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Holocaust Museum Faces Criticism After Pulling Syria Study


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The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has found itself in the middle of a fraught debate over the Obama administration’s legacy in Syria after withdrawing a study of the issue. Credit Drew Angerer for The New York Times

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is finding itself in an unfamiliar position: as a lightning rod for the fierce debate over the Obama administration’s role in the Syrian civil war.

The museum is facing withering criticism after pulling a study that it commissioned on Syria and published online Aug. 29. The report examined whether alternate strategies could have lessened the slaughter of war, now in its sixth year.

Museum leaders and the study’s authors had sought lessons on how a future president could mitigate similar crises. Though the authors found much to dislike in President Obama’s decisions on Syria, they also concluded that no single American action would have guaranteed a significant reduction in the violence there.

Critics of the study have portrayed that conclusion as an attempt to let Mr. Obama off the hook for the killings in Syria — a weighty charge for the Holocaust museum to confront, given that it is a moral force on issues of war, mass killings and government intervention. The museum ultimately pulled down the study after receiving complaints from allies.

Since then, the museum has been caught in a political debate and faced questions about academic freedom and the board’s ties to the Obama administration.

Continue reading the main story

The Times reached out to all 63 museum board members who are presidential appointees and members of Congress, as well as other museum officials. Interviews show that the museum was caught off guard by the impact and furor that its own report would have, and at least some board members were unaware that the museum was wading into a debate about atrocities in Syria.

Leon Wieseltier, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the former literary editor of The New Republic, is among the critics of both the study’s findings and its publication. He said the museum did the right thing by pulling it — a move that was first reported by Tablet magazine.

“The Holocaust museum, if it stands for anything, stands for the idea that we should always act against genocide and that there’s something forever wrong and unsatisfying about the idea that we can do nothing to alleviate radical evil,” Mr. Wieseltier said in an interview. “This paper basically whitewashes the Obama administration’s inaction on Syria and says that there’s nothing we can do.”

That characterization, echoed by other critics, incorrectly describes the report, according to several academics and Syria-watchers. They also said the study’s removal sets a troubling precedent for suppressing independent research.

“It’s absolutely shocking that they would pull a report simply because their supporters didn’t like the conclusions, which is the only way to interpret what they did,” said Marc Lynch, an international affairs professor at George Washington University and one of several experts interviewed by the study’s authors.

The museum, which opened in Washington in 1993 and operates with a mix of federal funding and private donations, has not explained its decision beyond a brief statement on its website citing “concerns” from “a number of people with whom we have worked closely on Syria.”

The study was commissioned a year ago by a think tank within the museum, the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide. The think tank is overseen by the museum’s Committee on Conscience and undertakes research to help guide policy makers “to prevent — or, if necessary, halt — genocide and related crimes against humanity.”

The center’s director, Cameron Hudson, a National Security Council official under Mr. Bush who also worked on Sudan policy under Mr. Obama, said in a statement that the center had “clearly missed the mark” in seeking to “foster a constructive dialogue about how future genocide and mass atrocities can be prevented.”

Several members of the Committee on Conscience said they did not know about the Syria study until it was published online. Another member, Elliott Abrams, a leading conservative foreign policy expert and former museum board member, said he learned about it the day before it was posted.

Mr. Abrams said he called Sara J. Bloomfield, the museum’s director, to criticize its framing and warn her about a potential backlash.

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Sara J. Bloomfield, the director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Credit Benjamin Myers/Reuters

“I don’t think I was the first person,” said Mr. Abrams, who served under President Ronald Reagan and President George W. Bush. Mr. Abrams added that he did not ask the museum to pull the study and was unaware of who did.

Ms. Bloomfield declined multiple requests for an interview over the last week.

Of the 63 trustees whom the Times contacted, many did not respond. Those who did either declined to comment or said that they had not heard of the study until its publication. Mr. Wieseltier said he wrote to a museum official he was friends with to register his outrage but did not ask for it to be withdrawn.

Mr. Hudson said no trustees had been involved in the study or its withdrawal. He did not respond to further inquiries. None of the study’s authors would comment.

Of the eight sitting federal lawmakers who are trustees, two responded. Senator Al Franken, Democrat of Minnesota, had no comment on the study, a spokesman said. Senator Orrin Hatch, Republican of Utah, said he supported the decision to remove it.

