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.