Was Barack Obama suddenly so "shocked, shocked" to find out that modern day atrocities are going on around the world that he decided to do more about it?
That's how his critics interpreted this morning's speech at the Holocaust Memorial and Museum in observance of Yom HaShoah. The president announced an executive order authorizing new sanctions against Iran and Syria, as well as the creation of a first-ever Atrocities Prevention Board comprised of senior government officials, convening for the first time today. "Going forward, we'll strengthen our tools across the board and create new ones," said the president. That includes another first-ever: A National Intelligence Estimate on the risk of mass atrocities and genocide. The Treasury Department will block more money from abusive regimes and the military will take more steps to incorporate atrocity prevention into its planning while the State Department will "increase its ability to surge our diplomats and experts in a crisis," whatever that means.
Critics say this is just more bloated bureaucracy masquerading as action. "In the absence of the will of the president to act, more government infrastructure won’t help," writes Commentary's Jonathan Tobin. "And given that the record of this administration has shown it to consider such issues to be among their lowest priorities, it’s hard to see how this speech will change things."
The subtext of the speech does suggest that more could have ben done in the past, and that this new prevention committee will somehow serve to "uncover" persecution that is already in plain sight. The Republican Jewish Coalition asks what took so long.
"For President Obama to come forward today with what he calls a comprehensive strategy and new tools to prevent and respond to atrocities raises the question of why such a strategy was not brought forward much earlier in his term rather than now, nearly four years after he took office," said the RJC's Matt Brooks in a statement. He notes that "in une, 2009, opposition forces in Iran were brutally repressed, the election was stolen and civilians were murdered in the streets of Tehran and all the while the Obama administration did nothing."
Of course this brings to mind the Republican candidates' rap on Obama during their campaign as "appeasing" Iran and Syria and others — which prompted Obama's 'ask Bin Laden' rejoinder — while the Republicans were short in details on what they would have done differently.
The National Jewish Democratic Council naturally praised the address. "For those of us in the room, hearing the President of the United States commemorate the memory of those who were lost — and turn the lessons of the Holocaust into a forward-thinking policy — was both gratifying and humbling," said President and CEO David A. Harris. "The president’s creation of the Atrocities Prevention Board and the related actions today — including sanctions pointed at Syria and Iran — are clear indications that the American Jewish community has an ally in President Obama when it comes to our work to ensure that ‘never again’ truly means never again."