A major study produced by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in late August has caused a swirl of debate and controversy among museum supporters, academics, Syrian analysts, Jewish leaders, and even U.S. lawmakers.
News of the report — which was scheduled to be officially released on September 11, came after Tablet Magazine was given portions of the study, which it shared with leaders in the Jewish community.
Those leaders were highly critical of the study, saying that while the report does reflect the failures of Obama’s Syrian foreign policy, it also seems to justify the inaction of the Obama administration to stop the genocide that has unfolded at the hands of terrorists and Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, the latter backed, in large part, by Russia and Iran.
It was only in the final year of the Obama administration that Secretary of State John officially designated ISIS’s atrocities in Syria as genocide while not mentioning the Assad regime specifically in his March 2016 remarks.
The Syrian Network For Human Rights reports that some 480,000 deaths have occurred during the Syrian civil war over the past six years. According to U.S. intelligence, that includes innocent civilians and children killed by the Assad regime using chemical weapons, brutal kidnapping and murders of religious minorities by the Islamic State, as well deaths across all populations from efforts by the International Coalition in Syria to end the civil war and defeat ISIS.
Although Obama famously drew his “red line” on Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people in a speech in 2013, minimal actions were taken under his administration.
“Obama’s September 2013 decision not to undertake standoff strikes to enforce his ‘red line’ against the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons stands as his most controversial policy decision on Syria, and arguably of his entire presidency,” the report executive summary states. “Conducting limited stand-off strikes followed immediately by intensive diplomacy might have led to a reduction in the level of killing.”
The study attempts to sort out the situation on the ground and the Obama’s response to it that includes assertions some inaction could have been justified.
“Using computational modeling and game theory methods, as well as interviews with experts and policymakers, the report asserted that greater support for the anti-Assad rebels and U.S. strikes on the Assad regime after the August 2013 Ghouta chemical weapons attack would not have reduced atrocities in the country, and might conceivably have contributed to them,” Tablet Magazine reported.
“The first thing I have to say is: Shame on the Holocaust Museum,” Leon Wieseltier, a literary critic and fellow at the Brookings Institution, said in the Tablet Magazine reporting, slamming the museum for “releasing an allegedly scientific study that justifies bystanderism.”
“I assume the leadership understands that it made a misstep,” Abraham Foxman, the director of the Center of the Study of Anti-Semitism at the Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the History, told Tablet Magazine. “I served three times on the Holocaust Commission.
“The institution is very dear to my heart,” Foxman said. “And I believe that it’s appropriate—indeed, it’s imperative—for the museum [to] deal with questions of genocide in contemporary current events.”
Foxman noted that the genocide in Syria is still ongoing and “more broadly I just don’t think it’s appropriate for the museum to issue this kind of judgement—that’s beyond its mandate. This should be a place where one meets to discuss, to debate, to question, to challenge: Could more have been done? Where? How? Not to issue judgment, especially not in this politicized atmosphere.”
“While examining the U.S.’s response to the conflict arguably falls within the Museum’s stated purpose of ‘inspiring citizens and leaders to confront hatred, prevent genocide, and promote human dignity,’ it is unclear how producing work that could be used to justify or excuse official inaction in the face of war crimes committed by Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria squares with that mission,” Tablet Magazine reported. “Since the outbreak of civil war early 2011, the Syrian dictator has repeatedly attacked civilians with poison gas, maintaining a network of prison camps where as many as 60,000 people have been tortured, murdered, and disappeared, with their bodies dumped into crematoria and mass graves.”
Tablet Magazine also points out that many former Obama administration officials are now working at the museum — although it does not document their direct involvement in the study — including former deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes, who was appointed to the museum’s Memorial Council during the closing days of the Obama administration. The Council also includes Obama National Security Council alumni Grant Harris and Daniel Benjamin. Other Obama NSC alumni — Cameron Hudson and Anna Cave — have joined the Museum’s staff.
The study was commissioned a year ago by a think tank within the museum, the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, which Hudson now heads.
The New York Times weighed in on the controversy on Sunday, reporting that the museum’s study has made it “a lightning rod for the fierce debate over the Obama administration’s role in the Syrian civil war.”
“Since then, the museum has been caught in a political debate and faced questions about academic freedom and the board’s ties to the Obama administration,” the Times reported.
“Of the eight sitting federal lawmakers who are trustees, two responded,” the Times reported. “Senator Al Franken, Democrat of Minnesota, had no comment on the study, a spokesman said. Senator Orrin Hatch, Republican of Utah, said he supported the decision to remove it.”
“The Holocaust museum, if it stands for anything, stands for the idea that we should always act against genocide and that there’s something forever wrong and unsatisfying about the idea that we can do nothing to alleviate radical evil,” Wieseltier said, as reported by the Times. “This paper basically whitewashes the Obama administration’s inaction on Syria and says that there’s nothing we can do.”
The Holocaust Museum opened in 1993 and is funded by the federal government and private donations. It issued a brief statement on its website.