The love and the loyalty that I feel toward the United States is not only an expression of conviction. It is also an expression of gratitude. This country took in my parents when they were broken people looking for a beginning after an ending. They were two of the saving remnants of Polish Jewry, living traces of an erased world. They were seeking, well, life after death, and here they found it. But in the haven of refugees in which I was raised the feeling about America was more complicated. America had helped Jews after the war, but America had not helped Jews during the war. There had been no significant exertions of rescue. The reverence of the American Jewish community for Roosevelt (a friend once told me of his father, a retired garment worker, standing at Roosevelt’s grave at Hyde Park and saying kaddish for him) was not shared by the recent arrivals. The survivors were interventionists. It was a corollary of their experience in hell.
In the formation of my views about morality and power, and of my sense of an obligation to imagine the desperation of doomed people, this became a kind of primal scene. In 1944, for example, it was proposed to various officials of the American government that the Allies bomb the rail lines that carried the Jews of Hungary to the extermination camps in Poland, and that they bomb the gas chambers at Auschwitz. In May, Michael Dov Ber Weissmandel, a Slovakian rabbi, pleaded: “How guilty will you feel in your hearts if you fail to move heaven and earth to help us in the only ways that are available to our own people and as quickly as possible? ... For God’s sake, do something now and quickly.” In July, John J. McCloy, the assistant secretary of war, dismissed the proposal as “impracticable” and wrote that “the War Department fully appreciates the humanitarian motives which prompted the suggested operation but . . . the operation suggested does not appear justified.” The mention of McCloy always fills me with repulsion: he became my supreme cautionary example of the collapse of human responsibility in foreign policy. Thirty years ago I invited Lucy Dawidowicz to review in these pages The Abandonment of the Jews: America and The Holocaust, 1941–1945 by David Wyman. She submitted a defense of American inaction about Europe’s Jews against Wyman’s withering indictment of it, noting that America had after all won the war, which in her view was all it had to do, and (in a bout of misplaced neoconservatism) accused Wyman of anti-Americanism. I refused to publish the piece. Candidly if a little grandiloquently, I told her (I never had occasion to say this to a writer before or since) that my conscience would not allow it. We never spoke again.
The question of the relevance of the Holocaust to humanitarian intervention is somewhat fraught. There are those who are offended by any analogy between the genocide of the Jews and other instances of systematic exterminatory evil; and there are others for whom such an analogy, always imprecise, is one of the central lessons of modern history. Whereas “none of the tragedies that we see today may rise to the full horror of the Holocaust, they demand our attention, that we not turn away, that we choose empathy over indifference, and that our empathy leads to action”: President Obama spoke those words in Los Angeles recently. I would admire them coming from anybody. Coming from him, they sicken me. Syria, man, Syria! About his concluding reference to action, the president hastily added in exculpation of himself, “And that’s not always easy,” as if anybody thinks that it’s always easy. Obama’s statement reminded me of “the War Department fully appreciates the humanitarian motives which prompted the suggested operation but ...” It displayed the same sensitive insensitivity.
The president was in Los Angeles to accept an award from the Shoah Foundation. “In the face of acts of inhumanity, President Obama has not stood by,” Steven Spielberg foolishly declared when he presented the award. In the president’s remarks, you can track his decline from moral largeness into historical smallness: “Every day when I wake up, and I think about the young girls in Nigeria or children caught up in the conflict in Syria—when there are times in which I want to reach out and save those kids—and having to think through what levers, what power do we have at any given moment, I think drop by drop by drop, that we can erode and wear down these forces that are so destructive.” He begins exquisitely and ends pusillanimously. He wants big emotions but not big actions. And what do people do who wish to emote but not to act? They tell stories. Instead of using American power, whose magnitude the president is anyway unclear about “at any given moment,” he mawkishly proposed to assist Assad’s millions of victims “by keeping memories alive, by telling stories, by hearing these stories,” and in this way “we can do our part.” This credible threat of a barrage of American narrativity will no doubt bring Assad to his knees.
“Drop by drop by drop” now joins “you hit singles, you hit doubles” and “we just try to get our paragraph right” as the epitaphs for Obama’s retreating presidency. Unfortunately the policy of eroding and wearing down, of calibration and modulation and prevarication, is not working. According to the foreign minister of France and Human Rights Watch, Assad is using chemical weapons again, even as he takes back Homs and prepares to win an election in a few weeks. The administration has made it clear that it will not grant the request of Ahmad Al Jarba, the president of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, for effective weapons, though Jay Carney assured The Washington Post that Al Jarba’s meeting with Susan Rice, “with a possible drop-in by President Obama, is ‘part of our commitment to empower’ the opposition coalition.” The bystander has become an in-dropper. This hypocrisy is unbearable. Obama cannot act like John McCloy and talk like Raphael Lemkin. Retrenchment is retrenchment, and it should not be ornamented with soaring references to the Holocaust. Obama’s moist pronouncements do not disguise the stony raison d’état of his approach to atrocity. If, in the matter of responding to evil, the president is not prepared to “do something now and quickly,” as the rabbi once begged, then he should stifle himself. His words are insults.
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.