By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
In a recent column Frank Bruni writes “Donald Trump has established a pattern of offending — or at the very least ignoring — Jews. The most recent example was just last week, when he declined to pay his respects at a Holocaust memorial in Warsaw that other American presidents routinely visited.” The story that Trump didn’t visit the Warsaw Ghetto memorial made rounds in western media. Newsweek wrote “first president in decades to skip Jewish Warsaw Ghetto monument,” AOL said he “skipped” it, The Washington Post headline says “Trump was first US President to visit Warsaw without visiting Warsaw Ghetto since 1989,” and many others covered his decision as well. Ivanka Trump paid her respects in his stead. Trump was “breaking with tradition,” we are told.
It may be a tradition for US presidents to visit the Warsaw Ghetto memorial. Obama went in 2011.Clinton was there in 1994. George W. Bush visited Auschwitz in 2003. Past presidents went to Poland and visited Holocaust related sites, but all three of them failed when it came to preventing genocide in their time. The US was a “bystander to genocide” in 1994 as the Rwandan genocide unfolded and 800,000 people were murdered many of them hacked to death. In May 1994 as the genocide was gaining ground and 100,000 had been murdered by Hutu extremists, an interagency group that was supposed to discuss US responded noted that if an international investigation used the term “genocide” it would be problematic. “Be Careful. Legal at State was worried about this yesterday—Genocide finding could commit [the U.S. government] to actually ‘do something.'” Susan Rice, then working at the National Security Council was quoted as saying “If we use the word ‘genocide’ and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November [congressional] election?” So nothing was done when hundreds of thousands could have been saved. So Clinton visited Warsaw, paid respected to the Holocaust memory but then did little to prevent genocide in our time.
Between 2003 and 2008 there was a genocide in Darfur. The International Criminal Court charged Sudan president Omar al-Bashir with crimes against humanity. Hundreds of thousands were killed by George W. Bush’s administration did little to stop the killing. In 2004 the US Congress unanimously passed a resolution designating the killings a genocide. It called for the US to “seriously consider multilateral or even unilateral intervention to stop genocide in Darfur.”
In Iraq in August 2014 ISIS overran parts of Sinjar and began rounding up members of the Yazidi minority. It bragged on twitter about selling women and killing “kuffar” or infidels. Yet as the world watched, thousands of women and girls were sold into slavery and men lined up and massacred and dumped into mass graves. Since that time a UN panel has described the attempt erase Yazidi culture and people by ISIS a “genocide.” The US House of Representatives and UK Parliament has called it a genocide. There is a huge amount of testimony online from survivors of ISIS rape and crimes, detailing how they singed contracts of sale of women and advertised them online for sale. But where was US President Barack Obama? To his credit he ordered the US to intervene in Iraq in 2014, but by and large the US, with all the resources at its disposal, has concentrated only on fighting ISIS, not saving victims, not treating survivors, or giving aid to trauma victims and IDP camps. Unlike the case in Rwanda and Darfur, I visited the site of the mass graves of Yazidi victims of ISIS and saw no evidence of US aid or help for the victims or for documenting the crimes against humanity.
In short, three US presidents who did visit Holocaust memorials in Poland were given the chance to stop or do something about modern genocide and each failed in their own way. Less was done to document the crimes against humanity in Rwanda, Darfur or Iraq by the US than was done to document the Holocaust in 1945 at Nuremberg. Even in the age of internet where groups like ISIS advertised their genocide online, little was done to catalogue their crimes and charge those responsible. Instead ISIS members are allowed often to return to Europe with little or no repercussions. Except for the 36 men executed for the role in the Camp Speicher massacre of Iraqi cadets, very few cases have been prosecuted and there have been no examples of war crimes cases or genocide cases. When I was in Mosul in March 2017 I spoke to locals who said many ISIS members who are caught are put on trial but receive light sentences. One Kurdish woman told me about the case of an ISIS member who admitted raping ten women and killing men, and received no sentence.
Trump may not have gone to the Warsaw Ghetto memorial, which Bruni claims “other American presidents routinely visited,” but if they routinely visited it, they seem to have learned nothing. If the Warsaw Ghetto existed today would the US intervene? Would it try to rescue the survivors? We have been tested time and again, given ample evidence of genocide, and done nothing. Whether it was Cambodia, or Srebrenica or many, the US and other western countries have had the best evidence available of genocide and routinely done nothing to prevent it. That is the real routine. Visit the Holocaust memorial, talk about its lessons, and then do nothing. It’s not even a question of intervening and attacking other countries, the US and western powers don’t even invest in aiding victims, they don’t invest in bringing war criminals to justice. They do almost everything they can to ignore using words like “genocide.” Only because there is international consensus on the Holocaust do they even call it a genocide, when it comes to the Armenians they are often to afraid to even discuss what happened in 1915. So when it comes to history and the present, the routine is to run away from responsibility to stop genocide.
The US has the most advanced technology and massive resources in the world to document and prevent genocide. Yet in Rwanda they failed. In Darfur they failed. In Sinjar they failed. When I look in the faces of the hundreds of women who have been rescued from ISIS sex slavery and think that so much more could have been done in 2014 so they didn’t have to endure being sold seven times, being gang raped, and think of the most powerful country in the world hiding from responsibility while patting the president on the back for going to the Warsaw Ghetto, it’s sickening. The US can’t go back in time to stop the Holocaust, but there are thousands of people still held by ISIS who need saving. Even today we are not doing enough, not learning the lessons. Trump skipped the Warsaw Ghetto memorial, but maybe it is best that he did because it symbolizes, honestly, what the world has done since 1945. People say “never again,” but the only routine since 1945 has been to ignore genocide, not stop it.