Elie Wiesel had a question for Barack Obama. The author, a survivor of Auschwitz, was accompanying the president on a tour of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on April 23. As they passed through an exhibit detailing the U.S. government’s denial of refuge to Jews fleeing the Nazi empire, Wiesel asked Obama, “What would you do?” Afterward, in public remarks, Obama did not mention his answer. But he did say, when confronted by atrocities, “You don’t just count on officials, you don’t just count on governments. You count on people—and mobilizing their consciences.”
After the barbaric events of last week in the Syrian village of Houla, where government troops massacred more than a hundred women and children, Obama’s words sound hollow. And the initiative he announced that day seems like a slap in the face.
Obama used his visit to the Holocaust Museum to remind the world that on August 4, 2011, he issued a “Presidential Study Directive on Mass Atrocities” that ordered the creation of “an interagency Atrocities Prevention Board” to “coordinate a whole of government approach to preventing mass atrocities and genocide.” The first task of this board would be a thorough “interagency review” to “develop and recommend the membership, mandate, structure, operational protocols, authorities, and support necessary for the Atrocities Prevention Board to coordinate and develop atrocity prevention and response policy.” The National Security Council’s staff director for War Crimes and Atrocities, a human rights attorney who once served as George Clooney’s “full time human-rights adviser,” would supervise the review.
Forget health care rationing. This toothless parody of bureaucracy is the real “death panel”—a collection of titleholders that stands by in the face of mass murder. Its job is to “help the U.S government identify and address atrocity threats,” in the midst of one of the worst “atrocity threats” in recent memory. When asked Wednesday if the Atrocities Prevention Board has even met to discuss Syria, White House press secretary Jay Carney could only say, “I don’t know the answer to that.” Maybe the board is still busy conducting its interagency review.
This isn’t a joke. It is an insult to Assad’s victims.
The board illustrates the worst features of progressive foreign policy. First, it is all talk. One way to “mobilize consciences,” our most sophisticated experts say, is through persuasion, negotiation, and rhetoric. If only we talk to our enemies more, they say, we might convince them to see the world through our eyes. Many powers, including the United States, therefore allowed Syrian ambassadors to remain in their territory even as they served a government that has killed more than 9,000 people over the last 15 months. It took the outrage in Houla for the “civilized world” to kick the Syrian diplomats out. Yet the president and his advisers remain committed to pursuing the talking cure, as they indulge Kofi Annan in his pathetic visits to Damascus and try desperately to convince the Russians that losing their strategic and economic and historic Assad allies is somehow in their interest.
Another way to mobilize consciences is through institutionalizing collective action. In other words, you hold meetings—lots and lots of meetings. Working groups are organized. Security councils assemble. Hearings are convened. By involving as many stakeholders as possible in “the process,” the story goes, a global leader makes it easier to achieve consensus and wear down the ability of malefactors to wreak havoc. The endless summits on the future of the Euro that have been held over the last two-plus years constitute a sort of traveling E.U. Collapse Prevention Board, and have attempted to mobilize the consciences of Germans and Greeks. These attempts have failed. As have the efforts to staunch the bleeding in Syria through assemblies of the Arab League, the United Nations, and NATO.
The belief that passive institutions will produce good results reflects the progressive doctrine of history. Good progressives such as Obama believe that history unfolds in a process that will one day reach an endpoint at, of all places, Denmark. The iron laws that govern this process are above human reach. Denmark is the future for all mankind, whether we like it or not. This is what Obama means whenever he says that the arc of history bends toward justice. But trusting in the process of historical development breeds an apathetic attitude toward the here and now. When Obama finally came out against Assad in February, he said the Syrian regime is on the road to “inevitable collapse.” How does he know? Assad is still here, unfortunately, and he is still remarkably deadly. Not history but human agency will be what removes him and his faction from power.
Obama knows this is the case. He understands that the only “Atrocities Prevention Board” worthy of the name is the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the U.S. Armed Forces. That is why he grudgingly deployed more troops to Afghanistan in 2009, why he joined and supported the coalition to remove Muammar Qaddafi from power in 2011, why he ordered U.S. Special Forces to hunt for the monstrous Joseph Kony that same year, and why he has ratcheted up the number of drone strikes against al Qaeda terrorists. His actions in these cases, and President Clinton’s actions in Bosnia and Kosovo, prove that something more than mobilized consciences are required to stop evil acts. Bullets are required. Bombs are required.
If the president of the United States wants to end Bashar al-Assad’s reign of terror—and in so doing, remove a dictator who has sponsored international terrorism, supplied weapons to insurgents who have killed U.S. troops, and served as Iran’s access point to the Mediterranean and Levant—he can start by closing the Atrocities Prevention Board. He can ignore the Russians. He can arm the rebels. He can work with Turkey to create no-fly zones and no-tank safe-havens. He can add Assad to his “secret ‘kill list.’”
Otherwise, when someone asks a future president what Obama did to end the humanitarian disaster of Syria, the answer will be simple. Nothing.