Democracy Lab

Obama's Committee of Salvation

Preventing genocide sounds like a worthy cause. But setting up a new White House committee isn't the way to do it.

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."

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.

But surely more information ought to be a good thing, right? Maybe. But the U.S. government has a long record of creating new bureaucratic structures to overcome presumed information logjams, and the results aren't terribly encouraging. (Just take the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.) Perhaps the APB will succeed in creating a high-powered "fusion cell" that brings together diverse streams of intelligence into a single channel whose custodians are too powerful to ignore. But don't hold your breath.

The very proposition that past genocides might have been prevented "had we only known" is highly arguable. Contrary to popular belief, the Holocaust did not happen under a veil of ignorance. The New York Times and Edward R. Murrow both reported on it in 1942. (Murrow even used the phrase "extermination camps.") On December 17, 1942, the United States and ten other Allied governments issued a statement denouncing Hitler's "bestial policy of cold-blooded extermination" of the Jews. President Franklin D. Roosevelt -- who, as President Obama noted in passing on Monday, received detailed reports on Auschwitz from former inmate Jan Karski -- gave a speech in which he described the "wholesale systematic murder of the Jews of Europe" by Hitler and his henchmen as "one of the blackest crimes of all history."

We can argue about whether Roosevelt could have done more to prevent Auschwitz and other Nazi camps from continuing their operations. (I'm inclined to doubt that there was much he could have done in practical terms, and even Jewish groups seem to have been divided over the issue at the time.) But we can't claim that he didn't know what was happening.

The same applies to the President Clinton's response to the Balkan Wars or the genocide in Rwanda. As for the latter, just take a look at this remarkable collection of documents posted online by the National Security Archive. There was plenty of information available; you just had to want to pay attention. As for the Balkans, Herbert Hirsch, a political scientist at Virginia Commonwealth University, recalls coming to Washington early in the Clinton Administration at the invitation of one of his former students who was working in the Policy Planning Staff of the State Department. The ex-student showed him seven fat volumes filled with UN-requested intelligence on atrocities committed by various forces during the breakup of Yugoslavia. "We knew exactly what was going on," he says. It is certainly hard to argue that contemporary news coverage of the war in Bosnia was scanty or tentative.

In both cases, President Clinton and his policymaking apparatus had powerful institutional motives for inaction. The disaster in Somalia was still fresh in their minds. They feared electoral fallout over the potential deaths of U.S. service members. And, perhaps most importantly, they weren't sure which vital American interests were at stake. I'm not saying these were good reasons, but they're certainly useful if you want to understand why the president made the decisions he did.

By the same token, President Obama's reluctance to take a more forceful stand on Syria or Sudan has little to do with lack of a bureaucratically weighty "early warning system" and everything do with the extent of political will in the White House. Right now the desire to do more on either issue is clearly absent. The Obama Administration intervened in Libya because it concluded that the downside of action was relatively small compared with the benefits. It hasn't intervened in Syria or Sudan because so far it hasn't been persuaded that such actions are in its interest. Alter that calculation and you shift the policy. But I doubt that an interagency working group is likely to be the agent of change.

The same applies to Bahrain. You don't need an Atrocities Prevention Board to tell you that the government there is abusing its citizens. But so far the U.S. government doesn't seem very keen to intervene. I wonder if the presence of a major U.S. naval base there has anything to do with it?

It's good that Obama has declared that mass atrocities should enjoy a higher priority in U.S. policymaking. But talk is cheap. Let's see whether the policies actually change.

STEVE TERRILL/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

It's Not Just You, America

Economic inequality is today’s hot-button issue -- whether you live in a wealthy country or a poor one.

We love to ruminate about globalization and how we've all become citizens of a worldwide community, but it's not always clear what these grand abstractions have to do with our everyday lives. So perhaps it's worth noting that right now there happens to be one particular issue that is prompting passionate debate in all countries, regardless of their living standards. Well-off Westerners are just as exercised about it as Pakistanis and Egyptians.

The topic I have in mind is the apparently widening gap between rich and poor. We used to worry obsessively about the divide between wealthy countries and less-developed ones, but the spread between them is arguably diminishing as once-poor giants like China and India grow, edging towards living standards in the developed world and adding billions to the global middle class. At the same time, though, political debates about inequality are heating up inside many countries, and this seems to be true regardless of where each nation stands in the GDP tables.

Americans, of course, are agonizing over astronomical CEO compensation, institutions that give disproportionate political influence to the wealthy, and the fate of the 99 percent. Europeans are fixated on skyrocketing youth unemployment and the challenge of sustaining bankrupt welfare systems. Japanese and Koreans, proud of their past success at lifting all boats, now fret about a growing gulf between haves and have-nots.

