“Sovereignty cannot be a shield for tyrants to commit wanton murder, or an excuse for the international community to turn a blind eye,” Barack Obama declared at the United Nations in September. “While we need to be modest in our belief that we can remedy every evil, while we need to be mindful that the world is full of unintended consequences, should we really accept the notion that the world is powerless in the face of a Rwanda or Srebrenica? If that’s the world that people want to live in, they should say so and reckon with the cold logic of mass graves.” The temerity in those remarks has not been sufficiently appreciated. For the president is himself one of those people who “should say so.” After years of watching Syria become hell and doing nothing to impede its decline into hellishness—120,000 people killed, 6.5 million refugees inside the country’s borders, 2 million refugees outside the country’s borders—he has forfeited his right to Lemkin’s language. “Our response,” Obama said about the Syrian enormity, “has not matched the scale of the challenge.” Who does he think is responsible for that failure? Obama cannot enjoy both the poetry of indignation and the prose of inaction. Rwanda and Srebrenica, from him?
And in the very speech in which he unequivocally banished any concern about “the cold logic of mass graves” from the “core interests” of the United States? (The core interests are confronting aggression against allies, guaranteeing the free flow of energy, dismantling terrorist networks, and combating the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and “the United States will at times work with governments that do not meet, at least in our view, the highest international expectations, but who work with us on our core interests.” Obama proceeded to illustrate his relaxed expectations with his forgiving policy toward the Egyptian junta.) No, not unequivocally: “To say that these are America’s core interests is not to say that they are our only interests.” Of course not. There is a B-list. Our other interests, the ancillary ones, consist in the “promot[ion of] democracy and human rights and open markets.” Obama hastened to add that these interests “can rarely [be] achieve[d] . . . through unilateral American action,” thereby establishing America’s alibi. The U.N. speech is a document of enormous importance for understanding the turn in American foreign policy. It repeals the interventionist and humanitarian emphases in American foreign policy, in accordance with the alleged spirit of the age. And it completes the transformation of Barack Obama into Barack Scowcroft, except without the general’s competence.
By doing nothing in Syria, Obama ensured that there is nothing we can do. It worked! When Assad falls, as assuredly he will fall, he will be replaced by an extremist Sunni government, because no significant help came for the rebels who represented an alternative. American action may have mixed results, but the absence of American action will have unmixed results. Meanwhile a headline in The New York Times the other day declared that “chemical arms inspectors say Syria has destroyed all declared sites.” Whoop-dee-do. Assad still controls many metric tons of toxic agents, and there is the indelicate matter of Assad’s undeclared sites. At the United Nations, Obama adduced the “searing memories . . . [of] Jews slaughtered in gas chambers” in support of his gun-controller’s—I mean arms-controller’s—approach to mass slaughter. Never mind that in the war against Hitler we did not limit our aims to the confiscation of Zyklon B.
I do not wish to say that Assad is Hitler. It was Obama who brought it up. But it is useful that he did, because a few words about the pertinence of Auschwitz to the purposes of American power are always in order. I admit that my own hectoring about the duty to rescue is owed in some measure (but not entirely: I am a thinking being) to the temperament-altering fact that my own family was not rescued. I am one of those Americans who, for reasons of descent, can imagine needing rescue, needing America. Generally Americans have no natural understanding of atrocity and its attendant desperation, and a good thing, too. For this reason, the imagination of unhappiness must compensate for the happiness of experience, if moral action is to be possible. In 1998, Norman Geras, a Marxist political philosopher in Britain who rose bravely above the shibboleths of the British left, and who died a few weeks ago, wrote a memorable book called The Contract of Mutual Indifference, in which he maintained that “the duty of aid” was the legacy of the Holocaust to all subsequent politics: “if you do not come to the aid of others who are under grave assault, in acute danger or crying need, you cannot reasonably expect others to come to your aid in similar emergency; you cannot consider them so obligated to you.” The fine implication of Geras’s argument is that evil does not have to be totalitarian, the action-inducing number does not have to be 6,000,000, to warrant a forceful and consequential response. Aleppo is not Auschwitz; it is sufficiently hideous that it is Aleppo. But the memory of Auschwitz, if it is anything more than rhetorical, is relevant to Aleppo, because the sensitivity is the same. Gassing children is a distinctly Hitlerian activity. And invoking Auschwitz to justify a policy of non-intervention, of going after the gas instead of the gasser, is grotesque.
Syria is lost; there will be no change in American strategy; we are led by a realpolitiker who quotes King; all that remains are the shipments of bottled water. But all this matters because we will be tested again. Murderous tyrannies, and slaughters within states, are rife in the post-totalitarian world, and if the United States does not insist on doing something about them—not about all of them, but not about none of them—then nothing will be done. Without America, sauve qui peut. Of course some Americans may be content with the American cocoon: the cocooning of the fortunate is a regular feature, and a repugnant one, of life in contemporary America. But there is no glory in it, and no decency.
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.