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.”
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.
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.
The creation of the Atrocities Prevention Board followed more than a decade’s worth of international consciousness-raising on the need for concerted action (by whom is always a question) to prevent or halt genocide and mass slaughter. At the 2005 United Nations World Summit, member states formally embraced the “responsibility to protect,” a principle of humanitarian intervention aimed at stopping atrocities. Briefly, the principle holds that states have a responsibility to protect populations residing on their territory from genocide and lesser atrocities; if they cannot or will not act in fulfillment of this responsibility, the international community may intervene to provide protection. The intention of the principle, known colloquially as R2P, is to defeat claims that states might make about their sovereign right to noninterference in their internal affairs in order to shield their own acts of mass atrocity or their failure to stop atrocities.
R2P, though it is often described as an emerging norm in international politics and international law, has always been controversial. Needless to say, authoritarian states complicit in atrocities will never do more than pay lip service to any such responsibility toward the people they rule. Other states have expressed concerns that R2P is indistinguishable from neocolonialism and amounts to a “right of intervention” by strong states in pursuit of their national interests against weaker states. Critics have also noted the potential unevenness of the application of R2P: Powerful states with the ability to deter military intervention will be able to disregard the asserted responsibility. That’s the Chechen and Tibetan problem.
There is, moreover, the vexing question of how the “international community” decides to act to fulfill the responsibility to protect when a state is failing to fulfill it. The “World Summit Outcome” document vests this authority with the Security Council:
138. Each individual State has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. This responsibility entails the prevention of such crimes, including their incitement, through appropriate and necessary means. We accept that responsibility and will act in accordance with it. The international community should, as appropriate, encourage and help States to exercise this responsibility and support the United Nations in establishing an early warning capability.
139. The international community, through the United Nations, also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means, in accordance with Chapters VI and VIII of the Charter, to help to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. In this context, we are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council, in accordance with the Charter, including Chapter VII, on a case-by-case basis and in cooperation with relevant regional organizations as appropriate, should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities are manifestly failing to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.
It’s doubtful that all states genuinely supporting the principle of the responsibility to protect would take the view that international action and intervention always require a Security Council resolution. The NATO military intervention in Kosovo, though it predated the adoption of R2P, was clearly a humanitarian intervention to protect civilians. Thanks to Russia, it lacked a Security Council resolution of authorization, leading some to conclude that the intervention was illegal (although some embracing this conclusion nonetheless viewed the intervention as morally justifiable). The United States, to pick one great power, has often preferred to try to work through the Security Council, but has generally reserved the option of acting on its own authority. It is perhaps telling that in taking military action against Georgia in 2008, the Russian Federation ludicrously cited its supposed “responsibility to protect” ethnic Russians residing in Georgia.
The 2011 NATO intervention in Libya is, to date, the most conspicuous example of the application of R2P. Security Council Resolutions 1970 and 1973 refer directly to the Libyan government’s responsibility to protect its people and its failure to do so. The first of these demanded a halt to violence against civilians; the second authorized member states “to take all necessary measures” to protect civilians.
The case of Libya was therefore R2P at its most pristine—military action to protect civilians under the authority of the Security Council. Except that the NATO mission in Libya also had the unstated goal of toppling the regime of Muammar Qaddafi, at which it succeeded, and this was in no way authorized by the Security Council resolutions (which would certainly have fallen to Russian and Chinese vetoes had they been put forward with any such authorization).
The use of R2P to topple Qaddafi did not go over well, to put it mildly. A substantial part of the reason Russia and China have blocked any meaningful Security Council resolution on Syria is their view that the authority the Security Council granted in the case of Libya was abused. Perhaps the blatant use of the chemical weapons the Assad regime reportedly has at its disposal would fundamentally alter the debate at the Security Council. But as things stand, the likelihood of a resolution authorizing “all necessary measures” to protect civilians in Syria is zero.
Given the dimensions of the loss of life in Syria, one could be forgiven for wondering whether R2P is now as dead a letter at the United Nations as President Obama’s declaration that preventing mass atrocities is “a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States.”
But that would be to misunderstand both the responsibility to protect and the impetus behind the creation of the APB. The notion that R2P would somehow harden into customary international law that binds states, or even into a norm of international politics that would dictate the course of action of the “international community” in difficult cases, was surely misguided. Similarly, the APB is not going to be running U.S. government policy when atrocities loom, let alone when they break out.
R2P is, at its best, a tool in the hands of states and statesmen willing to hold perpetrators of atrocities to account. It provides a legitimate basis for rejecting, in cases of mass atrocity, the principle of noninterference in the affairs of sovereign states. It will never be a substitute for political will, but rather can be an instrument of political will.
The same is true of the APB. Properly managed, it can be an effective tool in building awareness inside the government of potential trouble spots. It can assess what resources might be available to try to nip problems in the bud and guide those assets to the task. It can do so not only in specific cases, but also in promoting the drafting of guidance and planning documents to deal with various contingencies as they arise. It can perform a government-wide “lessons learned” function, long sorely missing, following outbreaks of atrocities, as well as in the more epistemologically challenging cases of the successful prevention of atrocities (you can’t really prove you prevented an atrocity, since there was no atrocity). In a better world, its chairman would stand somberly alongside as the president explains what the United States will do to stop the loss of tens of thousands more lives.
What the APB cannot do is compel U.S. government action to prevent atrocities. That’s where political will comes in. It cannot be generated by a committee or a principle of action, and there is nothing that can take its place.
The Obama administration’s extensive engagement at the United Nations over Syria is in effect substituting the pursuit of procedural compliance with R2P in the form adopted by the United Nations for the pursuit of the actual protection of Syrian civilians. Consciously or not, that may be the point. Samantha Power’s book presses the case that modern genocides have not represented failures of U.S. government policy or of the “international community,” but rather the success of policies of inaction and nonintervention. Such a policy dare not speak its name. It travels instead under a false flag—the inability of the Security Council to take action, say, or the insistent propagation of the view that taking action of any kind would be both reckless and ineffectual.
To judge by news reports, President Obama is now being pressed to revisit his decisions on Syria. If he is serious about doing anything to protect Syrians and vindicating his own claims with regard to a core American interest and responsibility, he will bypass the procedural bottleneck at the United Nations. He should have done so long ago. And if he doesn’t, it will be entirely plausible for critics to suggest that the impasse at the United Nations is actually serving the ends of a deliberate U.S. policy of inaction.
And here, perhaps, is the ultimate utility of the establishment of the Atrocities Prevention Board and the adoption of the principle of the responsibility to protect. Given Syria and any future such instances in which action is possible but the possibility denied, they serve to shame.
Tod Lindberg is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford, and a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.