Guest Post: Give the Atrocities Prevention Board a chance!

Note: In response to my previous post on the hazards of the new Atrocities Prevention Board, Andrew Miller of the Council on Foreign Relations' Center for Preventive Action offers the following alternative view. I'm not persuaded, but it is a thoughtful and intelligent rejoinder that I wanted to share with you. Take it away, Andrew....

Andrew Miller writes:

Stephen Walt's skepticism of the recently-announced Atrocities Prevention Board (APB) is understandable. New bureaucracies often create more problems than they solve. But, the APB is a worthwhile (albeit, modest) attempt to improve the government's mass atrocity prevention and response efforts. A close look at the board shows that it has the potential to both avert atrocities and lessen the likelihood of humanitarian interventions -- outcomes that realists, of course, can welcome with open arms.

The APB will help ensure that atrocity situations don't get sidelined in the policymaking process. The Clinton administration failed to address the 1994 Rwandan genocide in part because White House officials were focused on the dual crises in Bosnia and Haiti. Thus, as hundreds of thousands died in Rwanda, the genocide wasn't even a side-show for policymakers; it was a "no show" in the words of then-national security advisor Tony Lake.

The APB, as a standing body with senior officials (assistant secretaries and above), would be well-positioned to avoid such bloodshed becoming a "no-show". In tandem with the board, the president has vowed to set up "alert channels" that allow lower-level officials to raise red flags about potential atrocities. The APB could serve as a conduit in processing these warnings and ultimately getting them to the Oval Office if warranted.

Does that mean the U.S. military is more likely to find itself in places of negligible U.S. interests such as Rwanda? Simply put: No.

As the board's title suggests, it will focus on prevention. Thus, its success will be measured on its ability to prevent tensions from deteriorating to the point where intervention is even considered. With a preventive approach, the United States can save more lives while expending less blood and treasure. Preventive tools such as economic sanctions or threats of prosecution used to deter would-be perpetrators and protect would-be victims are almost always cheaper and less risky than large-scale military operations.

Given the board's interagency make-up, it can leverage these preventive tools rather than relying on the military to resolve crises. The APB will have representatives from the departments of State, Defense, Treasure, Justice, Homeland Security, among others, with the White House's director for multilateral affairs Samantha Power chairing the group. This broad representation will help make the military less of a go-to institution for dealing with atrocities as has been the case since the end of the Cold War.

It is fair to ask, what happens if preventive action fails? Or, as Walt puts it, "how likely is it that [the APB] will recommend doing little or nothing the next time something bad happens?" While the APB will probably recommend taking serious mitigating steps, there is a wide range of measures short of a large-scale military operation. Even Power, whom the National Interest has dubbed "Interventionista", stresses measures beyond "sending in the Marines." In her book A Problem from Hell, she lays out a host of policies that the Clinton administration could have taken during Rwanda: frequently denouncing the slaughter, beefing up the United Nations peacekeeper force there, jamming belligerent radio broadcasts used to coordinate attacks, threatening to prosecute the perpetrators, etc.

These are the sorts of measures that the APB will rely upon. In fact, the Obama administration has already used them to help end last year's bloodshed in Ivory Coast. Atrocities broke out there when opposition forces tried to unseat incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo who had lost the country's November 2010 elections. The administration subsequently slapped sanctions on the main perpetrators, backed the United Nations peacekeeping mission in-country, and ultimately supported a French troop deployment. Tensions in Ivory Coast remain today, but the mass killings have stopped.

The APB would not have made intervention in Ivory Coast any more likely. Walt accurately states that there are "good strategic reasons why outside powers choose to stay out of wars or brutal internal conflicts." Even if the APB had advocated for U.S. troops, there is little reason to believe that Obama would have deployed them to a place of negligible U.S. interests. (Perhaps the only effect Ivorian instability had on Americans was a rise in chocolate prices.) In other words, the president's strategic calculus on Ivory Coast was set, and the APB would not have changed that -- a good thing from the realist point of view.

