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Alan Boswell’s White Whale

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Alan Boswell’s White Whale

Posted by Jonathan Hutson on July 26, 2012

This rebuttal was originally featured on Foreign Policy in response to Alan Boswell’s July 9 article.

Journalist Alan Boswell took to these pages in an article called "The Failed State Lobby" to malign certain human rights advocates including George Clooney and staff of the Enough Project and the Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP). He characterized their efforts to end genocide and hold all parties in the Sudans accountable for mass atrocities as "morally charged and culturally hip do-goodism" in service of a "clear political agenda."

Like others who have gone before, Boswell is entitled to his opinion, but not his own facts. Rather than making a fact-based reportorial case, Boswell ends up indulging in the kind of moral indignation he claims to deplore.

He knocks his peers for allegedly giving the Enough Project "a free pass." They do this, he claims, by "frequently citing its version of events as objective, independent analysis," when he suggests, it is not. However, Boswell offers no examples of misreporting by anyone or any failures of objectivity on the part of the Enough Project.

Instead, Boswell besmirches an Enough Project Sudan policy analyst, implying that her prior role as a legal adviser to the government of South Sudan and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) inherently biases her toward the South. Providing legal advice to an entity or individual does not impute the values or beliefs of that entity onto a legal adviser. To insinuate otherwise in this, or any other, context is inaccurate and unfair. I know our policy analyst to be a fair-minded professional of integrity.

As Boswell concedes, the Enough Project does not turn a blind eye to human rights violations, and it is not blindly pro-South Sudan. For example, Enough called the Republic of South Sudan (RSS) to account for failing to do enough to protect civilians from anticipated intercommunal violence in South Sudan's Jonglei state in August 2011. In a January 26 report, Enough wrote: "The RSS made no systematic sustained effort to facilitate negotiations to return the people abducted and livestock stolen in the August attack. The government did not reinforce and bolster its security forces deployed between and among the communities to serve as a buffer and protect civilians. Nothing was done about the general disempowerment and deprivation felt by the youth of both the Lou-Nuer and Murle communities."

Nevertheless, Boswell complains, "Enough's policy papers are filled with calls for punitive measures toward Khartoum and greater engagement with Juba." He implies that it is wrong to call for the international community to increase its engagement with South Sudan, the world's newest nation, in order to improve its human rights record; and that it is wrong to suggest further sanctions against Khartoum, aimed at improving the record of a notorious human rights violator.

Then Boswell assails Enough Project Co-founder John Prendergast for having the temerity to recruit celebrities to help generate media attention in the service of ending genocide and mass atrocities — as if this were a bad thing. "Prendergast's biggest catch of late is George Clooney," Boswell sneers, "who has made Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir something of his own personal white whale."

But Herman Melville's white whale, Moby Dick, is a poor metaphor for what drives Clooney, who is a thoughtful and dedicated humanitarian. Clooney has traveled to the region six times, got malaria twice, and recently entered a conflict zone with Prendergast at the invitation of South Kordofan's Nuba people. There he filmed, among other things, evidence of war crimes. He has not only put his body on the line, but put his money where his mouth is by co-founding and financing the Satellite Sentinel Project.

And let's take a moment to consider Boswell's misplaced metaphor. To Captain Ahab, Moby Dick embodied evil and a reason for reckless revenge, for the creature had taken Ahab's leg. But the novel's narrator, Ishmael, suggests that the way in which one perceives the whale's whiteness reveals more about you than the whale.

So it is with Boswell, who naively suggests that Prendergast and Clooney, in cooperation with others have run a "bizarre moral campaign" grounded in "moral idealism" that in turn has somehow driven U.S. foreign policy on the Sudans for a generation. "But the activists made a critical mistake," he asserts, without evidence. "They seemed to think the SPLM rebels represented a virtuous mirror image of Khartoum's evils."

"Clooney's eyes in the sky have visually confirmed several events on the ground," Boswell concedes, dismissively. He fails to mention that these events include apparent mass graves at eight sites in Sudan, the government of Sudan's indiscriminate bombardment of civilians, Sudan's blockade of humanitarian relief to civilians facing near-famine conditions, and evidence of military escalation by both sides in the disputed border region of Abyei. "But, its satellites also have a clear agenda: Read through the group's reports," he advises. He then claims, offering no evidence, that SSP does not provide "comparably critical scrutiny" of the forces of both nations. In fact, that is exactly what SSP does — although what SSP learns does not always lead to comparable evidence of criminality.

Click to continue reading the rebuttal as well as a response by Alan Boswell on Foreign Policy.