U.S. Begins to confront Genocide–Finally

by Rafael Medoff

President Obama’s plan to increase military action against ISIS is based on the fact that ISIS is a “genocidal, territorial-grabbing, caliphate-desiring quasi state,” according to Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking at the September 5 NATO summit talks.

If genocidal intention has indeed become a central criteria for the Obama administration in deciding whether to launch military strikes abroad, it represents a significant new direction in U.S. foreign policy–and a sharp break from the legacy of the president whom Mr. Obama has always said he admires most.

At the time of his first election in 2008, Obama spoke of his desire to govern in the spirit of his favorite predecessor, Franklin D. Roosevelt. A Time magazine cover depicted Obama as an FDR look-alike, and spokesmen for the president-elect said he was currently engrossed in two new Roosevelt biographies. One of the authors commented to reporters: “It’s just nice that we’re going to have a president that has a strong sense of history.”

Having a strong sense of history should include recognizing the flaws of historical figures whom we otherwise admire. Although President Obama has not explicitly criticized FDR’s abandonment of the Jews during the Holocaust, the policies of the Obama administration increasingly suggest a repudiation of Roosevelt’s view that human rights crises abroad are none of America’s business.

In 1933, President Roosevelt told his new ambassador to Nazi Germany, William Dodd, that the persecution of Jews there “is not a [U.S.] governmental affairs.” He instructed Dodd to refrain from making any official protests regarding the Jews except in the tiny handful of cases involving German Jews who happened to be American citizens.

That attitude continued throughout the Holocaust years, to the point of refusing to drop even a few bombs on Auschwitz or the railway lines leading to it, even when U.S. planes were bombing German oil factories adjacent to the camp in 1944. Roosevelt administration officials said they could not “divert” military resources for non-military purposes. Yet a few months later, they diverted American troops to rescue the famous Lipizzaner dancing horses near the German-Czech border.

Until recently, President Obama’s policy concerning genocide was something of a roller-coaster.

On the one hand, he used military force to bring down the Muammar Gadaffi regime in Libya, in 2011, on the grounds that Gadaffi was preparing the mass murder of his opponents. “Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries,” he said. “The United States of America is different.” He cited “preventing genocide” as a legitimate basis for American intervention in Libya.

On the other hand, President Obama has never taken any steps to bring about the arrest of Sudanese president Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who was indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2009 for sponsoring the Darfur genocide. In fact, the administration has not even criticized governments that have hosted visits by Bashir.

Moreover, the Obama administration has refused to recognize the Armenian genocide, despite repeated promises by candidate Obama to do so. Turkey, which denies that the genocide took place, would be offended if the United States told the truth. In deference to the Turks, the administration has even refused to publicly display a rug woven by Armenian orphans and given to the White House as a gift in 1925.

A major change of U.S. policy on genocide appeared imminent last September, when President Obama was poised to take military action against Syrian dictator Bashar Assad for using poison gas. Secretary of State John Kerry, explaining to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee the importance of not abandoning the persecuted, cited the voyage of the St. Louis, “a ship that was turned away from the coast of Florida” (by President Roosevelt), with many of its passengers subsequently murdered in the Holocaust. “That’s what’s at stake here,” he said.

Although that military action did not take place, the principle of intervention which Kerry articulated regarding Syria may have helped pave the way for the U.S. air strikes in Iraq last month, which helped save thousands of members of the Yazidi religious group who were threatened by ISIS.

The U.S. shift from ignoring genocide to pre-emptive action against those who are planning genocide is far from complete. It remains to be seen, for example, whether the administration will act against others who have threatened genocide, such as Iran and Hamas. Still, the new American stance regarding ISIS appears to be a step in the right direction–and a welcome repudiation of that aspect of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s legacy.

September 2014