They made this clear just as Syria started to burn, and before the U.S. fully appreciated the significance of the change. As the Assad regime cracked down on peaceful anti-government protests, Obama declared that the time had come “for President Assad to step aside.” But backed by Iran and Hezbollah, Assad had far more staying power than the United States assumed. And while U.S. policymakers might have hoped that vivid images of Assad’s brutality would pressure Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, into supporting a meaningful response from the Security Council, Moscow would not be shamed.
Thus, by the time Obama introduced his Atrocities Prevention Board in April 2012, his administration’s biggest successes in atrocity prevention had already been achieved, and the seeds of its most prominent failures had been planted. The U.S. government had helped break the Libyan state without knowing how to rebuild it (Obama has called this his “worst mistake”), and it was watching the Syrian state break the Syrian people without knowing how to make it stop.
These intractable challenges were not for the new Board to resolve, however: For the most part, it did not deal with crises like Syria, Afghanistan, and Sudan that were already receiving senior-level attention. Instead, the Board’s job would be to scan the horizon for places where the risk of mass violence was on the rise—Burundi, Burma’s Rakhine State, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), for instance—and to jump-start policy discussions among the administration’s senior staff for situations where the United States had little or no policy.
Shaped by the Board, Obama’s second-term atrocity-prevention efforts yielded some benefits. Working together with partners, U.S. diplomacy, assistance, and economic statecraft helped keep Burundi and the DRC from exploding into violence over election disputes. Similar efforts supported French and UN peacekeepers who surged into the Central African Republic as it threatened to fracture. Pressure on Burmese central authorities probably helped contain violence for several years. But none of those efforts should prompt a victory lap. To varying degrees, all of the countries concerned remain wracked by violence and instability. Some are now worse off.
With all this in mind: Is it time to give up on never again?
I would say no. Beyond the moral imperative for trying to end the world’s worst crimes, it is hard to imagine a time when it will stop being true that, as Obama noted in 2011, America’s “security is affected when masses of civilians are slaughtered, refugees flow across borders, and murderers wreak havoc on regional stability and livelihoods.” The misery and dislocation created by the crisis in Syria, and the impact it has had on the political foundations of the West, could hardly illustrate this point better. Yet we have also seen that a hard focus on early warning and preventive statecraft, while worth maintaining—to its credit, the National Security Council under President Donald Trump has tried to sustain the Board for this purpose—will not always be enough. So what should the next phase of U.S. atrocity prevention policy look like—whether under Trump or a future administration?