The Holocaust Museum has pulled a research study that concluded that increased U.S. airstrikes and support for Syrian rebels in 2013 may not have reduced the killing and could even have exacerbated the problem. The paper had been scheduled to be unveiled at an event next next week. The museum says it wants to "evaluate" the feedback it received; it's unclear whether the study will be made available again.
The paper's conclusions seem obvious. The situation in Syria is complex, with a wide array of armed factions backed by different foreign powers, ranging from Saudi Arabia to Russia to, of course, the United States. American bombs would not simplify the crisis, nor would they stablize the country. A campaign against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad might limit his ability to perpetrate atrocities, but it would not limit the potential for other actors on the ground to perpetrate similar, or even deadlier, atrocities.
Tablet reports, based on excerpts it obtained, that the Museum's study "absolved" the Obama administration for its inaction in the face of Syrian genocide. The museum's decision to remove the study from its website makes it hard to judge its merits. (It apparently drew on game theory, computational models, and interviews with policymakers and experts.) But the speed with which the paper was condemned—based largely on excerpts, and on the simple fact that it reached conclusions some people disliked—strongly suggests the outrage machine is at work here.
"Shame on the Holocaust Museum," literary critic Leon Wieseltier told Tablet. "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."
Here's the thing: Decisions like this ought to be examined using facts and models—even algorithmic ones. They ought to be engaged soberly, in a way that arrives at conclusions that can be useful to future decision makers. Wieseltier got a good line in, but when we exclude evidence from decisions on issues as grave as war, we are not contributing to a world with less atrocities. We're making it harder to figure out how to prevent atrocities.
There are some legitimate criticisms of the study, though they aren't enough to warrant withdrawing it. The Museum of Jewish Heritage's Abe Foxman pointed out two of them to Tablet. First, the Syrian genocide is not yet over, so any assessment along these lines will by its nature be incomplete. Second, passing judgement on action or inaction is beyond the museum's mandate. The latter point in particular has some merit, though it doesn't affect the report's conclusions.
Another concern is the possible influence of former Obama administration officials. Several Obama alumni, mostly National Security Council staffers, have taken positions within the museum. One of them, Anna Cave, was listed as one of the participants in the study back in June. That's a pretty clear conflict of interest. But even that is no reason to keep people from reading the report.
Genocide is humanity's greatest crime, and preventing it is a worthy goal. An important part of prevention is understanding the limits to different courses of action.