“Of all the monuments and symbols in our nation’s capital, none has a more important message than the Holocaust museum,” Mr. Hatch said in a statement. “It would be a tragedy for that message to be even slightly diminished by partisan politics.”

Menachem Z. Rosensaft, who was appointed as a museum trustee by President Clinton and Mr. Obama, said that he learned of the report after it was published, and understood the decision to pull it. Mr. Rosensaft, an adjunct law professor at Cornell University and Columbia University, said, “It leaves the option of discussing the report internally, deciding whether or not to keep it pulled, deciding whether to repost it, or deciding to post or publish it but in a broader context together with other opinions.”

Though publicly unavailable, the study is circulating among academics as a sort of email attachment samizdat. On social media, many researchers have hailed the study’s rigor. As more people read the report, anger over its removal has grown.

Speculation flew among conservatives on social media that Ben Rhodes, Mr. Obama’s deputy national security adviser and an architect of Mr. Obama’s Syria policy, was involved in the study, since he was named to the museum’s board before leaving the White House. Mr. Rhodes denied this and said in an email that he only learned of the study earlier this month.

Mr. Abrams, the Republican foreign policy expert, said that it was unfair to characterize the study as being designed by former administration officials to exonerate Mr. Obama.

“I was on the board for — I think it was nine years,” Mr. Abrams said. “I did not see one single case in which there was political influence on a staff product.”

The Obama administration’s role in the civil war, in which hundreds of thousands have died and millions have been displaced, has been a divisive topic in weighing Mr. Obama’s legacy.

The 193-page study is ambitious and highly technical. The authors applied five research models to project the outcomes of five alternate strategies that Mr. Obama could have pursued, effectively producing 25 distinct scenarios, each with its own lessons and nuances.

Of the 25, five found solid evidence that the examined strategy, had Mr. Obama pursued it, would have worked better. Six found that the alternate strategy would have been worse. Some were contradictory.

In addition, the authors, in evaluating the strategy Mr. Obama did pursue, found his administration did too much in some moments, worsening the violence, and too little in others. They declined to endorse Mr. Obama’s approach or the more aggressive policies commonly championed by his critics.

Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa divisions, said in an email that she was “disappointed” that the museum withdrew the research.

The study “revealed through rigorous inquiry just how difficult it is to be certain that military intervention will do more good than harm in dynamics as complex as Syria’s,” Ms. Whitson said, “especially when you factor in the disastrous U.S. record for military intervention in the region.”

Continue reading the main story

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is finding itself in an unfamiliar position: as a lightning rod for the fierce debate over the Obama administration’s role in the Syrian civil war.

The museum is facing withering criticism after pulling a study that it commissioned on Syria and published online Aug. 29. The report examined whether alternate strategies could have lessened the slaughter of war, now in its sixth year.

Museum leaders and the study’s authors had sought lessons on how a future president could mitigate similar crises. Though the authors found much to dislike in President Obama’s decisions on Syria, they also concluded that no single American action would have guaranteed a significant reduction in the violence there.

Critics of the study have portrayed that conclusion as an attempt to let Mr. Obama off the hook for the killings in Syria — a weighty charge for the Holocaust museum to confront, given that it is a moral force on issues of war, mass killings and government intervention. The museum ultimately pulled down the study after receiving complaints from allies.

Since then, the museum has been caught in a political debate and faced questions about academic freedom and the board’s ties to the Obama administration.

The Times reached out to all 63 museum board members who are presidential appointees and members of Congress, as well as other museum officials. Interviews show that the museum was caught off guard by the impact and furor that its own report would have, and at least some board members were unaware that the museum was wading into a debate about atrocities in Syria.

Leon Wieseltier, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the former literary editor of The New Republic, is among the critics of both the study’s findings and its publication. He said the museum did the right thing by pulling it — a move that was first reported by Tablet magazine.

“The Holocaust museum, if it stands for anything, stands for the idea that we should always act against genocide and that there’s something forever wrong and unsatisfying about the idea that we can do nothing to alleviate radical evil,” Mr. Wieseltier said in an interview. “This paper basically whitewashes the Obama administration’s inaction on Syria and says that there’s nothing we can do.”

That characterization, echoed by other critics, incorrectly describes the report, according to several academics and Syria-watchers. They also said the study’s removal sets a troubling precedent for suppressing independent research.

“It’s absolutely shocking that they would pull a report simply because their supporters didn’t like the conclusions, which is the only way to interpret what they did,” said Marc Lynch, an international affairs professor at George Washington University and one of several experts interviewed by the study’s authors.

