Numerous news outlets have reported on the new Atrocities Prevention Board unveiled by President Obama as part of commemorating Holocaust Remembrance Day, and quite a few have expressed skepticism. It’s one thing to create a board, another entirely to take action using the tools of national power.
Defining “atrocity” will be a stiff challenge. If something seems awful but the US administration doesn’t really want to intervene in it, will it be defined as an “atrocity”? If it’s defined as an atrocity but we don’t do anything other than blather about it, what exactly will be the point of the Atrocities Prevention policy?
Presumably, a due-out from the Atrocities Prevention Board (APB) will be a periodically updated list of which foreign activities and ongoing events the United States considers to be atrocities. The absence of any such communication will render the APB so pointless as to be a daily unfolding satire. Silence from an Atrocities Prevention Board is inherently untenable.
Yet assembling that list will be a heavily politicized process. Will we call “atrocities” things we have no power to intervene in? If the American people are reluctant to take on an “atrocity” intervention, is there any political value for the president in having the atrocity officially identified? A divided Congress may have been inert in the last 18 months, but when overly provoked, as with the endless, punch-pulling Vietnam intervention, Congress becomes a snorting, stamping elephant. How would a president acting on the proposals of an Atrocities Prevention Board deal with Congress?
If atrocities are defined and declared on a regular basis, yet remain undeterred, the atrocity list will lose its impact in the same way the Homeland Security terror-alert system has. “Yeah, we’ve got some atrocities going on out there,” the average citizen might say. “I don’t know what they are, but there’s some kind of board for that.”
Institutionalizing indifference to mass murder – to use The Weekly Standard’s formulation – is one of the obvious hazards of boardifying the US posture on “atrocity.” There are a couple of others worth mentioning. One is contingent: the APB’s leadership under Obama. The president has appointed Samantha Power– the brain behind the “responsibility to protect” non-hostile kinetic military action in Libya – to head the APB, and she is on record as calling Israel a “major human rights abuser.” Here is her 2002 proposal for intervening in the Israeli-Palestinian Arab conflict:
What we don’t need is some kind of early warning mechanism there, what we need is a willingness to put something on the line in helping the situation. Putting something on the line might mean alienating a domestic constituency of tremendous political and financial import; it may more crucially (sic) mean sacrificing—or investing, I think, more than sacrificing—billions of dollars, not in servicing Israel’s military, but actually investing in the new state of Palestine, in investing the billions of dollars it would probably take, also, to support what will have to be a mammoth protection force, not of the old Rwanda kind, but a meaningful military presence. Because it seems to me at this stage (and this is true of actual genocides as well, and not just major human rights abuses, which were seen there), you have to go in as if you’re serious, you have to put something on the line.
Getting a US military intervention force in Israel past Congress would be interesting. The American politics of this are a head-scratcher, but so is the definition in this case. If Power were to be specific about what she considers “human rights abuses,” one can only presume she would be speaking of checkpoints, the security fence between Israel and Gaza (the security barrier with the West Bank had not been constructed in 2002), and Israel’s military attacks on terrorist strongholds in Gaza.
One question this raises is what the APB would term terrorist attacks by Hamas. Presumably a single terrorist incident is not a “mass atrocity” – if the Holocaust is taken as the standard – but how about systematic terrorism of the same kind, and against the same people, over decades? Terrorist organizations do commit mass atrocities, as they have in Colombia and Russia, among other places. Are terrorists to be intervened with like national governments? How about syndicate crime, like the cartel thugs who have slaughtered more than 50,000 Mexicans in the last five years?
Meanwhile, are India and Pakistan abusing the other’s populations with their border barriers in Kashmir? Perhaps even more informative, is the UN committing a human rights abuse by sponsoring (and managing) the security barrier between the Republic of Cyprus and the unrecognized Turkish-occupied portion of the island?
