Syrian refugee children look out from their tent during a visit by United Nations to their makeshift settlement in Saadnayel in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, August 17, 2015.
Syrian refugee children look out from their tent during a visit by United Nations to their makeshift settlement in Saadnayel in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, August 17, 2015.
Mohamed Azakir / Reuters

The Islamic State (ISIS), the European Parliament declared on February 4, “is committing genocide.” In its statement, the parliament noted ISIS’ harsh treatment of Christians, Yazidis, and other religious and ethnic minorities, and it urged the UN Security Council to investigate the atrocities. Pope Francis, the International Association of Genocide Scholars, over 200 members of Congress, and several presidential candidates, including Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz, have likewise described ISIS’ violence against minorities as genocidal.

The Obama administration, however, has gone no further than noting, as Secretary of State John Kerry did on February 24, “revulsion” about the treatment of Christians and other minorities and asking “for further evaluation.” The administration’s reluctance to use the genocide label has sparked criticism from those who believe that the degree of ISIS’ atrocities is clear. U.S. Representative Jeff Fortenberry (R.-Neb.) has argued that “When you are being persecuted simply because of what you believe, when you are systematically targeted for extrication, there’s no reason to continue to discuss this. That is genocide.” The Knights of Columbus Catholic organization and In Defense of Christians, a nonprofit human rights group, have also launched a national media campaign with ads that say “the State Department still hasn’t labeled this extermination what it is. It’s time for action.”

This isn’t the first time the United States has faced criticism for its response to genocide—defined as the systematic destruction of ethnic, racial, national, or religious groups—from pundits, journalists, historians, political scientists, and advocacy organizations. In fact, over the decades, the United States has developed quite a reputation for failing to promptly recognize and do something about such killings, from the Armenian Genocide of 1915 to the Holocaust to the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. But in two cases—the Holocaust and Bosnia—the United States did turn initial equivocation into decisive action.

In both cases, U.S. policy underwent substantial change, from limited responses to focused policies that saved lives. Although the policy changes came too late for millions of victims, their origins reveal much about how the United States is likely to respond to ongoing mass atrocities in the Middle East.

A Kurdish Syrian refugee waits for transport during a sand storm on the Turkish-Syrian border near the southeastern town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province, September 24, 2014.
A Kurdish Syrian refugee waits for transport during a sand storm on the Turkish-Syrian border near the southeastern town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province, September 24, 2014.
Murad Sezer / Reuters


In the case of the Holocaust, the U.S. response was limited until 1944. Before then, the Roosevelt administration only sporadically (and often ineffectively) tried to help the victims of Hitler’s genocide. For example, the United States spearheaded the failed Evian Conference—an international conference on refugee issues—after which only the Dominican Republic agreed to accept refugees. Then, amid fears of enemy infiltration of refugee groups, the United States tightened its own immigration restrictions for visa applicants from Europe. President Franklin D. Roosevelt even refrained from mentioning Jewish victims in public, so as to avoid inflaming Nazi propaganda arguing that the United States was fighting the war as a result of Jewish influence.

In January of 1944, however, everything changed when the administration created the War Refugee Board, which was charged with rescuing victims of enemy oppression, primarily European Jews. In the words of the board’s first executive director, John Pehle, the War Refugee Board “dramatically changed the policy of the [United States] overnight.” The Board was tasked with evacuating refugees from enemy territory, employing psychological operations to convince German forces and satellite countries to end their complicity in Nazi extermination programs, and engaging in other often clandestine programs aimed at keeping prisoners alive until they could be liberated. In the end, the board’s rescue initiatives saved approximately 200,000 lives.

The U.S. response to atrocities in Bosnia during the breakup of Yugoslavia was likewise muted until late in the summer of 1995, when President Bill Clinton launched a military intervention called Operation Deliberate Force. Prior to Deliberate Force, the United States had focused primarily on the delivery of humanitarian aid, not on stopping the violence or mass killings. For instance, the United States engaged in humanitarian air drops and pinprick air strikes, but it stopped short of sustained action capable of ending the conflict. With the launch of Operation Deliberate Force, however, Clinton committed the United States to significant military action that could bring an end to the fighting and bring all parties to the negotiating table. In both cases, the swings in policy were striking. And in both cases, similar factors were behind the changes.

In the months leading up to Roosevelt’s executive order establishing the War Refugee Board, Congress had started pushing for more action on refugee issues. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long, a key official shaping U.S. refugee policy, had been exposed for lying about the number of refugees admitted to the United States during congressional hearings (he had quietly tightened restrictions on entrants), and a Jewish political action committee had made significant strides in convincing Congress to pass legislation to improve refugee policy. In 1943, both the Senate and the House introduced resolutions, collectively known as the Gillette-Rogers resolutions, calling for a separate U.S. government commission to facilitate the rescue of refugees. On December 20, Gillette-Rogers passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by unanimous vote. A debate on the floor was scheduled for January 24.

