Old and Newer Memories Force Obama to Balance Intervention

President Barack Obama and Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel stop for a moment of silence in the Hall of Remembrance as they toured the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, Monday, April 23, 2012.  (National Journal)

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.

His failure to act in Rwanda has forever haunted Clinton, leaving him with what he has called "a lifetime responsibility" to help the African nation recover. But it also haunts the presidents who have come to office after Clinton. Clinton's failure to respond swiftly was not because he had forgotten what happened in the Holocaust five decades earlier; it was more because neither he nor the country could forget what had happened in Somalia five months earlier. David Hannay, the former British ambassador to the United Nations, several years ago said the United States and the international community were paralyzed by how the U.S. mission in Somalia had ended. On Oct. 3, 1993, two Black Hawk helicopters were downed in Mogadishu. Eighteen Americans died in the crash and firefight; 73 were injured. And the American public soured on any humanitarian missions in Africa. "Why did the international community not do something (in Rwanda)?" Hannay asked on CNN. "Because they were traumatized by the collapse of the mission in Somalia."

Today, despite all the apologies and the promises to "never forget," American presidents still have their hands tied and their flexibility limited by more recent memories of military missions overseas. It's why Obama had to carefully couch his promises on future genocides and why he is cautious in his reaction to the violence in Syria and strong-arming a nuclear-ambitious Iran.

He restated his policy that "preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national-security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States of America." But Obama quickly added, "That does not mean that we intervene militarily every time there's an injustice in the world. We cannot and should not." After a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, he knows that a war-weary electorate at home would not support that. It is why he is left to wield what he called the "many tools, diplomatic and political and economic and financial and intelligence and law enforcement, and our moral suasion."

Long-term memory of 20th-century Nazi death camps and short-term memory of 21st-century military deployments leave him little choice. "There will be," he concluded somberly, "conflicts that are not easily resolved. There'll be senseless deaths that aren't prevented."