Once upon a time–and not so long ago–President Obama and senior members of his administration openly embraced the idea of “R2P” or “responsibility to protect.” This meant that the U.S. and other civilized nations have a responsibility to do something when genocide or other terrible crimes are occurring in other people’s countries.
Susan Rice, now the national security adviser, then the UN ambassador, gave an impassioned address in 2009 in which she said: “The Responsibility to Protect—or, as it has come to be known, R2P—represents an important step forward in the long historical struggle to save lives and guard the wellbeing of people endangered by conflict.” This principle formed an important justification for the U.S. intervention along with NATO allies in Libya in 2011 to prevent Muammar Gaddafi from slaughtering opponents of his regime. In 2012 Obama even created an Atrocities Prevention Board to carry out this humanitarian doctrine.
But in practice R2P has been MIA in this White House. Since 2011 more than 170,000 people have been killed in Syria–one ongoing atrocity after another–and the result has been a shrug from the White House which seems more concerned with stopping Israel’s war against Hamas terrorists. Now there is an even more urgent example of precisely the kind of atrocity that should motivate the U.S. and other powers into action. I am referring to the plight of the Yazidis–members of a small religious minority rooted in Zoroastrianism–who have been in the gunsights of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria as its black-clad fighters have rolled over northern Iraq.
Last week ISIS took the Iraqi town of Sinjar, forcing tens of thousands of Yazidis to flee for their lives. Many took refuge on Mount Sinjar where they have been meeting an appalling fate–devoid of food and water, they are slowly dying yet are afraid to come down from the mountain for fear that they will be slaughtered by ISIS if they do so. As many as 40,000 people remain trapped and they are desperate for help. The Washington Post quotes a UNICEF official saying: “There are children dying on the mountain, on the roads. There is no water, there is no vegetation, they are completely cut off and surrounded by Islamic State. It’s a disaster, a total disaster.”
Tens of thousands of Christians in northern Iraq are also on the run, knowing they face death at the hands of ISIS. Yet so wary is the Obama administration of any involvement in Iraq that it is not even willing to send U.S. cargo aircraft to drop food and water to the trapped Yazidis–much less to call in air strikes that would break the siege of Mount Sinjar.
The president’s chief foreign policy guru Ben Rhodes grandly proclaims that Obama is busy positioning “the U.S. to lead for the next 10, 20 or 30 years.” His gaze firmly fixed decades in the future, Obama seems to be missing the preventable atrocities–which not only violate the R2P doctrine but also threaten vital American national security interests–that are occurring in the here and now.