The Holocaust Museum Shouldn’t Have Cancelled Its Syria Study (Updated)

Photo: Erbin News/NurPhoto/Corbis via Getty Images

(Update: Daily Intel acquired a copy of the study, which you can download here. The below article provides context about the reason it was pulled offline in the first place.)

If there’s one thing that should be clear to any American who is alive in the year 2017, it’s that there are profound limits to the United States’ ability to intervene, militarily or covertly, in other countries in a manner that is humane and productive. In fact, there’s a long, sorry track record of such interventions making bad situations much, much worse.

The most salient example, of course, is the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, which led to something like half a million deaths. And that figure probably understates the carnage: in the chaos that war unleashed so many people have died — from airstrikes, from suicide bombings, from execution at the hands of the out-of-control militias that ethnically cleansed parts of the country — that no one has anything close to an accurate body count. That war also led directly to ISIS’s rise, of course, which in turn caused another humanitarian nightmare and cost countless thousands of lives.

One would think, given this history, that most Americans would be receptive to arguments like It might feel good to run around the world, trying to prevent bad things from happening, but we’re not very good at it and should exhibit extreme caution before doing so. Alas, a sorry turn of events centering on the United States Holocaust Museum in DC, suggests that it’s still very difficult to make this argument in certain venues.

Because the Museum isn’t just interested in the Holocaust, but in the question of why atrocities occur and how to prevent them more broadly, it commissioned a study on the hotly controversial question of whether the Obama administration could have done more to prevent the murder of Syrian civilians at the hands of Bashar al-Assad. At latest count, the regime has killed something like 60,000 citizens, hundreds of whom may have died in a series of massacres involving chemical weapons — attacks which crossed a “red line” Obama drew in 2012. But President Obama did not respond to militarily to the atrocity, nor did he aggressively arm opposition fighters hoping to topple Assad — a moment that looms large in many negative assessments of his presidency. If ever there was a point of crystal clear moral calculus requiring U.S. action, critics of Obama’s decision have argued, it’s when a dictator is remorselessly murdering civilians with weapons of mass destruction. Sure, there are risks in acting — but isn’t doing something, with its uncertainty, better than the awful passivity of doing nothing under such dire circumstances?

This is not an easy question to answer — that’s why it has been raging for years. The hawkishly inclined, including center-left figures like John Kerry and Anne Marie Slaughter, have long claimed airstrikes against Assad and/or the establishment of no-fly zones and/or the arming of moderate rebels could have saved lives. Doves point out, among other objections, that the situation on the ground is so complicated that it’s often hard to discern the blurry boundaries between “moderate” rebel groups and those affiliated with al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other groups the US definitely doesn’t want to fund.

As was revealed in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, Obama went through an agonizing process of trying to understand these competing arguments as he worked toward developing a policy that abided by the lessons of the Iraq war. Many in his administration, including Kerry, aggressively lobbied him to take a harder line on Assad, but Obama refused to relent — in part because of how poorly he thought the recent Libya intervention and its aftermath had gone. “John, remember Vietnam?” Obama said to Kerry at one point, according to Goldberg. “Remember how that started?” In the end, while the US did arm some moderate rebel groups (an unsuccessful program Trump ended in July), it took a much less active role than many members of the DC foreign-policy establishment, which from center-left to center-right is generally inclined toward interventionism, would have preferred.

All of which brings us to the Holocaust Museum study. It was commissioned explicitly as an attempt to step back and put this complicated, heated debate on a somewhat more rigorous footing. Tablet sums up its findings thusly:

According to a publicity email sent by the Museum, the study was set to be launched at an event at the US Institute for Peace in Washington, D.C., on September 11 and was overseen by a former US intelligence and national security official under Obama, Cameron Hudson, now director of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide. The paper argued that “a variety of factors, which were more or less fixed, made it very difficult from the beginning for the US government to take effective action to prevent atrocities in Syria, even compared with other challenging policy contexts.” Using computational modeling and game theory methods, as well as interviews with experts and policymakers, the report asserted that greater support for the anti-Assad rebels and US strikes on the Assad regime after the August 2013 Ghouta chemical weapons attack would not have reduced atrocities in the country, and might conceivably have contributed to them.

