The Rhetoric of Remembrance

President Barack Obama invoked the motto “Never again” during his statement Sunday on International Holocaust Memorial Day:

“The United States, along with the international community, resolves to stand in the way of any tyrant or dictator who commits crimes against humanity, and stay true to the principle of ‘Never Again.’”

Such declarations years ago entered the manual of political correctness for Western officials, and we cannot fault the president for saying what he has to say. Not that the sentiment was uttered insincerely. Mr. Obama is no doubt as earnest in his desire to “learn the lessons of the Holocaust” as anyone else.

But we also must recognize that there does exist an element of denial — not of the Holocaust, but of America’s own failure to act to save Jewish lives in the Holocaust. To mention that — except indirectly — in a Holocaust Day speech would indicate lack of astuteness, if not full-blown political incorrectness.

Still, the historical record poses a standing challenge to the value of these Holocaust Day pronouncements. The question of whether the Allies could effectively have intervened — say, to bomb the tracks to Auschwitz — has been amply examined by historians and is beyond the scope of this editorial. Suffice it to say that more could probably have been done.

In the post-World War II period, there is also much for which to answer. We have heard so many times about the importance of learning the lessons of the Holocaust. The cities of Europe, America, and most recently Russia are adorned with memorials to the six million. Holocaust courses have been incorporated into educational curricula. These, and the annual speeches, are all designed to promote remembrance of past horrors and prevention of future genocide.

Yet any survey of recent history demonstrates that “standing in the way of any tyrant or dictator who commits crimes against humanity” has not really been the policy of the United States, certainly not in the sweeping terms in which this resolve was expressed.

Humanitarian intervention in post-Holocaust genocidal events has been conditioned by circumstance, overridden by geopolitics and muted by apathy. Compassion is often the least-compelling factor in the making of foreign policy.

The Nigerian civil war of the late 1960s was probably the first such event to be compared to the Holocaust, as the population of secessionist Biafra was subjected to a policy of mass starvation through blockade. Although private funds were raised to help the victims, the U.S. and other countries did not stand in the way of the oppressor state. On the contrary, they supported it.

Fragmented refugee reports from the “killing fields” of Cambodia in the late 1970s failed to arouse world opinion in time. Americans, in particular, had by then had quite enough of the tribulations of Southeast Asia, and were not about to support fresh involvement there on anybody’s side.

Worse, the U.S. was actually complicit in the atrocities of the Pol Pot regime. As President Carter’s foreign policy advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski admitted, “I encouraged the Chinese to support Pol Pot. [He] was an abomination. We could never [publicly] support him. But China could.” And China did, by sending him arms through Thailand.

Then there was Bosnia. The rationale for non-intervention was insurmountable: In addition to European opposition to major military operations, it was unlikely that such intervention could reverse Serbian gains without committing troops on the ground — a commitment that Congress, the Pentagon and the public were loath to make in the absence of any clear-cut national security interest.

Today, the wholesale killing of civilians in Syria continues as the United Nations does no more than issue condemnations and dispatch emissaries to Assad to remonstrate with him. Effective overt action has been blocked by Russia. The West does not consider the plight of the Syrians worth a confrontation with Russia. Besides, who is to say that the insurgents, composed at least in part of al-Qaida-linked and other fanatic elements, would usher in a more civilized government?

We realize that the rhetoric of remembrance is preferable to the culture of denial. It is a good thing that Western leaders feel obligated to sign the book against genocide and anti-Semitism. It does make a resurgence of such horrors somewhat less likely to occur again, as it inculcates an aversion to them in the popular mind.

But the rhetoric of remembrance does not entirely preclude candor. As when President Bill Clinton, in response to a reporter’s question as to whether his visit to the Holocaust museum influenced his decision-making on Bosnia, said: “I think the United States should always seek an opportunity to stand up against” — he corrected himself — “at least to speak out against inhumanity.”

We long for the day when “Never again” will never have to be heard again. In the meantime, Jewish remembrance must also include awareness that nations — even democratic and peace-loving ones — are often constrained from carrying out their humanitarian impulses, and that we must look to the Ribbono shel Olam to ultimately wipe the tear from every eye.