A Sudan Story

By Stephen R. Weissman
Tuesday, June 14, 2005

The scene : A home in Washington, Christmas 2005.

Son : Dad, tell me again how you helped save all those people's lives -- mostly kids.

Dad : Well, son, it was like any other big political campaign I've worked on. Last June everybody we knew was just heartbroken about the killing and starvation in Darfur, Sudan, and frustrated by their inability to help stop it. It wasn't that Americans, the most generous people in the world, wouldn't lift a finger to help people in extreme danger, including Africans. The basic problem was that the groups that were working hardest to save the people in Darfur didn't seem to know enough about how American politics works in the 21st century. Then someone decided to hire our political consulting and lobbying firm.

We set up a campaign plan, just like we do for candidates or businesses and governments trying to influence federal domestic policy. Eight weeks after we began, President Bush announced an agreement for rapid deployment of a 25,000-member African Union-NATO "protection" force to beef up the small African "observer" force on the scene.

Son : Wow! How did you do that?

Dad : We were hired by a coalition of groups that were active on the issue. We supplied them with our normal major-policy-change package. It's standard for tough domestic issues:

· Lobbyists, many of them former members and staffers of the administration and Congress.

· Pollsters to see what arguments would fly with the general public.

· TV ads. The main one, "Muna's Story," played eight or 10 times on broadcast and cable networks in selected media markets to create public pressure on President Bush, key congressional leaders, vulnerable candidates and people who might want to run for president in 2008. The spot began with a map showing how close Sudan is to the Middle East. Then you saw a beautiful 14-year-old girl standing in front of a tent in a ramshackle refugee camp in the desert, saying, "I remember my village." Shift to a peaceful, sunlit place, houses with thatched roofs, small gardens. Suddenly there was a horrifying shot of an entire village going up in flames from a bombing raid by the Sudanese government. Then Muna said, "This is what the government soldiers and their Janjaweed militias are doing to us. I think Americans care about what happens to people like us."

A young ex-Marine who had advised the African observers came on: "Every single day you go out to see more dead bodies"; meanwhile, the numbers "200,000 dead" and "2 million homeless" appeared on the screen. "Experts and senators from both parties agree a larger joint African and Western force can stop this genocide." The ad ended, "Please call this number or visit this Web site now to ask your representatives in Congress and President Bush to send help immediately before it's too late." The ad campaign was followed up by our free-media blitz, which helped get hundreds of stories printed, produced and played on talk radio, cable TV and popular news Web sites.

· Targeted mail and Web appeals -- based on polling, list purchases and data-mining technology -- to build the coalition's dues-paying membership and grass-roots lobbying operation. We focused on key groups likely to be supportive, such as those with strong religious connections (including evangelical Protestants), African Americans and NPR listeners. Within a month we had 600,000 messages from concerned citizens rolling into the White House and Congress. We got many of our members and supporters to organize local meet-ups and to participate in nearly 500 personal meetings with members of Congress.

Son : But Dad, this must have all cost a fortune. Who paid for it?

Dad : We spent $6 million over two months, but that was a good deal -- about a third of what the health insurance industry spent on the "Harry and Louise" ads that torpedoed the Clinton health plan. Some of the money was donated by a couple of big foundations, mainly to subsidize the coalition's expanded educational work. Maybe they got tired of funding think tanks and advocacy groups that produced great foreign policy ideas but lacked the grass roots to get the government to implement them. Even more important, a few really rich people chipped in to finance most of the lobbying effort. One was the son of a businessman who had earlier given big bucks to the John Kerry campaign. Another was a wealthy Republican woman who had done a lot of fundraising for the GOP national convention because she believed the president would stand strong against the threat of terrorism.

Son : Why didn't this kind of thing happen earlier, before so many people had died?

Dad : Somehow, a lot of smart, well-intentioned people felt that influencing foreign policy was completely different from influencing domestic issues -- health care, Social Security, energy, the environment. They hoped that getting op-eds and editorials published in the newspapers, testifying before Congress, putting good information out on beautiful Web sites that relatively few people knew about, and fostering student activism might be enough to shame our government into doing something effective.

Son : I hope I get a chance to help people like that someday.

Dad : Let's pray you don't have to.

The writer, former staff director of the House subcommittee on Africa, works on campaign finance policy issues. He is the author of "A Culture of Deference: Congress's Failure of Leadership in Foreign Policy."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company