The museum, which opened in Washington in 1993 and operates with a mix of federal funding and private donations, has not explained its decision beyond a brief statement on its website citing “concerns” from “a number of people with whom we have worked closely on Syria.”

The study was commissioned a year ago by a think tank within the museum, the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide. The think tank is overseen by the museum’s Committee on Conscience and undertakes research to help guide policy makers “to prevent — or, if necessary, halt — genocide and related crimes against humanity.”

The center’s director, Cameron Hudson, a National Security Council official under Mr. Bush who also worked on Sudan policy under Mr. Obama, said in a statement that the center had “clearly missed the mark” in seeking to “foster a constructive dialogue about how future genocide and mass atrocities can be prevented.”

Several members of the Committee on Conscience said they did not know about the Syria study until it was published online. Another member, Elliott Abrams, a leading conservative foreign policy expert and former museum board member, said he learned about it the day before it was posted.

Mr. Abrams said he called Sara J. Bloomfield, the museum’s director, to criticize its framing and warn her about a potential backlash.

“I don’t think I was the first person,” said Mr. Abrams, who served under President Ronald Reagan and President George W. Bush. Mr. Abrams added that he did not ask the museum to pull the study and was unaware of who did.

Ms. Bloomfield declined multiple requests for an interview over the last week.

Of the 63 trustees whom the Times contacted, many did not respond. Those who did either declined to comment or said that they had not heard of the study until its publication. Mr. Wieseltier said he wrote to a museum official he was friends with to register his outrage but did not ask for it to be withdrawn.

Mr. Hudson said no trustees had been involved in the study or its withdrawal. He did not respond to further inquiries. None of the study’s authors would comment.

Of the eight sitting federal lawmakers who are trustees, two responded. Senator Al Franken, Democrat of Minnesota, had no comment on the study, a spokesman said. Senator Orrin Hatch, Republican of Utah, said he supported the decision to remove it.

“Of all the monuments and symbols in our nation’s capital, none has a more important message than the Holocaust museum,” Mr. Hatch said in a statement. “It would be a tragedy for that message to be even slightly diminished by partisan politics.”

Menachem Z. Rosensaft, who was appointed as a museum trustee by President Clinton and Mr. Obama, said that he learned of the report after it was published, and understood the decision to pull it. Mr. Rosensaft, an adjunct law professor at Cornell University and Columbia University, said, “It leaves the option of discussing the report internally, deciding whether or not to keep it pulled, deciding whether to repost it, or deciding to post or publish it but in a broader context together with other opinions.”

Though publicly unavailable, the study is circulating among academics as a sort of email attachment samizdat. On social media, many researchers have hailed the study’s rigor. As more people read the report, anger over its removal has grown.

Speculation flew among conservatives on social media that Ben Rhodes, Mr. Obama’s deputy national security adviser and an architect of Mr. Obama’s Syria policy, was involved in the study, since he was named to the museum’s board before leaving the White House. Mr. Rhodes denied this and said in an email that he only learned of the study earlier this month.

Mr. Abrams, the Republican foreign policy expert, said that it was unfair to characterize the study as being designed by former administration officials to exonerate Mr. Obama.

“I was on the board for — I think it was nine years,” Mr. Abrams said. “I did not see one single case in which there was political influence on a staff product.”

The Obama administration’s role in the civil war, in which hundreds of thousands have died and millions have been displaced, has been a divisive topic in weighing Mr. Obama’s legacy.

The 193-page study is ambitious and highly technical. The authors applied five research models to project the outcomes of five alternate strategies that Mr. Obama could have pursued, effectively producing 25 distinct scenarios, each with its own lessons and nuances.

Of the 25, five found solid evidence that the examined strategy, had Mr. Obama pursued it, would have worked better. Six found that the alternate strategy would have been worse. Some were contradictory.

In addition, the authors, in evaluating the strategy Mr. Obama did pursue, found his administration did too much in some moments, worsening the violence, and too little in others. They declined to endorse Mr. Obama’s approach or the more aggressive policies commonly championed by his critics.

Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa divisions, said in an email that she was “disappointed” that the museum withdrew the research.

The study “revealed through rigorous inquiry just how difficult it is to be certain that military intervention will do more good than harm in dynamics as complex as Syria’s,” Ms. Whitson said, “especially when you factor in the disastrous U.S. record for military intervention in the region.”

Nytimes

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