Is the existence of border-security measures a justification for armed intervention? And if it is, how does it fit into the “mass atrocity” construct? If it doesn’t justify armed intervention, on the other hand, but something else – what is that something?
Beyond these problems is a more fundamental one, which is the question of what international boundaries mean and how we will decide to use the elements of US power, including force, across them. Before we jump to any conclusions on this, we need to remember a very basic fact: the Holocaust ended only when we regime-changed Hitler with armed force. Nothing short of invading Germany and eliminating Hitler – pursuing what was for years afterward called “absolute victory” – had the power to stop any facet of Hitler’s program. The same was true of imperialist Japan, which committed what we may well call mass atrocities in Manchuria and Southeast Asia during the occupation period there.
The only mass atrocities that have ever been stopped by outside agency – eventually – were stopped by regime-changing the perpetrators. Suasion, shaming, contumely from the world community, and even sanctions of various kinds have been tried against the perpetrators of other mass atrocities, and nothing but the credible threat or actual use of force has ever produced even a hiatus. There is no basis on which to hope that it may be possible to “prevent atrocities” by specific, tailored means, as if the atrocities can be separated from the objects of other elements of US policy.
We may perhaps, for example, foster economic and social conditions that have the effect of deterring atrocities. But except in the case of the longest-running regional or ethnic feuds, we may not even be aware in advance that that’s what we’re doing. We may simply be pursuing policies that we think are of assistance to other peoples, and will thereby promote US security and interests. Specifically planning to “prevent atrocities” by these means raises a host of questions about both our prophetic abilities and – frankly – our good sense.
We may also decide that a demonstrable perpetrator of atrocities, like Saddam Hussein, has to be regime-changed, for reasons relating to US security policy. That will effectively halt his career of atrocities – unlike, for example, our posture on North Korea, where the Kim regime has been starving and torturing its people for decades, as part of a 59-year-old armistice over which our forces stand guard. The US spent the entire period of the Soviet Union’s existence declining to intervene directly in most of the numerous mass atrocities perpetrated by Soviet Communists and their proxies abroad, while ritually decrying them, imposing very limited sanctions because of them, and performing other ineffective actions. Estimates of the lives lost to Communist civil wars and takeovers – entirely apart from World War II – range from 100 to 150 million.
The effective powers of government have their limits. Force is a blunt tool which cannot be used effectively in the calibrated manner suggested by Power’s proposal for Israel and the Palestinians. To be effective, force must have a concrete, achievable objective that is suited to what force can do: destroy means and vanquish will. This works for regime-change, an objective with at least a potentially self-sustaining end-state. It does not work for “atrocity prevention,” which cannot be self-sustaining because it does not posit vanquishing the will of the perpetrator.
Ending atrocities is possible, meanwhile, precisely because there are multiple armed nation-states, and some are constituted to act with both compunction and purpose. A prophylactic, globalist approach to mass atrocities is another matter. If we sold out the concept of national sovereignty – including the integrity of borders – for the postulated benefit of preventing atrocities, we would find that against a supranational body chartered with “prevention,” there would be no recourse. Whatever atrocities it permitted would be unredressable.
Territorial nationalism is what allows us to guarantee liberty and civil rights for ourselves, and to intervene abroad on the terms we consider appropriate. Global-political universalism is the enemy of liberty and national political discretion, as demonstrated most recently by the globalist Communist empire, but in earlier centuries by the Roman Empire.
Ultimately, even in a narrow sense, “atrocity prevention” as a core mission of the US national security apparatus is a recipe for endless, end-state-less – and regional-pattern-distorting – involvement abroad. It fits no traditional construct for the US decision to use national power. It inherently posits a kind of “force decision-making” different from what exists today with the structure of the US government and our arrangements with our allies.
Yet all of that may be moot, if the APB is little more than window-dressing. And if that is the case, US credibility will take another major hit.
About the Author: J.E. Dyer is a retired US Naval intelligence officer who served around the world, afloat and ashore, from 1983 to 2004.
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