WITH five years’ involvement in Sudan, George Clooney has begun to define a new role for himself: 21st-century celebrity statesman.
It’s an ambitious avocation: Clooney has been leveraging his celebrity to make people care about something more important than celebrity.
South Sudan’s January referendum for independence was followed by uprisings that toppled North African and Arab dictatorships, with power moving from centralised political bureaucracies to popular engagement. In this new environment — fuelled by social networking — the famous can influence public debate more than elected officials and even nation-states.
“It’s harder for authoritarian regimes to survive, because we can circumvent old structures with cell phones and the internet,” says Clooney. “Celebrity can help focus news media where they have abdicated their responsibility. We can’t make policy, but we can ‘encourage’ politicians more than ever before.” So a few weeks ago, Clooney was driven in a white pickup down a red dirt road under the watchful eyes of teenage soldiers armed with AK-47s. LA was half a world away, but the paparazzi were not far from his mind. “If they’re going to follow me anyway,” he said “I want them to follow me here.”
Clooney had travelled to the oil-rich contested region of Abyei on the eve of South Sudan’s historic referendum. When the polls closed seven days later, Africa’s largest nation would be divided into two separate countries by electoral mandate. After witnessing 2m people murdered — including the first genocide of the 21st century, in Darfur — South Sudan would be on the path to independence. It was an outcome that three months earlier appeared unlikely. Clooney, according to observers, played a pivotal role.
No one in Abyei has seen a George Clooney movie. His credibility here comes from multiple trips to Africa, many of them with John Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough Project. Amid the factions, Clooney is seen as a man unconstrained by bureaucracy, with access to power and the ability to amplify a village’s voice onto the world stage.
Celebrity statesmen function like freelance diplomats, adopting issue experts and studying policy. Clooney has Sudanese rebel leaders on speed dial. He’s had AK-47s shoved in his chest. When he’s on movie sets, he gets Sudan briefings via email.
He’s gone one step further — Clooney has a satellite. Privately funded and publicly accessible (SatSentinel.org), this eye in the sky monitors military movements on the north-south border — the powder keg in a region the US director of national intelligence described a year ago as the place on earth where “a new mass killing or genocide is most likely to occur”. “I’m not tied to the UN or the US government, and so I don’t have the same constraints. I’m a guy with a camera from 480 miles up,” Clooney says. “I’m the anti-genocide paparazzi.”
Clooney’s high-wattage visits draw unwelcome attention to the head of the north’s Islamist government in Khartoum, Omar al-Bashir, who has been indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court. News of the satellite spurred Khartoum to issue a press release accusing Clooney of “an ulterior motive that has nothing to do with peace”. But to the world media, a press release is no match for the spectacle of Clooney in Africa.
Clad in a khaki-colored ExOfficio vest, white safari shirt, lightweight pants and worn hiking boots, Clooney doesn’t look or act like a buttoned-up diplomat. He will be 50 in May and has the attitude of a man determined to spend his time on things that matter. “The truth is that the spotlight of public attention is lifesaving — whether it’s a genocide, disease, or hunger,” says New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. “Stars can generate attention and then generate the political will to do something about a problem.”
Clooney read Kristof’s Darfur columns in 2005. “I had just come out of Oscar season — I had two movies up — and you really do campaign, like kissing babies,” he says. “So by the time it’s over, you sort of feel unclean. You want to do something that makes you feel better.” He remembered how his father, Nick — a newsman from Kentucky — had been furious when international stories were bumped by celebrity gossip. So when he made his first trip to Sudan with his father, Clooney was determined to put the candy coating of celebrity on the serious substance of foreign policy.
He learned the danger of dropping in on a humanitarian crisis: as a way of giving back to a refugee village where he and his father stayed, he donated money to build a well, huts, and a community centre. “A year later the next-door villagers — who wanted water and needed shelter — ended up killing some of the people to get to that well and to get to that shelter,” Clooney says.
Prendergast gets credit and/or blame for popularising the actor-activist alliance. A former director of African affairs at the National Security Council under President Clinton, Prendergast lopes around sporting sneakers and graying shoulder-length hair. He stumbled on the formula after a trip with Angelina Jolie to the Congo in 2003 drew attention. Prendergast’s partnership with Clooney builds on the template set by U2’s Bono and Jeffrey Sachs of the Earth Institute, who publicised efforts to alleviate extreme African poverty.
“Bono’s model really worked,” Clooney says. “There is more attention on celebrity than ever before — and there is a use for that besides selling products.” Stars like Brad Pitt (Katrina), Ben Affleck (Congo), and Sean Penn (Haiti) followed suit. “A lot of the young actors I see coming up in the industry are not just involved, but knowledgeable on a subject and then sharing that with fans,” says Clooney. No one’s just a “peace activist” anymore — they have a specialty.
Clooney’s focus on Sudan has made him a resource for top policymakers. He has briefed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the UN Security Council. It helps that the American president is a friend. Clooney and Barack Obama, both born in 1961, first worked together on Darfur. After their first Oval Office meeting, Obama appointed a special envoy to Sudan. The second meeting, last October, resulted in the deployment of Senator John Kerry to Khartoum. “These guys have spent more time on the ground in Abyei than most American officials have,” Kerry says of Clooney and Prendergast. “The White House has been listening to them.”
