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The potential of America's 'Atrocities Prevention Board'

Welcoming the Obama administration’s launch of a new inter-agency body – the Atrocities Prevention Board – and other measures to enhance US responsiveness to the threat of mass atrocities and genocide, the Council on Foreign Relations this week put forward an analysis of its key benefits, as well as potential obstacles to the new doctrine.

The Council on Foreign Relations is one of the most influential foreign policy think-tanks in the US.

“These are commendable - arguably overdue - initiatives,” the CFR said of the Presidential Study Directive (PSD-10) authorizing the new initiatives.

“[In the past] the US response to the threat of mass atrocities and genocide often has been too little, too late, and too improvised. Senior policymakers frequently have been unaware or distracted by other events when atrocities break out.”

“Once the magnitude of the threat becomes apparent, the range of practical responses has often narrowed and the potential costs of action rises to unpalatable levels. Generating the political will to act then becomes that much more difficult. The result is typically a muddled, ad hoc set of responses designed to contain the consequences with minimum commitment.”

These are extracts from the CFR's research note (for full text see here):

Benefits of PSD-10:

First, by explicitly making the prevention of atrocities and genocide a presidential priority, PSD-10 provides a high-level sanction for the U.S. military and civilian agencies to plan and prepare for this mission.

Second, the directive also calls for the intelligence community to improve its support for atrocity-prevention efforts. Predicting the outbreak of atrocities with a high degree of confidence is no doubt a difficult task, but scholars have in recent years improved our understanding of telltale risk factors, such as leadership instability and ethnic polarization.

But without a high-level body of policymakers to receive such early warning information, it is effectively worthless. The new Atrocities Prevention Board, augmented by the recently created National Security Staff directorate for atrocities and war crimes, could serve as that body--one potentially empowered to push for proactive responses.

Third, the directive's goal of producing a comprehensive policy framework could expand the range of early response options - particularly non-military ones - available to senior U.S. officials. It avoids the false choice of "sending in the Marines or doing nothing" that has often stymied early action in the past.

The U.S. government already holds a number of diplomatic, economic, and legal tools that can help halt or reverse escalating threats.

Tough Questions:

First, will the new atrocity-prevention structures and processes become "mainstreamed" within the national security apparatus? Recent history demonstrates that the established bureaucracy can marginalize or eliminate good faith efforts to change the status quo.

Second, will the elevated priority given to atrocity prevention continue with subsequent administrations? In the wake of the Rwanda debacle, the Clinton administration established the Atrocity Prevention Inter-Agency Working Group in 1998 only to have it disappear when Bush took office two years later. Other similar initiatives have fallen by the wayside as new administrations desire to distance or distinguish themselves from their predecessors.

Third, and most importantly, will the American people support what some will doubtless see as altruistic efforts with little bearing on U.S. interests? As the United States' fiscal position worsens and calls for strategic retrenchment intensify, such sentiments are sure to increase.

And no post-Cold War president has ever ordered a large-scale military intervention to stop atrocities without significant public support.

This possibility only makes institutionalizing the preventive measures resulting from PSD-10 all the more important.