WASHINGTON -- In 2011, the White House issued a presidential study directive that states: "Preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States."
At the time, the Obama administration proudly announced that, unlike prior administrations, it wanted to give the U.S. a clear framework for preventing mass killings worldwide. This commitment to genocide prevention helped explain U.S. actions in Libya -- but set up President Barack Obama for criticism when he failed to act in Syria.
The president's promise on mass killings is now being tested once again, as he considers the plight of Iraqi members of the Yazidi religious minority. Thousands of members of this ancient non-Muslim sect are trapped on a mountain without food, water, shelter, or a means of escape. Fighters loyal to the Islamic State, which recently conquered the major town of Sinjar, have surrounded the base of the mountain refuge.
Iraq's only Yazidi lawmaker has said that hundreds of Yazidis -- including 70 children -- have already died at the hands of the Islamic State.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest drew disdain from reporters -- and hyperbolic headlines in the right-wing media -- after failing to clearly state the administration's position on the Yazidi crisis during a briefing Thursday. He fumbled for more than 30 minutes to describe America’s responsibility to persecuted ethnic and religious minorities.
Asked by Jonathan Karl, the ABC News chief White House correspondent, whether sending aid to beleaguered Iraqi minorities under threat by the Islamic State would be consistent with a core American objective of preventing humanitarian catastrophes, Earnest responded, “We evaluate these circumstances on a case-by-case basis.”
Earnest himself described the Iraqi situation as “nearing a humanitarian catastrophe” earlier in the briefing. He added: “Vulnerable ethnic and religious minorities … have been specifically targeted by ISIL [the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] solely because of their ethnic and religious identity.” He said the White House believes ISIL displayed “a callous disregard for human rights.”
But Earnest didn't make clear where the U.S. stands on defending those rights. Karl, Major Garrett of CBS News, and Ed Henry of Fox News asked Earnest follow-up questions about whether the U.S. was compelled to immediately come to the Yazidi community's assistance. They also asked Earnest to confirm a New York Times report published just before the briefing that said the president was weighing options for helping the trapped Yazidis.
Instead, they heard Earnest repeat the “case-by-case” explanation multiple times.
Eventually, in response to Henry, Earnest added, “Of course, the United States has been and will continue to be a beacon of freedom and respect for human rights across the globe.” He said the U.S. “cannot abide” persecution on the basis of ethnic or religious identities.
“The question is what or how the United States can mitigate” humanitarian crises, Earnest said.
Hours later, The New York Times reported that White House had moved ahead on the genocide prevention promise that Earnest had struggled with earlier: The U.S. bombing of ISIL targets had commenced, the paper said. The Pentagon denied the report.