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How to Prevent Atrocities

There’s no substitute for presidential leadership

Mar 11, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 25 • By TOD LINDBERG
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In August 2011, about five months after Bashar al-Assad ordered the Syrian military to fire on unarmed demonstrators, President Obama issued his “Presidential Study Directive on Mass Atrocities.” PSD-10 instructed the executive branch to create an interagency group called the Atrocities Prevention Board, with senior representatives from the White House, all major cabinet departments, the military, foreign assistance and trade bureaus, and the intelligence community. The APB’s mission would be “to coordinate a whole-of-government approach to preventing mass atrocities and genocide,” which the president called “a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States.”

How to Prevent Atrocities

Atrocities in Syria


PSD-10 ordered up a report with recommendations for creating the Atrocities Prevention Board within 100 days and the APB to begin its work within 120 days. In the event, the review took the National Security Council staff longer, and the announcement of the establishment of the APB did not come until April 23, 2012. About a month before, a United Nations official informed the Security Council that the civilian death toll in Syria had reached 9,000. At this writing, civilian deaths stand at about 30,000, with more than 70,000 dead all told.

The juxtaposition of the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Syria and the establishment of an Atrocities Prevention Board could hardly go unremarked. As Sen. John McCain, long a proponent of U.S. military support for the Syrian opposition, acerbically noted on ABC’s This Week, “Thousands of people [are] being massacred in the streets, and the president—I’m not making this up—goes to the Holocaust Museum, where we said never again, and says that he is setting up an Atrocities Prevention Board.”

The real problem here is not the APB. At worst, the APB is contributing to the problem through sins of omission. The creation of the Atrocities Prevention Board had nothing to do with events in Syria. The APB was in the making long before Syria blew up, and indeed, before any of the Arab Spring eruptions. Its origins lie in the 2008 recommendations of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Genocide Prevention Task Force (on whose staff I served). The task force, chaired by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Defense Secretary William Cohen, called for the creation of an interagency group to coordinate the U.S. government’s response to gathering indications of atrocities, with an emphasis on early warning and timely action to defuse crisis situations before the body count starts to mount. The key player in the creation of the APB within the administration was Samantha Power, a senior NSC staff member, Obama confidante, and author of the hugely influential book A Problem from Hell, a study of failed responses to genocide.

Nor is the APB responsible for the Obama administration’s Syria policy. Those decisions belong to senior administration officials, starting with the president himself. The administration has continued to press its case for a U.N. Security Council resolution, without effect. Although considerable humanitarian aid has flowed from the United States to Syria, Obama has repeatedly and pointedly ruled out U.S. military intervention in the conflict and has rejected the lesser step of providing the Syrian rebels with military aid. The most dramatic instance, which came to light last month in congressional testimony and news reports, was Obama’s rejection last summer of a proposal to vet, train, and arm elements of the rebellion. The proposal had the support of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, CIA chief David Petraeus, and Joint Chiefs chairman Martin Dempsey—in short, was the consensus view of his senior national security team, only one of whom, Dempsey, is still serving.

This is policy-making at a far higher level than any interagency group at the assistant secretary level could aspire to control within this or any other administration. The Atrocities Prevention Board, chaired by Power, has been quietly conducting its meetings, delving into other potential crisis situations. It is still very new and weak institutionally, facing a struggle to obtain purchase against turf-based bureaucratic resistance. (At a recent dinner party, a long-serving Foreign Service officer with no direct involvement in the issue fairly dripped with disdain in describing the board as a waste of energy in relation to the regional and country expertise already available in Foggy Bottom; I take his comments to be representative of views in the building.) A presidential executive order, which would shore up the APB’s status within the administration, is in the works but not finished.

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