Speaking at the US Holocaust Museum Monday, President Obama said "Never Again" challenges societies and 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,” he said.
But Obama didn’t need to reach to the historical catchphrases of the Holocaust and its past to find a challenge. Preceding him on the stage at the event commemorating the Holocaust was Elie Wiesel. And though Wiesel’s soft-spokenness and European accent can make it hard to hear the force in his words, the Nobel Peace Prize winner did throw down a gauntlet to the president.
“The greatest tragedy in history could have been prevented had the civilized world spoken up, taken measures,” he said, referring to the Holocaust and how its perpetrators “always wanted to see what would be the reaction in Washington and London and Rome, and there was no reaction so they felt they could continue.”
So he asked the audience at Monday’s ceremony: “Have we learned anything from it? If so, how is it that Assad is still in power?”
He raised a similar question of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – “How is it that the No. 1 Holocaust denier Ahmadinejad is still the president?” – and then repeated, “Have we not learned?”
Obama acknowledged Wiesel’s probing when he took the stage following the Holocaust survivor’s introduction.
“Elie alluded to what we feel as we see the Syrian people subjected to unspeakable violence, simply for demanding their universal rights,” Obama said. “We have to do everything we can.”
Yet he cautioned: “We recognize that, even as we do all we can, we cannot control every event. And when innocents suffer, it tears at our conscience.”
Elsewhere, Obama pointedly noted that, “We cannot and should not” intervene militarily every time an injustice occurs.
Even short of military attack, there are many more aggressive actions the US could take when it comes to stopping Bashar al-Assad’s attacks on his own people.
Senators Joe Lieberman, John McCain and Lindsey Graham recently took Obama to task for not doing more.
“Changing the military balance inside Syria requires the United States, in close coordination with our Turkish, Arab and other allies, to provide the Syrian opposition with the help they are pleading for to defend themselves,” they said in a joint statement. “This can include training and equipping the Syrian opposition with weapons, providing them with tactical intelligence, and using airpower to target Assad’s command-and-control and help the Syrian opposition to create safe zones inside Syria.”
On Monday, Obama pointed to other actions. He listed increasing pressure on the Syrian government through diplomacy, further sanctions on regime humans rights abusers (expanded to include those who use technology to oppress people), humanitarian relief, working with the Syrian opposition and a legal effort to document atrocities to bring the perpetrators to justice.
Obama’s steps on Syria might or might not be wiser than those the senators are pushing. But there is no doubt that there are a lot of additional moves beyond them encompassed in “everything we can.”
Time will tell if those measures rise to the challenge posed by the Holocaust, history and Wiesel.
- Hilary Leila Krieger