Liberal columnist for The Guardian Simon Tisdall has an unusual case to make as Sudan's Jan. 9 referendum, when the country's long oppressed southerners may begin secession, approaches. Tisdall says that Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who has overseen some of the world's worst human rights abuses since World War Two, isn't really so bad. Though the International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for Bashir over the mass killings in Darfur, Tisdall defends Bashir and chides critics who are wrongly "bashing" and "demonis[ing]" him.

Despite his rough image, argues Tisdall, Bashir has actually been "behaving reasonably" and has been "particularly impressive" in the run-up to the January vote. Tisdall says we should all acknowledge that Bashir has admirably declined to slaughter more civilians during the process, which is coming only after years of orchestrated and global pressure, led by the United Nations, to force Bashir to allow the vote.

So why all the negative attention on the Sudanese strongman who harbored Osama bin Laden for years? Tisdall's theory is that "America always needs bogeymen and Bashir fits the bill: big, bothersome, bad-tempered, black, Arab and Muslim." It's not just the racist U.S. at fault here. It's also the nefarious southern Sudanese, or at least the ones who survived Bashir's genocide campaigns. He notes, "a newly independent, US-backed, oil-rich South may try to undermine Khartoum's influence, territory and wealth."

Sure, Bashir's notorious security forces are still targeting anyone who discusses secession, including Western journalists, but, says Tisdall, he hasn't tried to exterminate civilians by the hundreds of thousands for almost six years now. Shouldn't that count for something? Tisdall ends with a parting shot at George Clooney, who is spearheading a high-tech effort to prevent Sudanese war.
It would be refreshing, too, to recognise Bashir's role in holding things together even as his country falls apart – thereby encouraging him to continue to do so in the perilous months ahead. The ICC, Clooney and the celebrity crusaders should back off. Too many lives depend on getting both Sudans right.