So, in short, the study went through all the evidence Obama weighed and reached a similar conclusion: Yes, a horrific tragedy has unfolded in Syria, but the U.S. had less power than many assumed to affect the outcome there. At the very least, this would appear to be a claim worth debating. At some point, a U.S. president will face a similar decision, after all, and such decisions need to be made in a careful way.

Instead, the claim is being suppressed altogether — the Museum is pulling is cancelling its planned released. That’s because when word of what the study found leaked, it caused a significant amount of outrage — outrage Tablet captures in the article, which rather heavily promotes the perspective of the study’s critics. The article’s author, Armin Rosen, quotes Leon Wieseltier as saying “Shame on the Holocaust Museum” for “releasing an allegedly scientific study that justifies bystanderism.” In typically colorful fashion, the former literary editor of the New Republic goes on to say: “If I had the time I would gin up a parody version of this that will give us the computational-modeling algorithmic counterfactual analysis of John J McCloy’s decision not to bomb the Auschwitz ovens in 1944. I’m sure we could concoct the fucking algorithms for that, too.” Abraham Foxman, former head of the Anti-Defamation League, doesn’t like the study either. After expressing affection for the Holocaust museum as an institution, he told Rosen, “I just don’t think it’s appropriate for the Museum to issue this kind of judgement—that’s beyond its mandate. This should be a place where one meets to discuss, to debate, to question, to challenge: Could more have been done? Where? How? Not to issue judgment, especially not in this politicized atmosphere.” And according to Rosen, “Some Jewish communal leaders suggested both privately to Tablet, and in conversations with board members and staff at the Holocaust Museum, that the Museum’s moral authority had been hijacked for a partisan re-writing of recent history.” (A Google search reveals the page where the study was listed, and where a PDF presumably would have eventually been posted, but if you go to the page itself now you get an error.) (Note: In this paragraph, I initially referred to Foxman as the head of the ADL rather than its former head.)

There are, of course, legitimate critiques one could level at a study like this one. Maybe it shouldn’t have been headed by Cameron Hudson, the former Obama staffer, given that he could view that his own legacy is at stake here. Or maybe there were methodological errors in that game-theory analysis. Or it could be the study authors didn’t interview a wide enough range of voices.

But the critics aren’t saying any of that (they — we — don’t even have the full study to evaluate, anyway). Rather, they’re saying it’s fundamentally wrong for an institution like the Holocaust Museum to suggest that American intervention in Syria likely wouldn’t have helped, and probably could have hurt. It’s “bystanderism,” as Wieseltier put it, and bystanderism is a morally bankrupt position to take.

This is an extremely odd view. The question of whether and to what extent US efforts can stave off future atrocities is an absolutely vital one, and one which deserves to be analyzed from a stance of real rigor and humility. And once one accepts the question needs to be asked, one has to accept the answer may be “No, sometimes U.S. intervention makes things worse.” If you care about atrocities around the world, you should care about US complicity in fueling those atrocities through an ill-advised intervention — that is, exactly what has happened in Iraq and numerous other countries.

Wieseltier should know this as well as anyone: He was an enthusiastic proponent of the Iraq war. (Wieseltier did later say that had he known Saddam Hussein didn’t have weapons of mass destruction, he wouldn’t have supported the invasion — but in 2013 he offered a rather sanguine take on what had happened to Iraq since then). Back in 2002, during the runup to that conflict, Wieseltier’s co-enthusiasts would consistently raise Hussein’s slaughter of Iraqi civilians, particularly his treatment of the country’s Shiite majority and his gassing of Kurds, as a rationale for ousting him — how could we just stand by and let him continue to be such a horrifically oppressive dictator?

Well, we didn’t. And since then, Iraq has been much, much worse off and many hundreds of thousands of people are dead who would otherwise likely be alive. Naturally, Syria is a different case — for one thing, hardly anyone is calling for full-blown invasion. But the key point here isn’t about whether and to what extent the two conflicts are the same, but rather about the boundaries of acceptable discourse in mainstream DC circles. Experts need to at least be allowed to argue — and this study, were it to be released as planned, would just be an argument, which people would be free to discount or rebut or debate — that US intervention can make bad and complicated situations worse. If such arguments are beyond the pale, then we’ve learned nothing from our many blunders and the many lives that have been lost as a result.

It’s unfortunate the Holocaust Museum has given in to this pressure. The study should be debated out in the open, not shouted down by the Leon Wieseltiers of the world.

Why Did The Holocaust Museum Cancel Its Syria Study?