Will Obama Break with FDR on Genocide Response?

By Dr. Rafael Medoff

President-elect Barack Obama has referred to President Franklin D. Roosevelt as one of his role models, and a recent Time magazine cover even depicted Obama as a Roosevelt lookalike, complete with his famous cigarette-holder.

But if Mr. Obama intends to actively intervene to stop the genocide in Darfur –as media reports this week are suggesting– it would constitute a very significant departure from FDR’s response to genocide.

A front-page Washington Post article on December 8 reported that officials of the Sudanese government, which sponsors the Arab militias that are slaughtering non-Arabs in Darfur, expect the new administration to adopt “a major shift in U.S. policy.”

While the Bush administration refrained from actively intervening against the Darfur genocide, some officials of the incoming Obama administration, including Hilary Clinton, the nominee for secretary of state, and Susan Rice, the nominee for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, have in the past advocated strong American intervention against the regime in Khartoum. Rice has been quoted as saying the U.S. dare not repeat the Clinton administration’s mistake of ignoring the genocide that took place in Rwanda in 1994.

During the 1940s, FDR’s position was that the United States should not expend even minimal resources to stop the Nazis’ mass murder of the Jews. America’s doors were kept shut to all but a handful of refugees. Opportunities to ransom Jews from the Nazis were ignored. And even though U.S. bombers flew directly over Auschwitz in the summer of 1944, striking German oil factories less than five miles from the gas chambers, the administration would not spare a few bombs to knock out the mass-murder machinery.

Mr. Obama, by contrast, said earlier this year: “We cannot, in good conscience, stand by and let this genocide continue … [O]ur action and leadership will show who we are as a nation and as a people.”

Will those strong words be translated into concrete action on Darfur?

One early test of Mr. Obama’s resolve concerns the fate of Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir. Luis Moreno-Ocampo, prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, has urged prosecution of al-Bashir for his role in the Darfur genocide. The Arab League, the African Union, and the governments of China and Russia are seeking United Nations action to block the arrest of al-Bashir, because of their political, economic, and military relationships with the Sudanese regime. The British, for their part, are reportedly trying to broker a deal that would let al-Bashir off the hook.

In President Roosevelt’s time, too, there were those who put political or other interests ahead of punishing war criminals.

In 1942, FDR pledged that all Nazi war criminals would be punished. The following year, the Allies established the United Nations War Crimes Commission, and former diplomat Herbert Pell (father of future U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell) was appointed as America’s representative to the commission.

Pell soon discovered, to his dismay, that the State Department and the British Foreign Office favored prosecuting only a limited number of Nazi war criminals. Some U.S. and British officials claimed that legal technicalities prevented prosecuting a larger number. Other officials believed that going easy on postwar Germany could help turn Berlin into America’s ally. When Pell opposed their approach, the State Department pushed him out of his position–with FDR’s approval.

Pell turned the tables by going public. His January 1945 press conference embarrassed the State Department into reversing its position and agreeing that all Nazi killers of Jews should be prosecuted. But Foggy Bottom had the last laugh: in the end, many war criminals were let off with a slap on the wrist, or were granted pardons by the U.S. High Commissioner in Germany.

Now a new president faces the choice between pursuing political interests and bringing war criminals to justice. One hopes that in this instance, Barack Obama will look to Herbert Pell, and not Franklin Roosevelt, for his inspiration.

December 2008