The Holocaust was supposed to be, in the words of French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, the "unsurpassable horizon of our time." The "systematic production of corpses" in the death camps of Auschwitz and Treblinka stands as one of the most egregious examples of man-made death and destruction. After the Holocaust the word "genocide" became not just a legal crime against humanity, but a categorically evil act, best encapsulated by the rallying cry popularized by documentary filmmaker Erwin Leiser in 1960: "Never again!"
But cries of "never again" are never enough, as the mass exterminations in places like Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur have shown. And the hollowness of that message has never been more visceral than with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's sprawling new report assessing President Barack Obama's actions—or lack thereof—to intervene in the bloody Syrian Civil War that's left half a million civilians dead and created more than five million refugees since 2011. The report's conclusions were stark: Not only could the U.S. have taken little significant action to prevent the regime of Bashar al-Assad from exterminating dissidents, but a heightened U.S. intervention would likely have unleashed even more death and destruction across the war-torn country.
"No single shift in policy options would have definitively led to a better outcome," Mona Yacoubian, a senior policy scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace and former USAID Middle East administrator, wrote in her "assessment of counterfactuals" on the Obama administration's approach to the crisis. Even if the U.S. military went all in and ousted Assad and his loyalists (the overwhelming focus of Obama's Syria posture—to his detriment, the report states), Yacoubian argues that regime change would likely end with a "catastrophic success"—a power vacuum open for sectarian strife between the opposition's political factions that could give way to the rise of Islamic extremism.
It's alarming to hear an institution that embodies "never forget" say "forget about it" to America's indispensable role in beating back crimes against humanity, a national commitment affirmed at the Nuremburg Trials and enshrined in the United Nations' Genocide Convention in 1948. And, sure enough, a wave of backlash forced the Holocaust Memorial to un-publish the report from its website on Wednesday with only a vague apology.
Bystanderism is not just a brand of weakness, or an absence of moral responsibility—it's been a fact of U.S. foreign policy for decades.
Writing in Tablet, Armin Rosen accused the institution of "absolving" the Obama administration for "inaction" in the face of genocide in Syria. Brookings Institution fellow Leon Wieseltier deemed the report an "allegedly scientific" justification for "bystanderism." Even Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), one of three senators sitting on the Holocaust Museum's board, said the study diminished the institution's goal of educating the world on genocide with "partisan politics." This reaction to the Holocaust Memorial's report is unsurprising, not just among Republican lawmakers like Hatch for whom unconditional support for Israel is a matter of conservative catechism, but by those for whom "never again" remains a geopolitical aspiration.
But to be clear: Bystanderism is not just a brand of weakness, or an absence of moral responsibility—it's been a fact of U.S. foreign policy for decades.
Consider that the U.S. government stood by Cambodia as a counter to the Soviet Union in 1978 while the Khmer Rouge slaughtered thousands. "We believe a national Cambodia must exist even though we believe the Pol Pot regime is the world's worst violator of human rights," reads a cable sent by the Department of State on behalf of then-assistant secretary of state Richard Holbrooke on October 11th, 1978 (and leaked by WikiLeaks in 2015). "We cannot support [the] Pol Pot government, but an independent Kampuchea must exist."
Consider that intelligence reports obtained by the Guardian in 2004 under the Freedom of Information Act indicate that the administration of President Bill Clinton "buried" evidence of mass killings in Rwanda in April of 1994, choosing not to use the language "genocide" publicly—despite private acknowledgement within the West Wing—because Clinton "had already decided not to intervene." According to George Washington University's National Security Archive, administration officials "confined themselves to public statements, diplomatic demarches, [and] initiatives for a ceasefire" for months before finally enlisting the U.N. and launching relief operations in July. By that point, 800,000 Rwandans had died.
Consider that, a decade after the end of Bosnian War, reporting by the Guardian revealed that the U.S., United Kingdom, and France knew about the now-infamous July of 1995 massacre of Muslims in the eastern town of Srebrenica six weeks ahead of time, but chose to "sacrifice" the community in pursuit of peace at any price. More than 8,000 innocent Muslim civilians were slaughtered in the so-called "safe zone" while U.N. peacekeepers stood by; four years later, then-U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan declared in a sober assessment of the tragedy that "[any] deliberate and systematic attempt to terrorize, expel or murder an entire people must be met decisively with all necessary means."
Consider that, even when the George W. Bush administration declared the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians in Darfur indisputable case of genocide—of which Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir would face three charges of war crimes at the International Criminal Court—Western nations dithered when faced with that unsurpassable horizon of evil. "No genocide has ever been so thoroughly documented while it was taking place," observed journalist Richard Just in 2008. "In the case of the genocide in Darfur, ignorance has never been possible. But the genocide continues. We document what we do not stop. The truth does not set anybody free."
Despite broad adoration for Obama's calculating foreign policy doctrine, it's certainly unsurprising that plenty of folks might be upset with the former president, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, for not doing enough to actually create peace. The truth, however, is that, despite any theoretical categorical imperatives that have defined the U.S. as an indispensable nation, genocide is no less exempt from realpolitik than any other human rights abuses.