Numerous news outlets have reported on the new Atrocities Prevention Board unveiled byPresident Obama as part of commemorating Holocaust Remembrance Day, and quite a few have expressed skepticism. It’s one thing to create a board; another entirely to take action using the tools of national power.
Defining “atrocity” will be a stiff challenge. If something seems awful but the US administration doesn’t really want to intervene in it, will it be defined as an “atrocity”? If it’s defined as an atrocity but we don’t do anything other than blather about it, what exactly will be the point of the Atrocities Prevention policy?
Presumably, a due-out from the Atrocities Prevention Board (APB) will be a periodically updated list of which foreign activities and ongoing events the United States considers to be atrocities. The absence of any such communication will render the APB so pointless as to be a daily unfolding satire. Silence from an Atrocities Prevention Board is inherently untenable.
Yet assembling that list will be a heavily politicized process. Will we call “atrocities” things we have no power to intervene in? If the American people are reluctant to take on an “atrocity” intervention, is there any political value for the president in having the atrocity officially identified?
The president has appointed Samantha Power– the brain behind the “responsibility to protect” non-hostile kinetic military action in Libya – to head the APB, and she is on record as calling Israel a “major human rights abuser.” Here is her 2002 proposal for intervening in the Israeli-Palestinian Arab conflict:I think, more than sacrificing—billions of dollars, not in servicing Israel’s military, but actually investing in the new state of Palestine, in investing the billions of dollars it would probably take, also, to support what will have to be a mammoth protection force, not of the old Rwanda kind, but a meaningful military presence. Because it seems to me at this stage (and this is true of actual genocides as well, and not just major human rights abuses, which were seen there), you have to go in as if you’re serious, you have to put something on the line.
The American politics of this are a head-scratcher, but so is the definition in this case. If Power were to be specific about what she considers “human rights abuses,” one can only presume she would be speaking of checkpoints, the security fence between Israel and Gaza (the security wall with the West Bank had not been constructed in 2002), and Israel’s military attacks on terrorist strongholds in Gaza.Is the existence of border-security measures a justification for armed intervention? And if it is, how does it fit into the “mass atrocity” construct? If it doesn’t justify armed intervention, on the other hand, but something else – what is that something?Beyond these problematic points is a more fundamental one, which is the question of what international boundaries mean and how we will decide to use the elements of US power, including force, across them.
Territorial nationalism is what allows us to guarantee liberty and civil rights for ourselves, and to intervene abroad on the terms we consider appropriate. Global-political universalism is the enemy of liberty and national political discretion, as demonstrated most recently by the globalist Communist empire, but in earlier centuries by the Roman Empire.Ultimately, even in a narrow sense, “atrocity prevention” as a core mission of the US national security apparatus is a recipe for endless, end-state-less – and regional-pattern-distorting – involvement abroad.