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.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.