Clooney plays a flawed presidential candidate in his next film, The Ides of March. He’ll direct the movie he co-wrote, giving his character lines he’d like to hear from a presidential candidate. But despite overtures from the California Democratic Party, Clooney has rejected conventional politics. “I didn’t live my life in the right way for politics, you know,” he said, sitting outside the Central Pub in Juba, scarfing down pizza. “I fucked too many chicks and did too many drugs, and that’s the truth.”
Clooney is funny and friendly, frenetic and unpretentious. He’s proud to be “the son of a newsman”. He’s a guy’s guy — a connoisseur of the practical joke and a rubber-faced raconteur, fuelled late into the night by vodka and soda. But Clooney is also the first one up in the morning, needing only four hours of sleep.
Clooney’s diplomacy is informed by film. “You have to get people in the theatre first,” he says. “The trick is to be really concise — it’s a one-liner on a poster, right? You have to make it clear. ‘You can stop a war before it starts’ (or) ‘If you had a chance to prevent the next Darfur, what would you do?’
“You cannot sustain people’s attention seven days a week, for a long period of time. Actors have an advantage, because you do a movie and then you disappear for a while. That’s what John and I try to do — come back every three or four months with something new to reignite interest.”
After driving across arid plains, we pull into a compound guarded by soldiers manning a jeep crowned with a machine gun. Inside a thatched hut, the Abyei administrator, Deng Arop, and the chief of the Ngok Dinka tribe, Kuol Deng, greet Clooney warmly. “Our job is to ask you how we can help,” Clooney says — and then he listens.
Clooney steps outside to find camera crews from CNN and SkyNews. Alerted that he was heading for Abyei, the networks dispatched cameras to an area 550 miles from the nearest city.
We drive on to a “returnee” camp known as Mejak Manyore. There, in a field of mud, are rooms without walls. Bed frames, tables, and chairs are arranged. They belong to a handful of the 40,000 families who left the north and returned home to the south over the past four months in anticipation of independence. Now they are living under the open sky.
“They’ve packed everything up and come here — not out of fear, but out of incredible hope,” Clooney says. “I’ve been to a lot of refugee camps where people have come because half their family was killed. These people are here because they want to be part of something historic. They believe things are just going to work out.” But two miles away, Misseriya militias attack a Ngok Dinka village that day, killing more than 30 members of the tribe — including police officers — before being repelled and losing more than 80 militiamen themselves.
Clooney’s bed that night is a cot in a compound where relief workers in Abyei live. Perched on plastic furniture, he drinks a warm can of Heineken as the sun sets. “These guys have a day job that pays them nothing and is dangerous. My day job pays very well, and the worst thing that happens is you get some bad food from craft service,” he says. “I walk an uneasy line trying to bring focus to what they do, because there’s a lot of self-congratulatory crap that makes you sick to your stomach.”
Clooney’s celebrity-statesman strategy has its critics on the right and left. Professor William Easterly, of New York University, says “the success in South Sudan happened in spite of the celebrities, and not because of them ... It’s unclear why we want celebrities to be in a diplomatic role.”
As recently as October, there was pessimism among diplomats and the people of South Sudan that the referendum would occur. The turnaround cannot be ascribed primarily to Clooney’s bully pulpit. The government-in-waiting of South Sudan, led by Salva Kiir, kept its coalition together; the Obama administration and UN found new diplomatic focus; and China — Sudan’s largest oil investor — changed the equation by belatedly announcing it would support the referendum. The Council on Foreign Relations’ James Hoge says: “Celebrities can be a catalyst for policy changes, but the policy changes themselves actually have to come from political figures.”
Still, after Clooney launched a media blitz to mark 100 days to the referendum, English-language newspaper, magazine, and website mentions of the Sudan referendum spiked from six to 165 in one month. Between October and January, the referendum was mentioned in 96 stories — with Clooney used as a hook in one third. In that same period, 95,000 people sent emails to the White House demanding action on South Sudan. Valentino Achak Deng, the former “lost boy” known to Americans as the subject of a bestselling “fictionalised memoir” by Dave Eggers, What Is the What, says: “The referendum would not have taken place without his involvement. Never. He saved millions of lives. I don’t think he knows this.”
Days after the referendum resulted in a 98.8% vote for independence, Clooney was in Detroit, scouting locations for The Ides of March. Recovering from malaria, he was coordinating the release of satellite images and reflecting on Egypt’s uprising: “We’re so interconnected now that I can’t imagine that the south voting for freedom against an oppressive government doesn’t have some effect across the region.”
The Republic of South Sudan will not officially become a separate nation until July 9. Obstacles remain, especially Abyei, caught between countries and capable of igniting at any moment. When SatSentinel.org released its first high-resolution photos, it provided visual verification that the north had deployed 55,000 troops and artillery around the border of Abyei. Whether defensive or offensive, Khartoum could no longer deny the build-up.
“My job is to amplify the voice of the guy who lives here and is worried about his wife and children being slaughtered,” says Clooney, summing up the opportunity and obligation of the celebrity statesman. “He wants to shout it from the mountaintops, but he doesn’t have a very big megaphone or a very big mountain. So he’s asking anyone who has a mountain and megaphone to protect his family, his village. And if he finds me and asks, ‘You got a big megaphone?’ and I say, ‘Yes’. ‘You got a decent-size mountain to yell it from?’ ‘Yeah, I got a pretty good-sized mountain.’ ‘Will you do me a favour and yell it?’ And I go, ‘Absolutely’.”