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

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