It was just before the scheduled debate that the defections in Roosevelt’s inner circle began. The dissent had, in fact, been several months in the making. Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr., and his team had spent half a year investigating and documenting State Department obstruction of refugee initiatives. Their findings indicated that State Department officials were using their power to prevent the rescue of Jewish refugees and to block rescue proposals favored by Roosevelt. In defending their obstruction, State Department officials argued that enemy nations could use Jewish immigrants as spies and might benefit financially from the rescue initiatives. They also claimed that rescue proposals were fruitless because countries would not be willing to accept Jewish immigrants. Treasury, however, deemed all of these justifications immaterial or unsubstantiated. The Treasury team suspected that the State Department simply did not want the United States to assist refugees and went so far to suggest that members of the State Department were war criminals. On January 16, Morgenthau, who was in fact Roosevelt’s closest friend in his cabinet, met with Roosevelt to present the findings and to urge him to create Treasury’s proposed War Refugee Board.

Refugees and migrants arrive aboard the passenger ferry Blue Star Patmos from the island of Lesbos at the port of Piraeus, near Athens, Greece, October 29, 2015.
Refugees and migrants arrive aboard the passenger ferry Blue Star Patmos from the island of Lesbos at the port of Piraeus, near Athens, Greece, October 29, 2015.
Alkis Konstantinidis / Reuters

Meeting notes reveal Treasury’s belief that mounting congressional pressure made the timing of the request propitious. They understood that, if the president took executive action to create the War Refugee Board, he would be able to avoid the perception that Congress was forcing his hand on the refugee issue. Further, they knew that their revelations about the State Department had all the makings of a scandal for the Roosevelt administration. Congress already had the State Department in its sights for its handling of refugee issues. One Treasury dissenter threatened to resign and go the press if Roosevelt did not act. In less than one week after the critics met with the president, he took their advice and created the War Refugee Board.

Over 50 years later, in the summer of 1995, Congress was once again poised to force a president’s hand on U.S. policy toward mass killing. Senator Bob Dole, then a likely candidate for the 1996 presidential election and a longtime advocate for increased U.S. attention to the crisis, had introduced a bill to lift the arms embargo on Bosnia in order to allow Bosnians to defend themselves. Clinton, anticipating that the bill could complicate his Bosnia policy, tried to fight the legislation. By early August, though, it had passed both the House and the Senate.

Unilateral lift of the embargo would have likely resulted in the withdrawal of UNPROFOR, the United Nations peacekeeping force then on the ground in Bosnia, in order to protect UN forces from the effects of a new influx of weaponry. And because Clinton had promised to provide U.S. ground forces to evacuate UN personnel in the case of UNPROFOR withdrawal, lifting the embargo would not only make Clinton appear weak on Bosnia—as having had his hand forced by Congress—but would also trigger a policy that members of the Clinton administration believed would be unpopular at home. The evacuation of UN forces would be an embarrassment to the United States and Europe, and having the deployment of U.S. ground forces triggered by events outside of the administration’s control would only exacerbate the humiliation.

Compounding the Clinton administration’s embarrassment that summer was the Bosnian Serb massacres at the UN safe area Srebrenica, as well as French President Jacques Chirac’s apparent usurping of Clinton’s role as leader of the free world with his forceful positions on Bosnia and his direct assertion that the “position of leader of the free world is vacant.” In July, Clinton famously exploded at his staff on a golf course, yelling about how he was being hurt by U.S. failures on Bosnia.

In August, facing mounting political pressures, Clinton approved a new strategy that led to the military intervention known as Operation Deliberate Force. The new plan was the direct result of a dissent by Madeleine Albright, then the ambassador to the United Nations and a member of Clinton’s foreign policy team. In June, she had brought a memorandum highlighting the failures of U.S. Bosnia policy to a meeting with Clinton, National Security Adviser Anthony Lake, Secretary of State Warren Christopher, and other high-level foreign policy officials. Her memo sparked a widespread policy review and lit a fire under Lake, who then sought to develop his own proposal for a new policy. The final strategy—which culminated in Operation Deliberate Force—would be a combination of their respective plans. Again, congressional pressure, dissent in the president’s inner circle, and potential presidential embarrassment would together lead to significant policy change.


The United States is once again confronted with an ongoing case of genocide, this time in the Middle East. If Congress acts, if members of the Obama administration advocate for a new course, and if Obama begins to see costs to his agenda and legacy, things might change. In light of the fact that the president is nearing the end of his second term, however, political pressure might matter less.

Still, as the Holocaust and Bosnia cases indicate, presidents tend to care deeply about how they are viewed by the public, perhaps no matter the timing. They care about whether they are seen as weak or strong, as a leader or a follower, as someone shaping policy or as someone whose hand is being forced by others. History demonstrates that U.S. policy toward mass killing is truly democratic; much of the power ultimately rests in the hands of the American people. If a response is what the American people desire, pressure through Congress, through the media, and through civil society may lead to significant policy change. In the absence of these pressures, the Obama administration is likely to maintain the status quo.

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  • AMANDA J. ROTHSCHILD is a Research Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
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