Last week the White House celebrated the first anniversary of its Atrocities Prevention Board. At the time, Elie Wiesel asked at the inaugural ceremony whether or not we’d learned anything from the fact that “the greatest tragedy in history,” the Holocaust, “could have been prevented had the civilized world spoken up, taken measures in 1939, ‘40, ‘41, ‘42.” If we had learned the lesson, Wiesel asked an audience that included President Obama, how is that the greatest mass murderer at present still walks freely? “How is it,” Wiesel wanted to know, “that Assad is still in power?”
A year later and Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has only added to the death toll, which is now by conservative estimates at 70,000 and climbing, with two more massacres over the weekend in Baniyas and Bayda. And yet the White House congratulates itself for the formation of an utterly useless bureaucracy. “In order to make the U.S. Government more effective at preventing and responding to mass atrocities,” reads the press release, “the military has developed new doctrine, multiple agencies have made new training commitments, the U.S. Agency for International Development has launched a new “Tech Challenge,” and the intelligence community is working on a new National Intelligence Estimate.”
It’s unclear who thought it was a good idea to underscore the White House’s inability to bring Assad’s killing machine to an end by praising irrelevant institutions and pointless policies in a press release that would have drained the blood out of George Orwell’s face. The reality, as Walter Russell Mead writes, is that “Assad has outlasted Professor Power.” Author Samantha Power, formerly a special assistant on Obama’s National Security Council staff as senior director of multilateral affairs, “and the country’s most influential advocate of the right to protect,” writes Mead, “left office having failed to a make any headway against the greatest mass slaughter since the Rwandan genocide.”
Obviously, it’s not Power’s fault, writes Mead, but the president’s. “Our policy on genocide has changed, apparently, from ‘never again,’ to ‘just one more small one can’t hurt.’” The result is that Obama’s “Syria policy is in ruins,” Mead writes. “After some highly gratifying and dramatic chest-thumping about the responsibility to protect, tough talk about Assad having to go, and a series of ever-shifting red lines over chemical weapons, the United States looks confused and weak.”
Perhaps then the first anniversary celebration of the Atrocities Prevention Board is fitting insofar as the institution, like the White House’s Syria policy, privileges talk over action, and rhetoric over resolve.