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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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The public profile the APB has taken is almost vanishingly low. It has scarcely been mentioned in news accounts since the announcement of its creation. The administration has yet to release, even in redacted form, the original study report that PSD-10 ordered up. And the APB has had only dog-and-pony-show contact with human rights groups and experts outside government. Power, meanwhile, is leaving the administration, at least for a time. (She is widely considered a favorite to succeed Susan Rice as ambassador to the United Nations, though Rice has made no announcement of departure plans.)

And yet, despite the impetus for the board falling long before Syria exploded and the absence of the board in policy decisions concerning Syria, the Atrocities Prevention Board does loom large in relation to Syria policy. Because how, really, do you announce you are setting up an Atrocities Prevention Board in the midst of mass atrocities? Won’t someone ask, sooner rather than later, snarkily or in earnest: What exactly is the Atrocities Prevention Board doing to prevent atrocities in Syria?

The timing of the establishment of the APB has the appearance of exquisite refinement—just over a week after a (bogus) cease-fire announcement by the Syrian government but before the Syrian government ceased pretending to agree to a cease-fire; two days after (still) the most successful Security Council resolution on Syria, April 21, 2012, which authorized more monitors for the cease-fire that didn’t exist and more support for the mission of Special Envoy Kofi Annan—a mission Annan would abandon in futility about three months later. This might have been the finest hour of the international community’s attempt to do something about Syria—grading on a curve, that is. So it was time to announce the APB.

It is unsurprising that as conditions in Syria only got worse, the APB bunkered, focusing its work elsewhere, perhaps on such scheduled potential crises as the one in Kenya following elections March 4. What else could it do? After all, it owes its existence to President Obama’s personally stated conclusion, quoted above: “Preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States.” The president continued in PSD-10, “America’s reputation suffers, and our ability to bring about change is constrained, when we are perceived as idle in the face of mass atrocities and genocide.” The APB by its very existence serves to remind people that that’s what Obama professed to believe in the midst of doing nothing effective to stop the mass killing of civilians in Syria.

Perhaps somebody can get the president off on a technicality. I hope it’s not that the number of dead Syrians hasn’t yet met the criterion for “mass” atrocities. Maybe the defense rests on the distinction between “completely ineffectual” (which we have been) and “idle” (which we arguably have not been). Some have warned of the difficulties and dangers of coping with Syria’s air defenses in order to establish a no-fly zone or to destroy artillery pieces in the act of shelling civilians. Yet somehow I doubt that the contest between the U.S. Navy and Air Force on one side and the Syrian military on the other would be a close one. Prudential considerations are always relevant, but this is not a case of Russia abusing Chechen civilians or China Tibetans.

As to our ability to influence a post-Assad Syria, it is clearly limited—not least by our unwillingness to help the people who are seeking to overthrow him. Obama is said to have concluded that Assad is going anyway and that supplying arms to the rebels would make little difference. If it’s true that Assad’s regime is doomed, it would make sense to find some people among those who will vie to succeed him with whom we can do business. And the focus on the narrow question of whether arms from the United States would make a difference seems to be a rather transparent attempt to change the subject from the more basic questions of whether the judicious and prudent application of U.S. military power could have ended this conflict and saved civilian lives, and whether it still can.

The real conclusion invited by the creation of the Atrocities Prevention Board amid ongoing mass atrocities in Syria seems to be this: Preventing mass atrocities is “a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States”—except when it isn’t. 

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