Never Again? Obama's Big, Risky Plan for Preventing Global Atrocities

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The new "Atrocities Prevention Board" could push the U.S. to do some things it shouldn't.

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U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington Reuters

On Monday, April 23, President Obama announced the creation of the Atrocities Prevention Board and an effort to develop government-wide strategies for finding ways to intervene before mass killings take place. The Presidential Study Directive (PSD-10) and the executive order on which these actions are based rightly note that the U.S. government has never had a comprehensive strategy for preventing mass atrocities despite having promised "never again" several times since World War II.

It is very difficult to criticize any presidential efforts to put pressure on human-rights abusers, especially at this point in history when so many publics are challenging autocratic governments over their futures. It is also difficult to contest the general logic of Obama's finding that the United States and its allies have been ill-prepared to prevent mass atrocities. What is less difficult, however, is to worry about where we might wind up if the United States finally puts its money where its mouth is and creates an infrastructure for intervention.

Obama's policy review identified several themes behind the failure to respond to mass atrocities, all of which can be traced back to the fact that there has been no single agency or group in the U.S. government responsible for monitoring and engaging situations that might lead to such acts. And without such a system, by the time the government realizes there is a problem it could be too late to coordinate an effective U.S. response, much less help coordinate an international response. The proposed cure, therefore, makes perfect sense--if the goal is to intervene much more frequently around the world.

There are at least three reasons to worry about the Atrocities Prevention Board. First, if it works as its creators hope, it will lead to many more interventions in the future. It will create a stronger lobby for interventions within the government, it creates tools that make intervention easier to manage and potentially by raises expectations of aid from endangered people around the world. As PSD-10 states: "Preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States."

Again, no one wants more mass atrocities, but many do question the extent to which preventing them is actually a core national-security interest or moral responsibility of the United States. What Obama is calling for will make the default presumption one of U.S. involvement, rather than the opposite.

Now, instead of needing good reasons to intervene, the president will need good reasons not to intervene. This, in turn, leads to a debate that the current executive order does not answer: Which mass killings are we responsible for? All of them? What counts as a mass killing? Why is nine thousand in Syria almost enough to get the United States involved but several million in the Congo was not? Without a clearer articulation of the conditions under which the United States will act to prevent mass killings, this effort starts to look more like political theater and less like sound policy.

Second, a bigger intervention tool kit raises the chances of the United States engaging in conflicts more deeply than planned. Obama argues that without an infrastructure like the one he's building, U.S. options are limited to full-scale intervention or no intervention at all. At one level, he is correct. But at another level, the notion of partial intervention is a myth. Preventing mass atrocities is difficult, dangerous and time consuming. Very few conflicts that involve mass killings are the kind where the nudge of sanctions or vague threats of criminal prosecution are going to get the job done. Yes, there are cases where a relatively small investment of attention and action would have paid huge dividends--Rwanda comes to mind. But for every Rwanda, there are many that look more like Bosnia, Syria, Somalia or Sudan, where problems cannot be fixed without getting deeply involved in resolving multilateral civil conflicts and nation building. In those cases, getting involved at all risks getting involved all the way and, in turn, risks being involved for a very long time at great cost. Given our track record in those sorts of conflicts, I am not sure improving our infrastructure for intervention is a good idea.

Finally, the Atrocities Prevention Board, as noble as its goals are, illustrates just how militarized our foreign policy has become. In the wake of 9/11 the United States has spent billions of dollars intervening in an unprecedented number of nations in the Middle East and Africa without resolving any of the underlying problems at stake and at a cost of fueling the fires of anti-Americanism. More intervention--or even the threat of intervention--is not a great plan in this context. Moreover, the reliance on military means reveals a lack of imagination and moral sensibility. Waiting until the time people are organizing to kill each other in mass quantities to step in makes no sense, especially when your plan to make them stop is to kill some of them. The time to help people is before things get that bad. This is not always possible either, of course, but it does not require killing people, and it at least holds the possibility of creating the conditions for peace and stability that will make military intervention unnecessary.

This article originally appeared at The National Interest, an Atlantic partner site. Follow @TheNatlInterest on Twitter.

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Trevor Thrall is an associate professor of government and politics at George Mason University and director of the Biodefense Program. He is the coeditor of American Foreign Policy and the Politics of Fear: Threat Inflation since 9/11 and coeditor of the forthcoming book Why Did the United States Invade Iraq?

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