The ‘responsibility to protect’ and the US president

No Holds Barred: Why hasn't Obama condemned the slaughter of civilians across the Arab world?

Obama 311 reuters (photo credit: Reuters)
Obama 311 reuters
(photo credit: Reuters)
The “Responsibility to Protect” (RtoP) is currently being debated in American policy circles. Do wealthy nations have an obligation to intervene when innocents are being slaughtered by their own governments? What should the role of Western powers be in the current Arab uprisings? For Jews and Christians, the Bible already decided this question thousands of years ago with a celebrated verse that appears in this week’s Torah reading: “Thou shalt not sit idly by the blood of thy neighbor.” (Leviticus 19:16) If someone is drowning we must jump in the water to save them. And if peaceful demonstrators are being mowed down by tyrants then we must prevent these monsters from killing them.
Yet today many Jews are weary of the ‘RtoP’ for fear it can be invoked against Israel in its battle against Hamas, even though the analogy is ludicrous. Israel is a law-abiding, flourishing democracy while Hamas is a terrorist organization committed to Israel’s destruction. We Jews dare not override the fundamental human responsibility to protect the innocent for fear that Israel-haters will subvert the principle’s intent and use it to prevent the Jewish state from its legitimate right to protect its citizens from terrorism.
But I continue to be puzzled at President Barack Obama’s inexplicable failure to call on the nations of the world to join together to protect innocent Arab citizens from being slaughtered in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen. The United States is the world’s foremost bastion of freedom, its voice an invaluable source of inspiration to those who hunger for liberty. In a January 2008 interview with the Reno Gazette-Journal’s editorial board, then-Senator Obama declared his desire to be a transformational president like Ronald Reagan. History handed him that opportunity on a platter when once-unthinkable Arab demonstrations demanding freedom erupted throughout the Middle East. But with the notable exception of the president’s laudable actions in Libya to punish Gaddafi for his crimes – a policy advocated by courageous presidential advisers like anti-genocide advocate Samantha Power – the president is relatively silent while people are mowed down in the streets of Barza, Douma, and Qabon.
And while he is not sufficiently condemning Assad of Syria Obama is once again obsessing over a preferred party: Israel. The New York Times is reporting, based on a recent speech delivered by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the World-Islamic Forum in Washington, that Obama may shortly put forward a peace plan for the Israelis and Palestinians that would entail Israel retreating to 1967 borders and sharing Jerusalem as a capital with a future Palestinian state. The pressure that such an action would bring on Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, especially with the plan being offered by a sitting US President, would be unbearable. Equally, forcing Israel to return to the 1967 borders would be near-suicide.
Enter John Boehner and Eric Cantor, respectively the speaker and majority leader of the US House of Representatives, who are preempting Obama’s pressure on Israel by inviting Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress in May, thereby allowing the prime minister to put forward his own plan rather than having one foisted on by Obama.
Boehner’s press release said, “America and Israel are the closest of friends and allies, and we look forward to hearing the prime minister’s views on how we can continue working together for peace.” Cantor has gone much further, telling Netanyahu last November that the House would “serve as a check on the administration,” and putting out a statement that “the Republican majority understands the special relationship between Israel and the United States, and that the security of each nation is reliant upon the other.”
As the youngest House majority leader since 1947 and the highest-ranking Jewish elected official in American history, Rep. Cantor of Virginia is that most unique of political leaders: utterly humble, accessible, wise, and proud of his identity.
As a Jew committed to tradition, Cantor uses his values to create policy. On the occasions I have visited with him to discuss Biblical values as they pertain to leadership, I have been awed by the dignity he accords every visitor. A sincere servant of the people and the consummate Southern gentleman, he reminded me immediately of the teaching of our sages: “Greet every person you meet with a warm and pleasant countenance.”
Often people of ethnicity elected to high office bend over backward to deny their heritage as if by doing so they automatically broaden their mainstream appeal. Of Obama himself many of us had high hopes that the first African-American president would walk in the footsteps of Martin Luther King, Jr. and serve as an international champion of human rights. It saddened us, therefore, as we watched him hug Hugo Chavez, bow to the king of Saudi Arabia, refuse at first to condemn Ahmadinejad’s slaughter of peaceful protesters in Tehran in 2009, and remain largely silent as Arab citizens are murdered by their governments across the Middle East.
Cantor could not be more different, proudly promoting the special relationship between the United States and Israel, two liberal democracies who are the world’s foremost targets of terrorism because of the threat each poses to the condescending and sanctimonious argument that democracy can only work in select parts of the Western world.
It should be the purpose of the American Jewish community to groom more leaders – both Republican and Democrat – of Cantor’s caliber and I am grateful to him for agreeing to be the guest of honor this May at our benefit for The American Institute of Jewish Values whose purpose it will be to train young Jewish scholars in the art of promoting universal Jewish values to the mainstream culture.
As Americans we can debate ‘RtoP’ and other policies. But such debates must be carried out amid our total agreement on the universal values that underlie the policy, namely, the Biblical principle establishing the infinite value of every human life – Jew, Christian and Muslim alike.
The writer is founder of This World: The Values Network, which is now launching the American Institute of Jewish values to promote universal Jewish teachings in the American media. For more information write to