Finally, Walt raises the uncomfortable reality of the United States' spotty human rights record. He argues that past U.S. misdeeds make the APB just another example of American "smug self-congratulation." If one takes a victim's perspective, however, this smugness seems less relevant. Srebrenica's Muslims, for example, surely would have appreciated American help in July 1995 regardless of U.S. sanctions on Iraq at the time. In the same vein, would the United States want to end its fight against human trafficking (modern-day slavery in many respects) given its pre-1860s history? Most realists (presumably Walt included) would say, no.

As this blog has made clear, realists are not divorced from morality. Like anybody else, they don't want to see Rwandan rivers choked with bodies or emaciated Bosnians behind barbed wire. They also don't want to see the United States' national security imperiled by military overstretch. The APB is a modest step toward reaching both ends.

Andrew C. Miller is a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations' Center for Preventive Action. He can be found on Twitter @andrewmiller802.


Stephen M. Walt

Is the 'Atrocity Prevention Board' a good idea?

Are you in favor of preventing atrocities? Of course you are. Me too. Nobody is going to openly oppose trying to prevent heinous crimes against humanity, which is why President Obama did a big roll-out for his new "Atrocity Prevention Board" (APB) yesterday at the Holocaust Museum in DC. As this White House press release makes clear, the new board will contain representatives from various government agencies and plan more robust ways to deal with mass killings, genocides, and other really bad things in the years ahead.

As noted, it is hard to imagine anybody objecting to something like this on principle, because who's in favor of turning a blind eye to atrocities? But a situation where nobody wants to question an initiative is also precisely when we ought to be wary, and I can think of three reasons why the new APB is a bad idea.

First, it is another manifestation of the American obsession with global police work. Despite all the problems that excessive interventionism have produced in recent years, as well as the dubious results of some recent humanitarian operations, the Obama administration is now taking a step that will further institutionalize the impulse to intervene. But America's problems today do not arise because we've been doing too little meddling overseas; they are in good part the result of getting bogged down trying to do the impossible in places we don't understand. Making it easier to get bogged down in the future is not the policy conclusion I would have drawn from recent experience.

Second, creating this new board does nothing to solve the core strategic problems that inevitably affect decisions to intervene, even in the case of gross human rights violations. There are often good strategic reasons why outside powers choose to stay out of wars or brutal internal conflicts -- even when atrocities are underway -- and having the new Atrocity Prevention Board won't make any of those impediments disappear. In theory, such a Board might help us determine when to do something and when we are likely to make things worse, but most bureaucratic entities tend to become self-justifying over time. After all, once you've got a coordinating body whose designated mission is preventing or halting genocides or other mass atrocities, how likely is it that it will recommend doing little or nothing the next time something bad happens? So look for us to get into trouble more often, but with the best of intentions.

Third, this new initiative suffers from the smug self-congratulation that is a hallmark of the modern American Empire. "Atrocities" are something that Very Bad People do, and of course we need to have a robust capability to stop them. But what about the bad things that the United States or its allies do? The United States orchestrated economic sanctions that may have killed as many as half a million Iraqis during the 1990s; when asked about it, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said "we think the price was worth it." Our invasion of Iraq led directly or indirectly to the deaths of several hundred thousand more, and U.S. forces clearly committed atrocities on several occasions in both Iraq and Afghanistan. We've backed any number of odious dictatorships over the past century (and turned a blind eye to their abuses), offered Israel full diplomatic protection when it pummeled Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008-09, and supported terrorist organizations like the Nicaraguan contras or the Iranian MEK. The United States tortured prisoners during the Bush administration and has killed dozens of civilians in drone strikes in several countries. And yet we feel completely comfortable mounting our moral high horse and proclaiming that we are dead set against atrocities and we'll use our full power to prevent them.

As President Obama might say, let's be clear. As a realist, I understand that international politics is a rough business, that states and other groups play hardball, and that this situation sometimes requires moral compromises and leads to innocent suffering. Nor am I suggesting that the U.S. government is no different from Stalinist Russia, Maoist China, the Rwandan genocidaires, or Bashar al Assad. But I'll bet this new initiative still looks hypocritical to a lot of people whose familiarity with the sharp end of American power is extensive, intimate, and unpleasant. It would be easier to take this initiative seriously if we seemed as concerned by the atrocities that we commit as we are by the crimes of others.