Yesterday, the White House’s Atrocities Prevention Board held its first meeting. Chaired by NSC staffer Samantha Power, author of A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide, the board will “coordinate action across the entire government on stopping genocide and liaise with the NGO community.”
But even with the best of intentions, boards and committees—and NGOs—do not stop men with guns determined to slaughter. This much should be obvious, even to an administration that thinks there is some purpose to Arab League or U.N. monitors giving witness to the bloodshed in Syria. Surely the White House knows that testimony is not going to slow down Bashar al-Assad’s killing machine. No, it seems that more bureaucracy—the Atrocities Prevention Board—is simply how this administration institutionalizes indifference in the face of mass murder.
At a ceremony at the Holocaust Museum yesterday, Elie Wiesel cut straight to the point He asked the president: “how is it that Assad is still in power?” Wiesel continued: “Have we not learned? We must know that evil has power.”
“The Syrian people have not given up,” said Obama, “which is why we cannot give up.” This comment perhaps unintentionally suggests that, if only the Syrian people would give up, then the administration would be off the hook. Certainly White House policy is in line with this interpretation.
Dithering is perhaps the kindest description of the administration’s Syria policy. First, the Obama administration complained that the opposition is too fragmented. How could it support them if it didn’t know whom to back? Then, the White House warned the opposition not to take up weapons, lest it forfeit international support it had earned by walking through Assad’s killing fields unarmed. So what if they were tortured, raped, and murdered? According to administration officials, the revolutionaries still had, as Clinton said, the “moral high ground”—as long as they were killed without fighting back.
Next, the administration worried that al Qaeda had infiltrated the opposition. At the behest of the White House, U.S. intelligence officials briefed the press about Sunni radicals who might have been orchestrating attacks on Syrian government installations. The briefings seem to have conveniently elided the fact that it was the Syrian government who had cultivated, and in some cases supported and armed, those al Qaeda elements in the first place.
If only the Syrian opposition would just give up! After all, there’s an election to be won and this president is about getting the U.S. out of the Middle East—even if it means losing an opportunity to advance American vital interests by helping to bring down Iran’s chief regional ally.
Besides, it’s not all about nations and national interests. As Obama said yesterday, in explaining why the administration isn’t going to do anything serious to stop Assad, “You don't just count on officials; you don't just count on governments. You count on people mobilizing their conscience.”
The problem is that the administration can’t even count on that anymore. As pointless as they were, U.N. ambassador Susan Rice’s serial screeds leveled at the Russians for vetoing the U.N. Security Council resolution mark the last time the Obama team even managed to “mobilize its conscience.” The White House’s endorsement of the Annan initiative means that its position is effectively the same as Moscow’s. The White House has even told its own allies—especially Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar—not to arm the opposition, echoing the Russians.
Obama said yesterday that “those who stick with Assad know that they are making a losing bet.” But that’s not true. The Russians are sticking with Assad and the administration sided with them. That’s not a losing bet, but the winning ticket.
Elliott Abrams has written that the administration’s Syria policy should serve as a wake-up call to the Israelis. The administration says it has Israel’s back regarding the Iranian nuclear weapons program, but its position on Syria makes it clear that the White House is willing to look the other way. Obama has shown he is capable of doing nothing to help those under fire, even when there are national interests at stake and we share common adversaries—with Israel it’s Iran, with the Syrian opposition it’s Assad, a man who has facilitated the murder of American troops and targeted U.S. allies over the last decade.
For Israelis, the lesson in self-reliance is derived from the Holocaust—don’t count on others to protect you because history is evidence that they won’t. The Holocaust was the pretext for Obama’s remarks on Syria yesterday, and for Americans, yesterday’s speech should serve as a wake-up call. Either we stand with our allies and for ourselves and our interests, or we can tell ourselves beautiful fictions about our consciences when we just can’t be bothered to tell the truth. The Holocaust Museum should be a reminder to us as well, lest it become nothing more than a monument to our indifference.