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Obama’s ‘empathy’ won’t stop genocide

First lady Michelle Obama tweeted a photo of herself holding a sign reading #BringBackOurGirls. Source: Twitter.
First lady Michelle Obama tweeted a photo of herself holding a sign reading #BringBackOurGirls. Source: Twitter.

By Rafael Medoff/

In his May 7 remarks upon receiving an award for fighting genocide, President Barack Obama explained why he is not fighting genocide. He didn’t mean it to sound quite that way, of course. But that was the indisputable meaning of his words.

“I have this remarkable title right now—president of the United States—and yet every day when I wake up, and I think about young girls in Nigeria or children caught up in the conflict in Syria, when there are times in which I want to reach out and save those kids, having to think through what levers, what power do we have at any given moment, I think, drop by drop by drop, that we can erode and wear down these forces that are so destructive, that we can tell a different story,” Obama said May 7 at a Los Angeles gala, during which he received the Ambassador for Humanity Award from Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust history foundation.

The president was referring to the approximately 300 girls kidnapped and enslaved by Islamist terrorists in Nigeria last month. It’s not clear why it took the president three weeks to figure out which “levers” the U.S. has with regard to the atrocity in Nigeria. Those girls were kidnapped on April 14, and the attack was reported around the world the next day. It (unfortunately) wasn’t front-page news, but it was there for anybody, including the White House, to see.

Yet it was not until May 6 that the White House announced it was offering to loan a “team of experts,” including hostage negotiators and psychologists, to the Nigerian government. The president was quoted as saying the U.S. would “do everything we can” to help. But at the same time, “American officials” were quoted as emphasizing that “military resources” are not being offered to Nigeria. How is it that nobody noticed the contradiction between “everything we can” and “no military resources”?

The whole tenor of Obama’s remarks was the notion that America should not have a policy of actively intervening in human rights crises around the world.

He struck the same tone in remarks made in an interview with The New Republic on International Holocaust Remembrance Day last year. Asked about his reluctance to intervene against the Syrian government’s mass killing of its citizens, the president replied, “How do I weigh tens of thousands who’ve been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?”

The implication of Obama’s statement was that since there are so many human rights crises around the world, and the U.S. cannot address all of them, we should therefore not address any of them. In other words, “If we can’t save everybody, then we shouldn’t save anybody.”

Which was, by the way, the same thing Roosevelt administration officials said when Jewish organizations pleaded for U.S. action to rescue Jewish refugees during the Holocaust.

“None of the tragedies that we see today may rise to the full horror of the Holocaust,” Obama continued in his remarks at the May 7 award ceremony. “But they demand our attention, that we not turn away, that we choose empathy over indifference and that our empathy leads to action.”

Empathy is indeed important—if it leads to action.

But what happens when the president’s “empathy” doesn’t lead to action?

Take Darfur, for example. The Darfur genocide may be out of the news, but atrocities by Arab janjaweed militias against non-Arab civilians continue. The United Nations reported in March that in the first eleven weeks of this year alone, more than 200,000 Darfur residents have been displaced by the ongoing attacks. Yet the Obama administration still refuses even to criticize governments that host visits by the mastermind of the Darfur genocide, Sudanese president (and indicted war criminal) Omar Hassan al-Bashir. Fear of angering Bashir’s allies—China, Russia, and the Arab League—takes precedence over combating genocide.

The president’s then-envoy to Sudan, Princeton Lyman, even went out of his way to publicly emphasize that “we do not want to see the ouster of the [Bashir] regime, nor regime change.” How exactly does leaving perpetrators of genocide in power help deter genocide?

In his remarks at the award ceremony, Obama said we can “so our part” to combat genocide by “keeping memories alive, by telling stories, by hearing those stories.”

Keeping memories alive is important. Raising public awareness is vital. First Lady Michelle Obama’s tweeted photo of herself holding a sign reading #BringBackOurGirls was the right thing to do, although it’s a shame that it took three weeks for her tweet reacting to the Nigeria kidnapping crisis to arrive.

When you have the luxury of time, you can think in terms of “drop by drop by drop,” to quote Barack Obama. But when teenage girls are being enslaved and villages are being torched, it’s time for something more substantial than hashtags and psychologists and empathy. Words alone will not “wear down” terrorists or murderers or perpetrators of genocide.

Dr. Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies (

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