Obama suggests sense of powerlessness in confronting the world’s evils


President Obama listens to the remarks of movie director Steven Spielberg as he attends the USC Shoah Foundation’s 20th anniversary Ambassadors for Humanity gala in Los Angeles on May 8. (Susan Walsh/AP)

LOS ANGELES — President Obama suggested Wednesday night that he feels a sense of powerlessness in confronting some of the world’s worst humanitarian challenges — despite his role as leader of the planet’s richest and strongest power.

At the end of his remarks to the USC Shoah Foundation, an organization founded by Steven Spielberg to raise awareness about the Holocaust and other genocides, Obama said he wakes up thinking about how he can do more.

Some lawmakers and activists have criticized him for not taking stronger action to stem the violence in Syria, for example, and urged him to move more forcefully to help rescue the hundreds of Nigerian girls kidnapped earlier this month by a militant group.

“I have this remarkable title right now — president of the United States – and yet every day … I wake up and I think about young girls in Nigeria or children caught up in the conflict in Syria,” he said. “… There are times in which I want to reach out and save those kids.”

Obama suggested he can only try his best, thinking “through what levers, what power do we have at any given moment,” in hopes to slowly “wear down these forces that are so destructive.”

Many commentators and experts have faulted Obama for speaking idealistically about making the world a better place but being too slow to take action. But in remarks rich in oratory and history, Obama subtly pushed back on that argument, saying he believed in standing up to humanitarian abuses but that the best path is not always clear.

In making this point, he referenced the story of Oskar Schindler, the German who helped offer refuge to Jews in his factory during World War II — the subject of the Spielberg movie that also gave rise to the Shoah Foundation.

“We only need to look at today’s headlines — the devastation of Syria, the murders and kidnappings in Nigeria, sectarian conflict, the tribal conflicts — to see that we have not yet extinguished man’s darkest impulses,” Obama said. “… The individuals who are the victims of such unspeakable cruelty, they make a claim on our conscience. They demand our attention, that we not turn away, that we choose empathy over indifference and that our empathy leads to action. And that's not always easy.

"One of the powerful things about Schindler’s story was recognizing that we have to act even where there is sometimes ambiguity; even when the path is not always clearly lit, we have to try.”

Zachary A. Goldfarb is policy editor at The Washington Post.
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