‘Never again’ should we condone preening on ‘atrocities prevention’

Michelle Obama congratulates Elie Wiesel at a White House on receipt of the National Humanities Medal in 2010- Tracy A. Woodward/the Washington Post

Amid the discussion of the feckless White House stance toward Syria and its implications for preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapons capability, we should not lose track of the human rights catastrophe.

In a cruel (maybe clueless?) bit of timing, on May 1 the White House blog recited the following:

On April 23 of last year, President Obama visited the Holocaust Museum, and unveiled a comprehensive strategy to prevent mass atrocities.

In his remarks at the Museum, the President reflected on places where the United States’ efforts had helped prevent or mitigate surges of violence – and had saved innocent lives….

One year later, the U.S. Government has done much to keep faith with this commitment. At the President’s direction, we have stood up an interagency Atrocities Prevention Board, which monitors emerging threats, focuses U.S. Government efforts, and develops new tools and capabilities. In January 2013, the President signed expanded war crimes rewards legislation, giving the State Department a new tool to promote accountability for the worst crimes known to humankind. Earlier this month, the United States supported the U.N. General Assembly’s adoption of an Arms Trade Treaty with robust safeguards against export of weapons for use in genocide, crimes against humanity, and other enumerated atrocities.

Oh, but it’s done nothing about 75,000 dead Syrians or Syria’s use of chemical weapons, itself a war crime. The White House’s passivity with regard to Syria is stunning:

The horrific violence in Syria only underscores the urgency and importance of atrocity prevention. And we know that it is not a task that we will be facing alone. As in the past, we will be joined, supported, and inspired by the advocates and non-governmental organizations and grass roots groups who have given so much of their energy, talent, vision, and commitment in the service of preventing atrocities. Their work is indispensable to our efforts, and we will rely on the continuation of this close and fruitful partnership as we face the challenges that lie ahead.

Actually, it underscores the moral abdication of the president and the farcical nature of a bureaucratic board that assumes atrocities can be prevented without exercise of American leadership.

It would be nice if Elie Wiesel, who was present at that Holocaust Memorial ceremony and whom the president used as a prop to conceal his moral cowardice with regard to Syria, would call the president’s tune. After all, the president said to his face and to the world at large:

It’s remarkable — as we walked through this exhibit, Elie and I were talking as we looked at the unhappy record of the State Department and so many officials here in the United States during those years. And he asked, “What would you do?” But what you all understand is you don’t just count on officials, you don’t just count on governments. You count on people — and mobilizing their consciences.

And finally, “never again” is a challenge to nations. It’s a bitter truth — too often, the world has failed to prevent the killing of innocents on a massive scale. And we are haunted by the atrocities that we did not stop and the lives we did not save.

Three years ago today, I joined many of you for a ceremony of remembrance at the U.S. Capitol. And I said that we had to do “everything we can to prevent and end atrocities.” And so I want to report back to some of you today to let you know that as President I’ve done my utmost to back up those words with deeds. Last year, in the first-ever presidential directive on this challenge, I made it clear that “preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States of America.”

Actually, it’s not true that it is a core national security interest in this administration. The president’s words were empty and, I would suggest, never intended to be acted upon in any meaningful way. His words now can be seen in their proper context — as moral posturing meant to elevate himself and without substance:

Elie alluded to what we feel as we see the Syrian people subjected to unspeakable violence, simply for demanding their universal rights. And we have to do everything we can. And as we do, we have to remember that despite all the tanks and all the snipers, all the torture and brutality unleashed against them, the Syrian people still brave the streets. They still demand to be heard. They still seek their dignity. The Syrian people have not given up, which is why we cannot give up.

In fact, the president not only gave up, but he also never started to address the mass killings. He has used words in lieu of action. That makes his “never again” promise a cruel lie. It makes him a passive accomplice to unspeakable horrors in Syria. Isn’t it time we heard from Wiesel? He’s been played for a fool and, worse, allowed “never again” to become  synonymous with “not our problem.”

In fact, the only effective ”atrocities prevention” entity is the United States government and, when needed, the U.S. military. If you don’t want to ever employ the latter, you’ve given a green light to the world’s mass murderers.

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