In a speech introducing U.S. President Barack Obama today, Nobel Peace Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel called on the world to learn the lessons of the Holocaust and prevent Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from committing atrocities against civilians.
At a ceremony at Washington's Holocaust museum, Wiesel compared Assad and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the villains who perpetrated the murder of millions of innocent civilians during World War II and asked why America and the international community didn't do more to stop the bloodshed. He then compared the world's inaction then to its failure to stop Assad and Ahmadinejad now.
"It could have been prevented. The greatest tragedy in history could have been prevented had the civilized world spoken up, taken measures in 1939, ‘40, ‘41, ‘42. Each time, in Berlin, Geobbels and the others always wanted to see what would be the reaction in Washington and London and Rome, and there was no reaction so they felt they could continue," Wiesel said.
"So in this place we may ask: Have we learned anything from it? If so, how is it that Assad is still in power? How is it that the No. 1 Holocaust denier Ahmadinejad is still a president? He who threatens to use nuclear weapons to destroy the Jewish state."
"Have we not learned? We must know that evil has power. It is almost too late," he said. "Preventative measures are important. We must use those measures to prevent another catastrophe. And when other communities are threatened by anyone, we must not allow them to do what they intend doing."
Wiesel's speech was reminiscent of another speech he made at the Holocaust museum in 1993, at the opening of the complex, when he called on then President Bill Clinton to take action to stop the atrocities against civilians in Bosnia.
Similarly, that speech came at a time when the Clinton administration was resisting getting entangled in a foreign civil war but was under growing pressure to intervene.
"Mr. President, I cannot not tell you something," Wiesel told Clinton then. "I have been in the former Yugoslavia last fall. I cannot sleep since for what I have seen. As a Jew I am saying that we must do something to stop the bloodshed in that country! People fight each other and children die. Why? Something, anything must be done."
In his own remarks, Obama touted the fact that his administration determined that the prevention of mass atrocities was a core national security interest of the United States and listed several bureaucratic changes the government was making to address the problem. His board to examine the problem meets today for the first time.
Obama touted his administration's efforts in South Sudan, Ivory Coast, Libya, and Uganda, pledging to extend the limited deployment of U.S. military advisors to help track down remnants of the Lord's Resistance Army. But Obama said that governments are not wholly responsible for preventing mass atrocities.
"You don't just count on officials; you don't just count on governments. You count on people mobilizing their conscience," Obama said. "'Never again' is a challenge to nations. It's a bitter truth: Too often the world has failed to halt 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."
When Obama spoke about Syria, he said the United States would continue increasing diplomatic, political, and economic pressure on the Assad regime, but said the U.S. commitment to end atrocities "does not mean we intervene militarily every time there is an injustice in the world."
"The Syrian people have not given up, which is why we cannot give up. So with partners and allies we will keep increasing the pressure so that those who stick with Assad know that they are making a losing bet."
Obama announced new financial sanctions against Syrian and Iranian leaders who use information technology to suppress civilian dissent, barring those guilty from entering or doing business in the United States.
"In short, we need to do everything we can to prevent these kinds of atrocities, because national sovereignty is never a license to slaughter your own people," Obama said. "Remembrance without resolve is a hollow gesture. Awareness without action changes nothing."
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.