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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