A new report by the Council on Foreign Relations gives a useful analysis of the potential benefits and inevitable problems that will accompany the Obama administration’s Aug. 4 presidential directive to establish an Atrocities Prevention Board.
Taking a look at the country’s past, Andrew Miller and Paul Stares cite previous failures by the United States to prevent mass atrocities. Numerous administrations have been hamstrung by the lack of a truly comprehensive prevention framework. Miller and Stares contend that these past failures were not necessarily due to lack of will, but rather that high-level policymakers were not receiving information about small incidents that were indicative of a potential escalation in conflicts. Rwanda and Darfur, they say, serve as two stark examples in which high-level policymakers were unaware of the situations until the killing started and the only viable options were “sending in the Marines or doing nothing.”
Miller and Stares highlight the new plan’s potential for effective prevention in three key ways: 1) guaranteeing political and material support from the military and civil society, 2) establishing an early warning system, and 3) providing policymakers a structure that is capable of decisive action.
First and foremost, by framing the prevention of mass atrocities as “a core national security interest,” the Obama administration has given both the military and civil society “mandates” to prepare for prevention. As Miller and Stares point out, this gives agencies extra incentive to build their budgets in such a way that they can carry out this mission.
Next, the intelligence community must improve its early warning system. This system will be an interagency endeavor, allowing the government to develop adequate, timely responses—which Miller and Stares believe will include the use of economic, diplomatic, and legal tools.
Still, this information is useless unless relayed to the upper echelons of the policymaking community. The Atrocities Prevention Board is meant to do just that: It gives the intelligence community access to influential policymakers whose sole duty is to prevent mass atrocities, providing a much-needed link that was missing in the past.
The second section of the report examines pitfalls facing the system. Miller and Stares ask a few questions, the first being whether “the new atrocity-prevention structures and processes [will] become ‘mainstreamed’ within the national security apparatus?” This is critical, given how many other well-intentioned initiatives have been pushed to the wayside, including the Interagency Management System (now defunct) and the Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization (S/CRS), both created by George W. Bush but since relegated to the periphery.
The report also raises the issue of whether or not subsequent presidents will support the Atrocities Prevention Board at all, given that each new administration tends to dismantle the initiatives of its predecessor.
Finally they ask whether or not in a time of financial crisis and an increasingly unpopular intervention in Libya, the American public will support the allocation of resources to finance future interventions worldwide.
Despite much initial praise from a number of organizations and governments worldwide, it stands to be seen whether Obama’s directive will yield a lasting and effective system for the prevention of mass atrocities. The Presidential directive ordered an “interagency review” to prepare relevant agencies for additional duties that would be required of them before the Atrocities Prevention Board would be up and running. According to the timeline set by the directive, the Board should be fully functioning by the beginning of December.