Contemplating the extermination of Aleppo and its people, I was reminded of a sentence that I read this summer. It appeared in an encomium to Elie Wiesel shortly after his death. It was a sterling sentence. It declared: “We must never be bystanders to injustice or indifferent to suffering.” That was Wiesel’s teaching, exactly. The problem with the sentence is that it was issued by the White House and attributed to President Obama. And so the sentence was not at all sterling. It was outrageously hypocritical.
How dare Obama, and members of his administration, speak this way? After five years and more in which the United States’ inaction in Syria has transformed our country into nothing other than a bystander to the greatest atrocity of our time, they have forfeited the right to this language. Their angry and anguished utterances are merely the manipulation of the rhetoric of conscience on behalf of a policy without a trace of conscience. You cannot be cold-hearted and high-minded at the same time. Historians will record — they will not have to dig deeply or interpret wildly to conclude — that all through the excruciations of Aleppo, and more generally of Syria, the United States watched. As we watched, we made excuses, and occasionally we ornamented our excuses with eloquence. The president is enamored of his eloquence. But eloquence is precisely what the wrenching circumstances do not require of him. In circumstances of moral (and strategic) emergency, his responsibility is not to move us. It is to pick up the phone. “Elie did more than just bear witness,” Obama said in his eulogy, “he acted.” And he added: “Just imagine the peace and justice that would be possible in our world if more people lived a little more like Elie Wiesel.” Just imagine.
If Obama wants credit for not getting us into another war, the credit is his. If he wants credit for not being guilty of “overreach,” the credit is his. If he wants credit for conceiving of every obstacle and impediment to American action in every corner of the globe, the credit is his. But it is a shameful and incontrovertible fact of our history that during the past eight years the values of rescue, assistance, protection, humanitarianism and democracy have been demoted in our foreign policy and in many instances banished altogether. The ruins of the finest traditions of American internationalism, of American leadership in a darkening world, may be found in the ruins of Aleppo. Our ostentatious passivity is a primary cause of that darkening. When they go low, we go home. The Obama legacy in foreign policy is vacuum-creation, which his addled America-First successor will happily ratify. Aleppo was not destroyed by the Syrian army. It was destroyed by a savage coalition led and protected by Russia. While they massacred innocent men, women and children, we anxiously pondered scenarios of “deconfliction.”