On Monday, President Obama announced the creation of a new White House body that's supposed to nip genocide in the bud. The new Atrocities Prevention Board (APB) is designed to provide an "early warning system" at the highest levels of the U.S. government that will sound the alarm when large-scale human rights violations are brewing somewhere in the world. As Stephen Walt noted in a post yesterday, it's a classic case of an initiative so laudable that it's hard to imagine why anyone would dare to criticize it.
Just to be clear, I am opposed to genocide. I don't think that mass murder is a good thing. Human rights should be protected.
Still, I find it hard to imagine how this particular "interagency policy mechanism" will make much of an impact. The reason for my skepticism is simple. On those occasions when the United States has failed to act against mass murder happening somewhere in the world, it hasn't generally been due to inefficient bureaucracy or a lack of information. The obstacles to well-meaning intervention generally lie elsewhere. Creating a new talking shop in the White House will do little to get rid of them.
Realists like Walt, as well as some critics on the left, share the worry that the APB will give the U.S. an additional excuse to expand its role as the global policeman. If the new board works as its creators intend, writes Trevor Thrall for the TheAtlantic.com, "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 [sic] raises expectations of aid from endangered people around the world." Thrall points out that the presidential directive that paved the way for the creation of the APB raises atrocity prevention to the level of a "core national security interest" and a "core moral responsibility," and that this might push the "U.S. to do some things it shouldn't."
More from Democracy Lab
I guess that's possible -- not that we seem to have needed such excuses for highly questionable interventions in the past. But, of course, Thrall's anxiety presupposes that the new board will actually do what it's supposed to do. On this point I am deeply skeptical.
Now, I have to admit that I've never worked in the White House, so perhaps I'm underestimating the extent to which the President of the United States will allow himself to be constrained by the existence of an interagency working group. Paul Stares, Director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, says that the members of the APB all have assistant secretary rank or higher, which should give it the "bureaucratic juice" to ensure that its conclusions reach the highest level of government. The APB is chaired by Samantha Power, the ex-journalist who's said to have good access to the president.
That said, it is notable that none of the measures taken by the president give the new board a staff of its own. But perhaps that makes sense when you take a closer look at what it's actually supposed to do. As even some of its supporters note, the Atrocities Prevention Board doesn't actually have a mandate to prevent atrocities. The job of the APB is to pool information from various government agencies in the foreign-policy realm and make sure that any indications of brewing problems get noticed at the appropriate level. It allocates no budget funds and commands no troops. I doubt very much that Bashar al-Assad is quaking in his boots at the news of its creation.