Eight Hours with George Clooney

By September 12, 2008Article, Atlantic Eye

AUCKLAND, New Zealand, Sept. 12 (UPI) — He was born in Lexington, Ky, and is one of the world’s great leading men. He won an Oscar and Golden Globe for his role in “Syriana.” He received critical acclaim for “Good Night and Good Luck.” He is thoughtful, intellectually curious and very likable.

On an evening in Geneva, Switzerland, one week ago, Charles and Vera Adams — Charles is co-chairman of the Democratic Expat Leadership Council — hosted a fundraiser for Sen. Barack Obama’s Victory Fund at which George Clooney awed 40 guests. Of all the evening’s impressive elements, one stood out: Clooney is remarkably down-to-earth and supremely approachable.

The paparazzi buzzed about outside as I arrived late from Prague at 19:45. In a funny twist, I had been greeted at Geneva Airport by a poster with Clooney advertising Nespresso coffee products. Clooney had given a public speech to U.S. citizens earlier in the day. Evidently even there, the paparazzi were already being obnoxious. I smiled politely as I was ushered up the stairs at Rue de L’eveche, the Adams’ grand flat overlooking historic Geneva.

A mixture of U.S. citizens had arrived from near and far for a one-time opportunity. They included an owner of private universities, a former senior director of Goldman Sachs, the international chair of Democrats Abroad, a selection of attorneys, a vice president of Deutsche Bank in New York, some entrepreneurs and management consultants. All were serious individuals interested in public policy.

We Americans abroad live in the netherworld between our citizenship and where we live our daily lives. We are the first to feel the effect of U.S. foreign policy. We are the first to be approached by non-Americans asking why? We are the ones who mend fences, defend the integrity of our nation and feel the heat of anti-Americanism long before our brethren in the United States.

On this evening, many topics were covered. They ranged from Iraq to Iran, from the Middle East to the Korean Peninsula, from Sarah Palin to Joe Biden, from human rights and engagement to military intervention. We covered Rwanda, Somalia and Zimbabwe. There was plenty of disagreement in the room. But on one issue there was complete agreement — the Bush administration has left a disastrous legacy in foreign affairs.

I, as often, held the most conservative views on our military involvement in Iraq. I argued that we needed more troops from the get-go and that the surge should have included more troops. In fact, Gen. Petraeus did ask for 100,000 troops, but Bush gave him only 20,000 (see my column of July 17, 2007, “Twisting the Shadow of 9/11″). I criticized the strategy of removing all the bureaucracy in Iraq — we should have removed the top, but left midlevel bureaucrats, police, teachers, professors and military in place.

The United States should have negotiated much earlier with Syria, Iran and especially the tribal leaders in the area. Mostly though, it was a huge mistake to approach Iraq as though it were a junior Marshall Plan. Had we approached Iraq with the same practicality with which we approached Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of communism, it probably would not have become the disaster it has. We certainly would have had far fewer casualties.

Clooney asked several questions about Iraq. He was given many answers. He showed great passion in all of his answers and statements. I respect George; you can have an impressive temperament if someone rubs you the wrong way. Maybe that is why we engaged in a series of tete-a-tetes. In good Oxford Union tradition, they were substantive, respectful and passionate.

The selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running mate was debated. Only a handful of us felt she was a brilliant strategic choice and would cause problems for the Democratic ticket. I think the past weeks have shown the few of us to be correct — at least so far.

During a private moment, I asked Clooney how he had prepared for his role in the late-2005-released “Syriana.” For those who have not seen the film, “Syriana” takes place in the Middle East. Clooney plays a CIA operative in a political thriller — the interplay between energy security, oil, illegal arms trafficking, assassination and the political interests of the United States in the region. Coincidentally, Matt Damon plays one of the leads as an energy analyst who lives in Geneva.

I had seen the film with some of my spook friends in early 2006. They were very impressed with Clooney’s portrayal of Bob Barnes, his CIA character in the movie. Clooney, in fact, had been briefed and prepared by former and current agency folks. It was a two-month intense process. It was, he said, “somewhat unorthodox but effective.”

George Clooney is the proof that you can be named the “Sexiest Man in the World” by several respected periodicals, be the heartthrob of young and old and still keep your bodenhaftung — one’s feet firmly on the ground.

I liked George Clooney, not only because we established a good rapport, but because he genuinely cares about the state of the world and the reputation of the United States in it.

As we commemorate the seventh anniversary of Sept. 11, I can write with conviction that our planet would certainly benefit from more folks like you.

UPI International Columnist Marc S. Ellenbogen is chairman of the Berlin, Copenhagen and Sydney-based Global Panel Foundation and president of the Prague Society. He is a vice chairman of the Democratic Expat Leadership Council.