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Nicholas Kristof's recent blog post took the United Nations to task for cancelling a security detail for him and his traveling partner, actor and activist George Clooney, on their recent trip to eastern Chad. Actually, Kristof said that his complaint with the UN is not the lack of security but rather the sudden reversal of position by high-level UN officials. Kristof claims UN leadership worried that Clooney might condemn the actions of Sudanese president Omar al Bashir as genocide, thereby worsening already tense relations between Khartoum and New York. A note: Mr. Clooney was travelling as a private citizen (albeit a very high profile private citizen), not in his role as a UN Goodwill Ambassador.
The blog posts - there have been several - highlight an ongoing debate between two distinct camps in the advocacy and humanitarian community. One sniffs that UN peacekeepers aren't in place to protect reporters and Hollywood stars; they are in place to protect civilians and humanitarian aid workers. The other decries the fact two staunch supporters of UN and humanitarian aid work in Darfur were nearly muzzled. A third group refuses to engage in the discussion dismissing the idea of celebrities travelling in conflict zones as "crisis tourism."
I don't really have a dog in this fight. I recognize the value of having someone as recognizable and smart as George Clooney go to a refugee camp on the Chad-Darfur border to highlight the hundreds of thousands of Darfuri refugees living there, and what sent them there in the first place. But I've also served on peacekeeping missions and had to cancel patrols or work a security team on extra shifts to support a celebrity visit. And there's not a chance I'm going to take sides in a he said-she said debate between a New York Times reporter and the United Nations spokeswoman. At the end of the day, Kristof has been in more dangerous situations without security. Plus, he and Clooney were able to join NBC reporter Ann Curry's convoy while there. They all got to their destination; they have all begun filing their reports.
But I think the controversy here is misplaced. The story isn't Clooney or Kristof or Curry or the blog posts or the UN's decision. The story remains the plight of the 250,000 refugees and internally displaced in eastern Chad. Their suffering away from their homes and land is what we should be focused on.
Allow me a small digression. I worked for Ambassador John Limbert in Iraq. John's reputation in the foreign service borders on legendary and, as busy as we were in our dusty outpost near the Iranian border, John never failed to take any opportunity that presented itself to teach us something. Once, during a contentious discussion among his team of diplomatic, military and intelligence officers, he halted the discussion and then said quietly, "Folks, the main thing is to remember to always keep the main thing, the main thing."
So please, let's keep the main thing - the war in Darfur and Chad and its horrible consequences for the millions of civilians who have been targeted - as the main thing.
Full disclosure: As a Foreign Service Officer living and working in Darfur, I briefed Kristof when he travelled with then-Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick. And Kristof reported on his blog a cable I wrote from Embassy Khartoum dissenting U.S. policy in Darfur. I have also briefed Ms. Curry's producer, Antoine Sanfuentes.