30 April 2012
It is morally difficult to argue against a leader’s effort to prevent mass killings around the world. President Obama’s new Atrocity Prevention Board (APB) announced last Monday (within sight of Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel) represents a well-intentioned and unprecedented effort to create an early warning system for the deadly storm of genocide abroad. Bringing together officials from relevant agencies for regular meetings on areas of particular concern, the Board promises to be a much more cohesive and organized springboard for surging diplomats and civilian experts abroad to lend their expertise to these trouble areas.
While there are moral and conscience-assuaging reasons to hail the APB as the start of a practical, realistic initiative in the abstract, global battle of good vs. evil, U.S. citizens have a right to address the devil’s advocate argument of, “Where will this take our Armed Forces next?”
America's long history of intervention involves situations where it is argued that the U.S. should not have been involved. However, there has usually been a presentable argument that U.S. lives or interests were at stake to justify the action. Two of the most hotly contested interventions, the Iraq and Vietnam Wars, were somewhat excused to the American public as long-range military threats (Saddam Hussein with his “WMDs” in Iraq, and Russia with its extensive Cold War might via a Vietnam proxy.) How will future administrations justify intervention from the APB on behalf of U.S. interests in areas only perceived to be ripe for genocide?
An aspirational explanation given by Presidential Study Directive 10 (PSD-10), the executive order on which the creation of the APB is based, states that: “Preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States.”
Leaving out essential calculations such as the scale and reality of the threat to U.S. national security and simply declaring that killings anywhere threaten the American people gives a Grand Canyon-sized berth for intervention anywhere and everywhere. This drops U.S. citizens acting on behalf of the APB into real, immediate danger — the very thing the APB is trying to prevent, if it sticks to its mission statement that thwarting mass atrocities is a “core national security interest.” Preventing atrocities at the scale that necessitates intervention involves deep entanglement, a large amount of personnel, and a long time frame in an area about to boil into mass violence. A “tipping point” of sorts needs to be established as to when a regional conflict is deemed to have the power to burst into a full-blown atrocity (for example, a maximum acceptable death toll,) thus necessitating action from the APB. Conflicts such as these often involve deeply-entrenched, ethnically- or racially-rooted disputes, and are going to need much more than diplomatic negotiations to resolve. The Obama administration may argue that the APB is meant to catch the germ of these conflicts before they blow up, when they are at the level at which diplomatic measures can make a difference. But what if the APB does not register the conflict’s rumblings in time? Is this where the U.S. allows its military might (arguably America’s most effective diplomatic tool) to make an appearance? Or do APB personnel simply throw up their hands and say, “This is the Atrocities Prevention Board. Now that an atrocity is actually happening, this is out of our hands.”
The APB has acknowledged that the military will indeed need to play a role in this venture. The official responsibilities of the Department of Defense (who, let’s not forget, is facing a future of budget cuts) as detailed by the APB envision a very active role for the military:
- DOD will further develop operational principles (i.e., doctrine) and planning techniques specifically tailored around atrocity prevention and response. The Joint Staff has prepared an appendix on mass atrocity response operations to be included in its Joint Publication on Peace Operations. This document will help ensure that forces have the training and knowledge to succeed in atrocity prevention missions.
- Geographic combatant commands will incorporate mass atrocity prevention and response as a priority in their planning, activities and engagements.
- DOD will routinely organize exercises incorporating mass atrocity prevention and response scenarios to test operational concepts supporting mass atrocity prevention and response.
- DOD will continue to develop more agile planning processes and tools so options can be developed quickly in emergency situations.
It is a regrettable fact that America’s civilian corps has not been used to its full potential in the past. The extensive expertise provided by diplomats and other civil servants was wasted in Iraq and is floundering in Afghanistan. However, let’s be realistic: preventing mass atrocities is going to involve physical force to back up civilian-brokered agreements, or enforce negotiated territory, or break up escalating conflict. Every atrocity is going to have a different root cause, different actors, and different possible solutions. Our Armed Forces will make an appearance in one way or another, so let’s not pretend that attempting to prevent atrocities is not going to lead to more foreign military entanglements, and more foreign military complications.
Caitlin Prichard is the Editorial and Communications Manager at WorldAffairsJournal.org. She graduated from American University with a bachelor's degree in International Affairs with a concentration in U.S. Foreign Policy and the Middle East.