Obama and genocide

OBAMA AND GENOCIDE…. The Boston Globe’s Jeff Jacoby, a conservative Republican columnist, is certainly entitled to his opinion. He argued this morning, for example, that McCain “excelled” in last night’s debate. Most voters saw the debate differently, but it’s obviously a subjective matter.

But when Jacoby gets objective truths completely wrong, it’s far more troubling.

[I]t was a foreign-policy question [from last night’s debate] that sent me flying to my files. Moderator Tom Brokaw asked the candidates what their “doctrine” would be “in situations where there’s a humanitarian crisis, but it does not affect our national security,” such as “the Congo, where 4.5 million people have died since 1998,” or Rwanda or Somalia.

In such cases, answered Obama, “we have moral issues at stake.” Of course the United States must act to stop genocide, he said. “When genocide is happening, when ethnic cleansing is happening … and we stand idly by, that diminishes us.”

But that wasn’t how Obama sounded last year, when he was competing for the Democratic nomination and was unbending in his demand for an American retreat from Iraq. Back then, he dismissed fears that a US withdrawal would unleash a massive Iraqi bloodbath. “Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama said Thursday the United States cannot use its military to solve humanitarian problems and that preventing a potential genocide in Iraq isn’t a good enough reason to keep US forces there,” the AP reported on July 20, 2007.

What kind of candidate is it whose moral response to genocide — genocide — can reverse itself 180 degrees in a matter of months?

I have no idea if Jacoby is deliberately trying to mislead readers, or if he was just lazy when he “flew” to his files. Either way, this attack is painfully, demonstrably wrong.

Jacoby relies on the AP’s paraphrase of Obama’s position. But if Jacoby had considered what Obama actually said before accusing him of flip-flopping on genocide, he wouldn’t have written such an offensive piece.

It’s not that complicated — Obama wasn’t suggesting genocide is tolerable, and he wasn’t advocating indifference for murder on a grand scale. He was simply making the point that if genocidal attacks alone were the basis for a massive military deployment, we’d have deployed thousands of U.S. troops to central Africa to respond to the crisis in Darfur. That we haven’t suggests that genocide does not drive U.S. military deployments.

How is this different from what Obama said last night? It isn’t. Where’s the 180-degree turn? There isn’t one.

Indeed, Jacoby linked to the July 2007 article about Obama’s position, which reported on what Obama said at the time. Jacoby read the first sentence and used it as the basis of his attack, but if he’d just kept going, and read the next two paragraphs, he would have seen that his accusation is bogus.

It’s journalism at its most ridiculous.

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Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.