But these privileged populations are not the only ones who are worried. "If you look at most of the countries that have grown rapidly, absolute annual growth rates have been quite robust," says Glenn Firebaugh, a sociology professor at Penn State University who has studied the issue for years. "But it hasn't been distributed proportionately. The rich people have been getting rich faster. That's been the case in most countries."

Last week saw the appearance of two reports on completely separate parts of the world that advance strikingly similar themes. The Asian Development bank's latest annual study of economic development in that region, Outlook 2012, bears the subtitle "Confronting Rising Inequality in Asia" - a phenomenon the ADB attributes to "technological change, globalization, and market-oriented reform." As the report notes, these are precisely the factors that have contributed to the rapid growth in Asia over the past few decades. According to the report's findings, inequality widened in 11 of the 25 countries covered in the survey -- including China, India, and Indonesia, the three giants that have shown some of the strongest growth.

A similar finding emerges from another paper, The State of East Africa 2012, published last week by the Society for International Development. The local newspapers who wrote about it zeroed in on a particularly revealing factoid: the rise in the number of the region's poor, from 44 million to 53 million, over the six-year period covered in the study. Yet, just as in Asia, this comes against a background of otherwise encouraging figures on growth. The report observes, for example, that the number of mobile phone subscriptions in the region rose from 3 million in 2002 to 64 million in 2010 - which means that those subscribers now have easy access to a whole range of services (such as mobile banking) that they may not have enjoyed before.

Take Uganda. According to yet another recent study (this one by the World Bank), it's a country that can look back on a recent record of rising GDP, averaging between four and five percent over the past two decades. And yet, as the experts point out, 94 percent of that growth has come from urban areas, which are home to only 13 percent of the population lives. The difference is easy to see with the naked eye. If you live in Kampala, the capital, you'll have no problem finding a private school for your kids, good internet access, or a perfectly fine hospital (assuming you can afford them, of course). None of these things would have been a given a decade or two ago. Even today, though, you only have to travel a few miles into the countryside to find situations that haven't really changed in years: minimal electricity, no running water, limited opportunities for economic advancement.

It shouldn't come as a surprise that the sense of widening inequity has become a sensitive political issue in Uganda -- and not just because many of those who are enjoying the fruits of relative prosperity belong to the political elite as well. (In Uganda, they often turn out to be members of the ruling party of President Yoweri Museveni.) One area where this tension manifests itself is in the debate over public education, which is viewed by many Ugandans (quite rightly, say economists) as the great leveler. If the local public school is failing to give your child the means to compete, you're probably going to be upset about it. Many Americans can undoubtedly identify.

Some might object that such problems are more or less inevitable in a developing country like Uganda. But that's just not true. East Asia's experience over the past fifty years has shown that rapid growth and social equality don't have to be mutually exclusive. So it's all the more disturbing when you hear that people in precisely those countries are complaining about the same problems as Ugandans.

Case in point: Singapore. Over the years the little city-state in Southeast Asia has turned business success into something like a national mission, and its living standards are among the highest in the world. Perhaps even more importantly, no one got left behind. Like so many other East Asian tigers, Singapore managed to spread the wealth even as it created it, maintaining a remarkable societal consensus about the equitable distribution of growth.

So it's all the more surprising that voters in Singapore chose to deliver a startling rebuke to the ruling party last year. While there were undoubtedly many reasons for the result, perhaps the most important, according to this remarkable paper from Singapore National University, was popular discontent fueled by rising economic inequality. Regardless of which measure you take, the authors of the study note, "Singapore has become more unequal in the last ten years or so." Stagnating wages and decreasing social mobility, they say, potentially threaten the remarkable social compact -- implicitly based on the principle of "growth with equity" -- that has characterized Singapore's development for so long.

So what does all this mean? First, there are some reasons for hope. Firebaugh argues that the world as a whole is probably becoming less unequal -- mostly thanks to the gravitational pull of those upwardly mobile Asian giants. And even while globalization has been fueling rising competitive pressures, countries around the world have also been busily devising and sharing effective policies for countering social stratification. Smart spending on education is one of the most obvious. Cash transfer programs that target the poor are another. Even improving infrastructure, access to finance, or health care can help. (Who knows, maybe that's why President Obama picked Jim Yong Kim, who wrote a book about the relationship between health and inequality, as his choice to run the World Bank.) Latin America has actually improved its record on inequality over the past decade, for example. Those countries must be doing something right.

What these examples suggest, though, is that the ultimate solutions are likely to be political rather than economic. Those cronies from Uganda's ruling party and America's politically influential gazillionaires aren't as dissimilar as they might seem at first sight. There are a lot of obvious ways to level out the playing field, but most of them are contingent on politicians being persuaded to make the right decisions. Until they start doing that, don't expect matters to improve any time soon.

MICHAL CIZEK/AFP/Getty Images