President Obama toured the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Monday and called it a reminder that nations too often do not do enough to prevent atrocities, even as his host challenged him to do more about the killing of civilians in Syria and the threat posed by Iran.
“It’s a bitter truth,” Mr. Obama said after touring the museum with Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel. “Too often the world has failed to prevent the killing of innocents on a massive scale, and we are haunted by the atrocities that we did not stop and the lives we did not save.”
In introducing the president to a crowd at the museum, Mr. Wiesel took issue with the administration’s handling of Syrian President Bashar Assad and Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He wondered aloud why world leaders have not “learned anything” from the Holocaust.
“How is it that Assad is still in power?” Mr. Wiesel asked. “How is it that the Holocaust’s No. 1 denier, Ahmadinejad, is still a president? He who threatens to use nuclear weapons — to use nuclear weapons — to destroy the Jewish state. We must know that when evil has power, it is almost too late.”
Then the Nobel laureate addressed Mr. Obama directly.
“Mr. President, we are here in this place of memory,” he said. “Israel cannot not remember. And because it remembers, it must be strong, just to defend its own survival and its own destiny.”
In his address, Mr. Obama talked about a new executive order issued Monday that will allow U.S. officials to impose sanctions on foreign governments that use modern technology such as the Internet to commit human rights abuses. The action is aimed primarily at Syria and Iran, whose regimes have blocked access to the Internet.
The new order also creates a new interagency Atrocities Prevention Board, which held its first meeting Monday.
Mr. Obama told the crowd that preventing genocide is “an achievable goal,” including stopping Iran from making nuclear weapons. He repeated his promise, “I will always be there for Israel.
“When attempts are made to delegitimize the state of Israel, we oppose them,” Mr. Obama said. “When faced with a regime that threatens global security and denies the Holocaust and threatens to destroy Israel, the United States will do everything in our power to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.”
Mr. Obama said he had issued a presidential directive last year asserting for the first time that preventing genocide is a “core national security interest and a core moral responsibility” of the U.S.
“That does not mean that we intervene militarily every time there’s an injustice in the world,” Mr. Obama said. “We cannot and should not. It does mean we possess many tools, diplomatic and political and economic and financial and intelligence and law enforcement, and our moral suasion. And using these tools over the past three years, I believe, I know that we have saved countless lives.”
The president has been mixing diplomacy and economic sanctions in an effort to compel Iran’s leaders to stop their suspected nuclear weapons program. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and others have been critical of Mr. Obama, saying stronger and more urgent action against Iran is needed.
The president addressed not only the Holocaust, in which as many as 6 million Jews and others were killed, but spoke of more recent mass slaughters in Darfur, Rwanda, Libya, the Ivory Coast, Bosnia and Cambodia.
“National sovereignty is never a license to slaughter your people,” he said.
The president placed a candle at a section of the museum devoted to Buchenwald, the concentration camp that Mr. Obama’s great-uncle helped liberate at the end of World War II while serving in the U.S. Army.