President Obama waxed eloquent at the Holocaust Museum in Washington this week, speaking of the men and women commemorated there as "a testament to the endurance and the strength of the human spirit."
He told how his great uncle, an American soldier, was stunned by what he saw at the liberation of the death camp at Buchenwald. The president himself remembered somber feelings as he stood with survivors at a monument honoring those in the old Warsaw ghetto who would not go quietly into the night.
The president recalled the heroism of Jan Karski, a young Polish Catholic who was smuggled into the Warsaw ghetto to learn how Polish Jews were transported to their deaths in Treblinka in 1942, and carried photographs and his findings to President Franklin D. Roosevelt to plead with him to do something about the murder of the Jews. FDR listened but did not act. He said the way to save the Jews was to win the war. Obama did not say anything about that. He does not want to invite comparisons.
FDR could hide behind the urgency of war and the advice of his State Department, then as now riddled with weak and prissy bureaucrats who don't like Jews very much. But in this election year, another president has different problems. When Eli Weisel suggested that the president and other world leaders "have not learned anything" from the lessons of the Holocaust writ large, he cited chapter and verse, begging for answers.
"How is it that (Bashar al-Assad) is still in power?" he asked. "How is it that the Holocaust's number one denier, (Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad, is still a president? He who threatens to use nuclear weapons to destroy the Jewish state. We must know that when evil has power, it is almost too late."
Timid and faint-hearted or not, Obama doesn't want Eli Weisel and Jewish voters to think he's indifferent to Jewish concerns. He has a plan. He has signed an executive order to create the "first ever" Atrocities Prevention Board (APB). It will bring together senior officials from across the government intelligence services to see data "to ensure that information pertaining to unfolding crises -- and dissenting opinion -- of human rights (abuses) will quickly reach decision-makers, including me." (And if that doesn't work, he might write a strong letter to the editor.)
That sounds like something that can do no harm, but it's also something that Basher al-Assad and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad can easily ignore, confirming what Eli Weisel meant, that "when evil has power, it is almost too late." The Iranians continue working on a nuclear bomb, and the White House warns Israel against bombing the factories where the bomb is being made. Basher al-Assad continues to kill Syrian civilians with Russian weapons and Iranian money, and President Obama unleashes an advisory board of bureaucrats.
If history teaches anything, as Sen. John McCain observes, effectively confronting evil requires the political will and moral courage of leaders, "especially the president of the United States." Obama lacks both the political will and the moral courage to confront evil with anything more tangible than words, eloquent as they may be. But the bureaucratic language of "Not just now" does not quite have the ring and sting of "Never again."
Although the president demonstrated sympathy with Jewish concerns in his remarks at the Holocaust Museum, he has spent much of his capital with Jewish voters. Not only are Jewish contributions to his campaign down considerably from 2008, but a recent poll finds Jews who say they will vote for him down 16 percentage points from the 78 percent he won four years ago.
Jews, liberal on social issues, are disappointed with the way the president treats Israel. They don't trust him. Mitt Romney, who has a close friendship with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and says his first trip abroad as president will be to Jerusalem, says bluntly that President Obama is "throwing Israel under the bus."
Martin Niemoller, the anti-Nazi Lutheran pastor in Germany, might update his famous cautionary words about a threat to humanity to something like this: "When the Palestinians said Israel must not exist, I did not speak out because I wanted them to participate in the peace process. When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said the Holocaust never happened, I did not speak out because I wanted sanctions to work. When Basher al-Assad killed 9, 000 civilians, I said nothing because we were told trade embargoes would work. When Israel's enemies armed themselves with nuclear weapons and vowed to 'wipe Israel off the map,' President Obama called a meeting of the Atrocities Prevention Board. But by then, it was too little, too late."