Old and Newer Memories Force Obama to Balance Intervention
President Obama was both eloquent and practical on Monday in a speech that showed the complexities facing a president who wants to provide moral leadership globally while being pragmatic about the limits of projecting American military power. It is not an easy blend and one that could disappoint those who want the United States to step in forcefully and immediately whenever massive human-rights abuses occur overseas.
Speaking at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum at a ceremony commemorating the Holocaust, the president vowed to “never forget” what he saw at the Buchenwald death camp when he visited almost three years ago. Looking back, he recalled what he termed “the unhappy record of the State Department and so many officials here in the United States” at the time the Nazis were trying to eradicate Jews from Europe. And, looking ahead, he announced some steps to help future U.S. officials respond more quickly in the face of tyrants killing their own people - new sanctions on Syrian and Iranian companies and individuals using Internet tools against their citizenry. He also pledged to keep U.S. military advisers in Uganda to maintain pressure on Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army.
Somber and at times moving in his remarks, Obama listed the genocides that have occurred in more recent years and often caught U.S. policymakers flat-footed and slow to respond: Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur. “They shock our conscience,” he said. But he also recalled “the bitter truth” that “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 only has to turn to former President Clinton for sad confirmation. Clinton was president in 1994 when, with incredible speed and unfathomable brutality, up to a million Rwandans - mostly Tutsis — were slaughtered in only 90 days by the Hutus in control. “The killers, armed mostly with machetes and clubs, nonetheless did their work five times as fast as the mechanized gas chambers used by the Nazis,” Clinton said when he visited Rwanda four years later in 1998 to apologize. “All over the world there were people like me sitting in offices, day after day after day, who did not fully appreciate the depth and the speed with which you were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror,” he said.