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Opinion Obama’s Syria legacy: Horrific genocide

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The plunge of Syria and Iraq into seemingly interminable warfare is the most long-lasting debacle of the Obama presidency. Despite a temporary cease-fire in Syria — which only cements Bashar al-Assad’s continued rule and Russia’s geopolitical victory — and some gains in Iraq, the facts on the ground have changed irreparably.

While subsequent presidents may be able to halt Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons (although thanks to President Obama, more likely through the use of force), genocide cannot be undone. On March 17, Secretary of State John Kerry had this to say:

My purpose in appearing before you today is to assert that, in my judgment, Daesh [the Islamic State] is responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control, including Yezidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims. Daesh is genocidal by self-proclamation, by ideology, and by actions — in what it says, what it believes, and what it does. Daesh is also responsible for crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing directed at these same groups and in some cases also against Sunni Muslims, Kurds, and other minorities. . . .
Our goal, after all, is not just to defeat Daesh — only to find that in a few years some new terrorist group with a different acronym has taken its place. Our purpose is to marginalize and defeat violent extremists once and for all.

By that standard, the Obama administration has failed miserably.

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Of course, the Islamic State is responsible for only part of the mayhem. The continued rule of Assad — who has repeatedly used chemical weapons with no real or lasting consequences and has waged a bloody civil war taking the lives of more than 300,000 and turning millions into refugees — is a critical part of Obama’s legacy as well. In other words, the Obama team will leave behind more than a genocide. 

Consider how culpable are the president and his advisers:

We must tell our children about how this evil was allowed to happen — because so many people succumbed to their darkest instincts, and because so many others stood silent. . . . We must tell our children.  But more than that, we must teach them.  Because remembrance without resolve is a hollow gesture.  Awareness without action changes nothing.  In this sense, “never again” is a challenge to us all — to pause and to look within. . . . 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. . . . In short, we need to be doing everything we can to prevent and respond to these kinds of atrocities — because national sovereignty is never a license to slaughter your people. . . .
To Elie [Wiesel] and to the survivors [of the Holocaust] who are here today, thank you for not giving up.  You show us the way.  (Applause.)  You show us the way.  If you cannot give up, if you can believe, then we can believe.  If you can continue to strive and speak, then we can speak and strive for a future where there’s a place for dignity for every human being.  That has been the cause of your lives.  It must be the work of our nation and of all nations.

That was Obama at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum nearly four years ago.

Indeed, the administration seems to have learned nothing from a long, dreadful history of inaction in the face of genocide:

Time and again the U.S. government would be reluctant to cast aside its neutrality and formally denounce a fellow state for its atrocities. Time and again though U.S. officials would learn that huge numbers of civilians were being slaughtered, the impact of this knowledge would be blunted by their uncertainty about the facts and their rationalization that a firmer U.S. stand would make little difference. Time and again American assumptions and policies would be contested by Americans in the field closest to the slaughter, who would try to stir the imaginations of their political superiors.

That’s from the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide,” by now-Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power. Written well before she began working in the Obama administration, the 2002 book provides an apt description, frankly, of the administration in which she now serves:

The real reason the United States did not do what it could and should have done to stop genocide [Turkish government against Armenians, Khmer Rouge against its own people in Cambodia, Christians against Muslims in Bosnia, Saddam Hussein against Kurds in Iraq, Hutus against Tutsis in Rwanda] was not a lack of knowledge or influence but a lack of will. Simply put, American leaders did not act because they did not want to. They believed that genocide was wrong, but they were not prepared to invest the military, financial, diplomatic, or domestic political capital needed to stop it. The U. S. policies crafted in response to each case of genocide … were not the accidental products of neglect. They were concrete choices made by this country’s most influential decisionmakers after unspoken and explicit weighing of costs and benefits.
In each case, U.S. policymakers in the executive branch (usually with the passive backing of most members of Congress) had two objectives. First, they wanted to avoid engagement in conflicts that posed little threat to American interests, narrowly defined. And second, they hoped to contain the political costs and avoid the moral stigma associated with allowing genocide. By and large, they achieved both aims. In order to contain the political fallout, U.S. officials overemphasized the ambiguity of the facts. They played up the likely futility, perversity, and jeopardy of any proposed intervention. They steadfastly avoided use of the word “genocide;’ which they believed carried with it a legal and moral (and thus political) imperative to act. And they took solace in the normal operations of the foreign policy bureaucracy, which permitted an illusion of continual deliberation, complex activity, and intense concern.

After four years of negligible action, bitter condemnation of critics urging him to do more and rejection of advice from many national security officials, the president has now changed his tune. Now, the Middle East is too messy, too incapable of resolution to be bothered with. “This falls in the category of something that I had been brooding on for some time,” he is quoted in a recent interview with Jeffrey Goldberg as saying with regard to his about-face on the red line. “I had come into office with the strong belief that the scope of executive power in national-security issues is very broad, but not limitless.” He says he is “proud” of that decision because he somehow defied the Washington “playbook.”

Actually, as he and his U.N. ambassador have acknowledged in the past, the “playbook” for decades has been to do nothing about genocide, to find excuses not to act. They have become what they have deplored — apologists for a policy of passivity that results in unimaginable human suffering, not to mention geopolitical defeat.

In setting up the fleet of straw men — we either do nothing or we “commit to governing the Middle East and North Africa” — perhaps Obama derives some rationale for his failure that allows him to sleep at night. But, in fact, there is not an ex post facto rationalization to justify passivity in the face of genocide when both humanitarian and strategic interests coincide, especially when early minimal action could have staved off disastrous results. Maybe Power will write a book about it someday.