Leon Wieseltier is the Isaiah Berlin senior fellow in culture and policy at the Brookings Institution.
Contemplating the extermination of Aleppo and its people, I was reminded of a sentence that I read this summer. It appeared in an encomium to Elie Wiesel shortly after his death. It was a sterling sentence. It declared: “We must never be bystanders to injustice or indifferent to suffering.” That was Wiesel’s teaching, exactly. The problem with the sentence is that it was issued by the White House and attributed to President Obama. And so the sentence was not at all sterling. It was outrageously hypocritical.
How dare Obama, and members of his administration, speak this way? After five years and more in which the United States’ inaction in Syria has transformed our country into nothing other than a bystander to the greatest atrocity of our time, they have forfeited the right to this language. Their angry and anguished utterances are merely the manipulation of the rhetoric of conscience on behalf of a policy without a trace of conscience. You cannot be cold-hearted and high-minded at the same time. Historians will record — they will not have to dig deeply or interpret wildly to conclude — that all through the excruciations of Aleppo, and more generally of Syria, the United States watched. As we watched, we made excuses, and occasionally we ornamented our excuses with eloquence. The president is enamored of his eloquence. But eloquence is precisely what the wrenching circumstances do not require of him. In circumstances of moral (and strategic) emergency, his responsibility is not to move us. It is to pick up the phone. “Elie did more than just bear witness,” Obama said in his eulogy, “he acted.” And he added: “Just imagine the peace and justice that would be possible in our world if more people lived a little more like Elie Wiesel.” Just imagine.
If Obama wants credit for not getting us into another war, the credit is his. If he wants credit for not being guilty of “overreach,” the credit is his. If he wants credit for conceiving of every obstacle and impediment to American action in every corner of the globe, the credit is his. But it is a shameful and incontrovertible fact of our history that during the past eight years the values of rescue, assistance, protection, humanitarianism and democracy have been demoted in our foreign policy and in many instances banished altogether. The ruins of the finest traditions of American internationalism, of American leadership in a darkening world, may be found in the ruins of Aleppo. Our ostentatious passivity is a primary cause of that darkening. When they go low, we go home. The Obama legacy in foreign policy is vacuum-creation, which his addled America-First successor will happily ratify. Aleppo was not destroyed by the Syrian army. It was destroyed by a savage coalition led and protected by Russia. While they massacred innocent men, women and children, we anxiously pondered scenarios of “deconfliction.”
We need to be unforgivingly clear. The obligation to act against evil in Aleppo was no different from the obligation to act against the evil in Sarajevo and Srebrenica. (Has anyone ever heard Obama mention Bosnia?) It was no different from the obligation to act against the evil in Rwanda. It was no different from the obligation to act against the evil in Auschwitz. And we scorned the obligation. We learned nothing. We forgot everything. We failed. We did not even try.
No, that is not quite right. It would be incorrect to analyze our delinquency in Syria in the dichotomously simple terms of action and inaction. The administration creatively pioneered a third option, which it pursued not only in Syria but also in Ukraine and elsewhere: Between action and inaction, it chose inconsequential action. There is the Obama doctrine! We backed moderate Syrian rebels, but not as seriously or as generously as the immoderate Syrian rebels were backed. We sent in small numbers of special operators. The CIA ran a few programs. We acted, in sum, only in ways certain not to affect the outcome. We were strategically feckless. I suspect that the president believes that the United States has no moral right to affect an outcome in another country. I suspect that he regards such decisive action as imperialism, or at least as Iraq-like. What this means in practice is that we will not help people who deserve our help. In the spirit of respecting other societies, we will idly gaze at their destruction. How would disrespecting them be worse?
As a direct or indirect consequence of our refusal to respond forcefully to the Syrian crisis, we have beheld secular tyranny, religious tyranny, genocide, chemical warfare, barrel bombs and cluster bombs, the torture and murder of children, the displacement of 11 million people, the destabilization of Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, the ascendancy of Iran in the region, the emergence of Russia as a global power, the diminishment of the American position in the world, the refugee crisis in Europe, the resurgence of fascism in Europe and a significant new threat to the security of the United States. It is amazing how much doing nothing can do, especially when it is we who do nothing.
Not long after he mourned Wiesel, the president engaged in another one of his exercises in empathy without consequence. At the U.N. Summit for Refugees and Migrants, he spoke of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian boy who washed up dead on a beach in Turkey. “That little boy on the beach could be our son or our grandson,” the president moistly said. “We cannot avert our eyes or turn our backs.” And then we proceeded to avert our eyes and turn our backs. The people who had the power to prevent, stop or even mitigate this catastrophe should now bow their heads and fall silent and reflect on how it is that they brought us so low. Aleppo is no more, and we are weakened and disgraced.