National Security & Defense

Obama’s ‘Atrocity Prevention Board’ — Abandoned, but Not Forgotten

President Obama and Elie Wiesel at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2012. (White House via Flickr)

In April 2012, Barack Obama went to the Holocaust Museum to declare, in solemn tones, that the lessons of the Holocaust and other episodes of genocide must be learned — and under his leadership American would learn them. Never again! he said. And he called that day for establishing a new government body called the Atrocity Prevention Board.

Now the fanfares of 2012 have died down, and Syrians are dying by the hundreds of thousands, so it is fair to ask, “Whatever happened to all those claims, all that moral posturing, and that board?” Now comes a dispassionate assessment of the institution, by James P. Finkel in the journal Genocide Studies and Prevention.

The article is titled “Moving Beyond the Crossroads: Strengthening the Atrocity Prevention Board.” Finkel (whom I’ve known for years in his government capacities) is now affiliated with George Washington University after a 35-year career as a senior civil servant. He participated in the Obama administration’s initial studies on genocide prevention and attended a lot of the board’s meetings during its first year. Finkel has a number of very practical ideas about how to make the board work better, because he understands the workings of the federal bureaucracy very well.

President Obama twice went to the Holocaust Museum to talk about the board, and to tell us that genocide prevention was absolutely central for him and his administration. I suppose that no one believes that anymore, given that the president has presided over one of the great humanitarian catastrophes of our time: the civil war in Syria. There are perhaps 300,000 dead, 8 million displaced persons, and 4 million refugees, and chemical-weapons use continues — unchallenged by the United States. But it is worth reading some of the things Finkel’s article says about how the administration has kept the commitments it made with such self-congratulation:

The President’s decision to announce the launch in August 2011 of Presidential Study 10 (PSD 10) aimed at finding more effective ways for the US government to prevent and . . . respond to atrocities beyond our borders at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum was deliberate. Indeed, the President went so far in that initial speech as to declare the prevention of genocides and mass atrocities a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States, placing these issues for the first time squarely at the center of an administration’s agenda. He returned to the Museum some eight months later in April of 2012 to declare that the study had been completed, that he had accepted all of its recommendations . . . and that he was instructing his National Security Council to establish an Atrocity Prevention Board whose job would be to further flesh out the study’s findings, put them into practice, and ensure that Washington’s efforts to prevent genocides and other forms of mass atrocity would hereafter have real bite. . . . 

The tone and content of the President’s speeches, along with the choice of the Museum for their venue, raised expectations among human rights groups both at home and abroad at least initially that a more muscular US atrocity prevention policy was in the offing. . . . 

Among those who had followed atrocity issues for some time, a sense soon emerged that despite having rolled out the APB with considerable fanfare, the President and influential members of the White House staff were stepping away from the initiative. Some prominent participants in the President’s newly formed APB bristled privately over the White House’s reluctance to further discuss the Board or its work publicly, while the President himself seemed to avoid further references to the Board or its work. An Executive Order that was supposed to have followed the President’s announcement of the Board and the acceptance of PSD 10’s recommendations was quietly shelved without explanation. . . . 

The APB fared little better in other key foreign policy Departments and Agencies. For example, one regular participant in the State Department’s senior staff meetings noted that while Secretary Clinton had also given an important speech about atrocity prevention at the Holocaust Museum, they were unable to recall an instance in which the issue of taking further steps to strengthen atrocity prevention within the Department as a whole had been broached during those meetings.

So, no executive order, not even now, years later. State Department senior staff meetings each day where no one can recall even a mention of atrocity prevention. It’s all down what Orwell called the memory hole. Finkel discusses at length the work that civil servants and other officials did to make the new board work effectively, and he thinks it can. But the passages I have quoted reveal that the problem is not structural; it’s a lack of leadership.

#share#The president made his announcement at the Holocaust Museum in the presence of Elie Wiesel, the author and Holocaust survivor, on April 23, 2012. Wiesel could not stay silent and responded with a comment on the Holocaust — and more:

It could have been prevented. The greatest tragedy in history could have been prevented had the civilized world spoken up, taken measures in 1939, ’40, ’41, ’42. Each time, in Berlin, Geobbels and the others always wanted to see what would be the reaction in Washington and London and Rome, and there was no reaction so they felt they could continue. So in this place we may ask: Have we learned anything from it? If so, how is it that Assad is still in power?

In his own remarks, Obama summed up the problem with what is now a terrible indictment of his own policy on genocide and toward Syria: “Remembrance without resolve is a hollow gesture. Awareness without action changes nothing.”

We don’t really need an Atrocity Prevention Board. Certainly what we need far more is a president who will act to prevent atrocities — and whom the thugs and killers will fear when they consider their own next moves. And no more Obama speeches on this, please; after all, remembrance without resolve is a hollow gesture.

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow in Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former deputy national-security adviser.

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