up? You tell me.
We, like so many of the world’s richest nations, remain the Voice of Conscience.
Not, if we can help it, its Arm.
Reaching up, morally, or out that far, economically or militarily, might mean dropping the bottom line.
The Coast Buys Facetime in DC
But George, (can you still hear me?), congratulations, guy.
You’ve done your part in helping a handful of smart politicos—beneficiaries, I’m betting, of campaign dollars from The Coast– survive and prosper yet another day.
Not everyone is willing to risk a misdemeanor for Sudan.
It was exciting, I bet, crossing that police line in downtown DC, flashbulbs popping, traffic all backed up, the dreary denizens of Powertown and the local cops all agog. And you guys did it well—the somber faces, the stubble, the worn jeans, and no looking directly into the camera. Just the hint of a smile when they slapped on the cuffs.
Just like a movie.
The Clooney Plan: Part II—Seize and Freeze Khartoum’s Accounts
Enough fun. Back to the Clooney Plan. If I recall correctly, it turns on a two-part solution. If China won’t cooperate, George told reporters and Congress, the US should go after Khartoum’s bank accounts. Seize and freeze any assets belonging to al-Bashir and his criminal cronies. Word is that al-Bashir has stolen about $9 billion so far.
Now we’re talking.
One problem: international asset recovery represents one of the most difficult and arduous legal undertakings available to countries whose treasure has been plundered via corruption or stolen outright by its leaders.
The World Bank estimates 1.6 trillion annually in looted, plundered or embezzled funds moves across borders of developing and crisis-stricken nations—Africa’s in particular.
A 2005 report by the Commission for Africa cites a European Commission estimate that “stolen African assets equivalent to more than half of the continent’s external debt are held in foreign banks accounts.”
In that same year, Nigeria was able to recover roughly 1.2 billion (out of an estimated 7-10 billion purportedly pilfered from 1993-1998) stolen by former President Sani Abacha—but not before Nigeria designated the Abacha family a ‘criminal organization,’ and requested and received legal assistance from multiple jurisdictions with which the African nation had entered into a legal pact, including Switzerland, Jersey, and Liechtenstein.
Suffice it to say that before Clooney arrived in DC with what he seems to think is an easy solution to ending Khartoum’s reign of terror, one would assume that he, his staff, or perhaps staff members belonging to the offices of his fellow protestors from Congress, would have done some homework on this issue.
It’s all easily accessible, even if the only site you consult is the much maligned but good-in-a-pinch Wikipedia.
A small reality check pulled from that site:
Managing the stages of an asset recovery investigation can be extremely time consuming, complex and requires a great deal of resources, expertise, and political will. First, a victim country must succeed in tracing the stolen assets. Second, the victim country must request cooperation from authorities in the jurisdictions where the assets reside to seize the assets; these requests usually come in the form of a Mutual Legal Assistance request or a letter rogatory, though some common law countries allow the filing of a Mareva injunction in civil courts to achieve the same end. Third, legal processes must usually be initiated in the requested country in order to confiscate the assets. Following this, requested authorities must repatriate the assets back to the requesting country.Each of the necessary steps— tracing, freezing, confiscation and repatriation— presents its own unique challenges.
Do we think Sudan is a ‘victim country’ exuding new-found political will, or a subscriber to a multilateral agreement designed to facilitate asset recovery, or that someone in the US Congress, one of George’s supporters, is able or willing to reorder our (or China’s or Russia’s) priorities (oil vs. human rights) to make the ‘right thing happen’ right now–just like it would on the big silver screen?
Before Clooney stood up in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, one of his buddies should have pulled the ‘I’m a dope but don’t laugh out loud’ sign off the back of his jacket.
Oh well. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, peopled by Members grateful for the support of the artistic community, knows when and how to listen (with straight faces).
“We can only hope it made a difference,” Clooney told the press.
It did, but not for the people of Sudan, I’m afraid.
Are the Stars Out Tonight?
Here’s my advice for Hollywood celebrities (listen up) determined to make a difference in US policy: next time you trek across the continent breathing heavy for a cause, get a room.
One you charge to your own card, not the taxpayer’s.
If you want to stage a performance in a Congressional Hearing room, occupying high-rent space and triggering the operational costs of a full-blown show, if you intend to tie up the time of US representatives (who work for the people), then negotiate a contract for the set before you get to town.
If you want to make a scene in the middle of Mass Ave, blocking traffic, and engaging the services of the highly-paid Secret Service and the DC Metropolitan Police Force, pay for it yourself.
And compensate the pedestrians, the commuters, the bystanders and anyone else who works for a living and whose life is rendered more difficult via the chaos you believe celebrities are entitled—by dint of campaign contributions and a ‘righteous cause’–to unleash on the capital.
If we want this kind of drama, George, and fuzzy reassurance that the world’s wrongs can be righted, not by trading criminals for the rule of law, but by the single-mindedness of lonely champions—we can buy a ticket.