In his speech at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum this morning, President Obama once again said all the right things. Though speaking without the passion that can animate his utterances when he is talking about things he feels the most strongly — such as demonizing his domestic opponents — the president sounded many of the right notes about support for the state of Israel and preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons as well as the need for the United States to act to prevent human rights catastrophes. But the president’s problem when it comes to applying the lessons of the Holocaust to statecraft has never been rhetorical.
Rather, it is the gap between what he says and what he does that is the cause for concern. Even though the president announced the creation of a board comprised of representatives of a cross section of government agencies that would be tasked with the prevention of atrocities, institutionalizing an approach to this issue isn’t the complete answer. In the absence of the will of the president to act, more government infrastructure won’t help. And given that the record of this administration has shown it to consider such issues to be among their lowest priorities, it’s hard to see how this speech will change things.
In his speech, Obama cited the example of Jan Karski, the heroic young Polish officer who smuggled himself into Treblinka in 1942 to find out what was happening and then escaped to the West where he told his tale to the leaders of the West including President Roosevelt. But what Obama failed to include in his account was the fact that FDR responded with silence and indifference to Karski’s shattering testimony when it was presented to him in person. And it is that precedent that illustrates why the mere convening of a meeting of the new atrocities prevention board today is a matter of little import so long as the president is more interested in talking about the subject rather than taking action.
The key test of his integrity on such matters today is the situation in Syria. In his introduction of the president at the museum, Elie Wiesel asked how it was possible for men like Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to still be in power if we have actually learned any of the lessons of the Holocaust. But the president’s speech should have given Wiesel little comfort.
Obama said the United States will continue working to isolate the Syrian regime and make an effort to help document the atrocities going on there so as to facilitate the prosecution of those responsible after the fact. But he said nothing to give Assad the impression that the U.S. would do anything that might actually contribute to his downfall.
If, in the face of the massacres going on in Syria, the best that the president can offer is a promise of more meaningless economic sanctions, then of what possible use is an atrocity prevention panel?
The same question can be asked of Obama’s approach to Iran, whose pursuit of nuclear weapons raises the specter of another mass slaughter of the Jewish people made all the more ironic by the regime’s denial of the Nazis’ attempt at genocide. The president’s rhetoric on Iran has been consistently strong, and today’s pledge was just as good. But so long as he is willing to rely on a diplomatic channel in which the European Union’s Catherine Ashton (a veteran Israel-hater) is determined to make nice with Tehran rather than to press it, it’s hard to see how any of his excellent statements are to be translated into effective policy. Criticizing the State Department of the 1940s for its indifference to the Holocaust may satisfy some of the president’s audience today, but it doesn’t make up for contemporary failures.