People who served in the Obama administration are raiding the repositories of Holocaust memory, seeking Syrian absolution.
Earlier this month came a Holocaust Museum computational “study” that purported to prove that it was “very difficult from the beginning for the U.S. government to take effective action to prevent atrocities in Syria, even compared with other challenging policy contexts.” The study concluded that a more forceful American intervention wouldn’t have improved the situation and might have made things worse.
The museum suspended the project and scrubbed the “findings” from its website following an exposé in Tablet. It wasn’t lost on anyone that this episode came after three Obama National Security Council alumni were appointed to the museum’s Memorial Council and two others joined its staff.
Now comes Samantha Power’s tribute to Elie Wiesel in the Forward. The essay is excerpted from the former U.N. envoy’s introduction to a new edition of Wiesel’s harrowing Holocaust memoir, Night. Hers is a far more sophisticated exercise in self-absolution than the Holocaust Museum’s algorithmic shenanigans. But it is self-absolution all the same. The giveaway is that Power makes no attempt at applying Wiesel’s lessons to recent events in Syria.
The theme of Power’s essay is moral witness. “It can be hard to imagine that there was a time when the prevailing wisdom was not to bear witness,” Power asserts. “But that is precisely what it was like when Elie was writing.” The word “witness” and the phrase “bearing witness” appear five times in Power’s brief piece. Wiesel spoke out, she writes, when others—publishers, journalists, even survivors—preferred to forget or remain silent.
This is an obvious, almost banal point. Of course Wiesel bore witness! But his witness to Nazi evil had a future-tense moral purpose: to help counter other mass murderers and totalitarians. Wiesel campaigned for refuseniks trapped behind the Iron Curtain. He implored Bill Clinton to act in Bosnia. And most recently, he compared the Syrian regime and its Iranian patrons with the Nazis, asking: “How is it that Assad is still in power?” Wiesel didn’t just remember historical crimes; he decried contemporary inaction.
Samantha Power, by contrast, legitimized inaction. Having built her journalistic reputation examining America’s failure to stop mass murder in the 20th century, Power ended up lending moral cover to the Obama administration’s bystander policy on Syria (“Bystanders to Genocide” was the title of Power’s career-making 2001 Atlantic magazine report on the Clinton administration’s response to Rwanda). At the U.N., Power denounced Bashar Assad and his backers in Moscow and Tehran. But she refused to do the one honorable thing that might have jolted the Obama administration out of its moral torpor: resign.
Now she writes of Wiesel’s witnessing, as if forgetting a crime after the fact is a greater moral evil than failing to stop it at the time. In a companion interview with the Forward’s Jane Eisner, Power did mention Syria, noting that “amid the challenges associated with whether and how to intervene in Syria, we, the United States, and the world didn’t find a way to respond” to reports of industrial-scale torture in Assad’s prisons. Don’t blame us, the people who ran the executive branch when Assad’s butchery took place. It was “the United States” and “the world” that let down the Syrians.
In the months and years ahead, we can expect more such efforts at altering the moral record on Syria, including by making use of the Holocaust and Jewish memory. Those who were alive between 2011 and 2016 shouldn’t let Obama alumni get away with it. We should bear witness.