It’s not often that life gives you a second chance (or a third, or a fourth). But that’s exactly what Congress did today for President Obama when the House passed a resolution applying the word “genocide” to ISIS’s atrocities against Christians in the Middle East. The decision presents President Obama with a picture-perfect opportunity to do something bold, decisive, and morally right in foreign policy, and to help restore his tarnished legacy. This opportunity is probably his last.
It’s not clear exactly what is being done to Christians in the Middle East right now (an excuse similar to that made by world leaders in the late 1930s when Jews were being rounded up and killed in Nazi Germany), but what we do know is grim. In 2003, over 1.4 million Christians lived in Iraq. By the summer of 2015, there were fewer than 275,000. Most were eking out a nightmarish existence in camps in Kurdistan. The numbers are similar among Syrian Christians: approximately 1.25 million in 2011, fewer than 500,000 today.
When ISIS moves into a town, the houses belonging to Christians are marked with the Arabic letter nun, or N (for “Nazarene”), painted in red on their doors. Christians then must choose whether to flee or wait for their fate. Those who flee must choose between trying to survive in the wilderness and making their way to U.N. camps, where Christians live in fear of jihadists who infiltrate the camps to kill “infidels.” Many Christians in the Middle East have simply disappeared, their fate as mysterious as that of the Jews of Europe in 1945 before the Allies discovered the death camps scattered across the Third Reich.
A noble idea, but it hasn’t worked. Since 1948, genocide has clearly been committed multiple times, with no response until it was too late. American presidents in particular have made deliberate policy decisions to not call genocide “genocide,” even in the face of plenty of evidence, because they didn’t want to be responsible for acting. For example, during the Rwandan genocide in 1994, radical members of the Hutu tribe set out to exterminate their rival tribe, the Tutsis, as well as any Hutus who got in the way. The Clinton administration chose not to apply the word “genocide” openly until long after the evidence merited it. Only after 800,000 Rwandans had been slaughtered in 100 days and the bloodbath had run its course did officials finally start to call it genocide.
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No American president has ever applied the word “genocide” to a current event or situation. The way is now paved for President Obama to become the first. On January 27 the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe passed (117 votes to 1) a resolution to hold ISIS responsible for genocide against Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities. The European Parliament adopted the resolution on February 4. The U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee declared genocide on March 2. The British Parliament appears to be leaning toward a similar declaration. All President Obama has to do is jump on the bandwagon.
But he hasn’t.Of course, we know why. For more than seven years, President Obama’s foreign policy has been a toxic blend of strong language and weak action. (Remember the “red line” in Syria? Neither does Assad.) The foreign policy of the Obama administration tends toward talking a big game and then conveniently forgetting to show up. That would be a lot harder to pull off if he called the genocide of Christians by ISIS what it is. So naturally he’s avoiding it, like the Clinton administration before him.
Congress has spoken. Obviously, President Obama feels that he is under no obligation to consider Congress’s opinion on pretty much anything, but this time he should think long and hard and not ignore it. If his secretary of state, John Kerry, agrees to designate ISIS’s atrocities genocide, that could force the administration to act with the European Union to take military action against ISIS soon. President Obama may want to avoid that policy, but his failure to confront the genocide and name it would be the nail in the coffin of his foreign-policy legacy. If the 20th century taught us anything, it’s that ignoring genocide doesn’t make it go away. If we won’t call it what it is, our children will do it for us, and we’ll have to answer the difficult question of why we wouldn’t do it ourselves.
— Jane Clark Scharl is a freelance culture and politics writer who lives in Phoenix.