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Atrocities Prevention Board, One Year Later

President Obama announced the creation of the Atrocities Prevention Board a year ago today. Less than four months later, my colleague Michael Rubin pointed out the futility of the board, noting that it would “never be able to enact policies against the will of the White House, the State Department, or Congress.” Over the past year, the board has been conspicuously invisible, and not just on Syria. Robert Skloot and Samuel Totten lament the on-going atrocities committed by the Islamist regime in Sudan, and note that:

The Atrocities Prevention Board seems to have accomplished little to nothing over the past year. It has issued no pronouncements in regard to any of the ongoing humanitarian crises in the world — not about the appalling situation in Sudan, in Congo, in Syria and so on. Members of the board have also refused to respond to correspondence from dozens of scholars of genocide studies and human rights activists (ourselves included) calling on the board to urge Obama to insist that the United Nations support actions that would protect vulnerable and suffering populations. Our letters have gone unanswered and unacknowledged.

As Michael noted, one of the weaknesses of the left’s approach to human rights, illustrated both by Samantha Power, the head of the board, and Professors Skloot and Totten, is their reliance on the United Nations. And there is something piquant about a board that must, if it is true to its mission, call for more U.S. interventions, being brought into existence by a president who has made it perfectly clear that he wants to intervene less. Max Boot recalls that Power has criticized U.S. officials for tending to oppose both genocide in the abstract and American involvement in particular cases. I’d add that, before Iraq and Obama came along, Power made a living on her explicit claim that the problem was lack of political will to intervene, and that ways should be found to raise the political cost to leaders who refuse to do so. When the board was announced, critics feared it would be a bully pulpit for intervention. There seems no risk of that today. Far from raising Obama’s costs, the board is in practice enabling his leadership from behind.

A look at the White House “Fact Sheet” of a year ago shows just how easy it is to put out bold-sounding statements that are undermined by events. According to this “comprehensive strategy,” the U.S. is supposed to deny visas to human rights abusers: it took Congressional leadership to pass the Magnitsky Act, and the administration’s implementation of its visa restrictions has been half-hearted at best. The strategy was supposed to “increase the ability of the United States Government to ‘surge’ specialized expertise”: as Elliott Abrams notes in his recent review of David Rohde’s Beyond War, the Afghan surge was flawed from the start by Obama’s insistence that it last only 18 months, which led to the predictable waste of U.S. foreign aid. And, of course, there was its predictable emphasis on strengthening the U.N.’s capacity, which, after the U.N.’s catastrophic, cholera-inducing intervention in Haiti, is a bad joke.

It’s about as likely that the U.S. will develop the ability to predict atrocities before they happen as it is that we’ll develop the ability to predict events like the Arab Spring before they happen. It’s all too easy to make a list of places where bad things are more likely to happen: any place where government is either really strong or really weak is a contender to head the list. Nor is there any secret about where the world’s atrocities are happening today: Syria, North Korea, Iran, the DRC, and Sudan, among others. The usual suspects.

The problem is not that we lack the administrative tools to recognize this. It’s not even that this administration has in practice been more interested in cozying up to Russia, downplaying radical Islamism, and kicking the can down the road in Syria and Iran, though all of that will feature heavily in the work of a future Samantha Power. It’s that these are, in Power’s own words, problems from hell, and you don’t address problems from hell with a nice, well-mannered, invisible inter-agency board.


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