President Barack Obama has established by an executive order an Atrocity Prevention Board. After the 120 day study and planning period (which will determine the writ of the APB), the board will be chaired by Samantha Power, a senior White House foreign policy adviser, NSC staffer and an aggressive advocate of R2P .
This is not likely to end well.
Presidential boards, commissions, study groups and other executive branch bodies are political agendas that power has made into bureaucratic flesh. Some, like the Warren Commission or the Iraq Study Group were transient for an instrumental purpose; others, like the Defense Policy Board put down roots and become real institutions. Some are killed for partisan reasons by new administrations (as Rumsfeld did to DACOWITS by letting it’s charter expire and then remolding it) or from congressional pique (this terminated the Public Diplomacy Commission) while some linger on for decades in zombie status, politically irrelevant but still animate, due to the inertia of bureaucracy.
What is interesting about these various bodies is that without the statutory powers granted to agencies created by legislation, they are merely empty shells unless filled with influential figures with clout or blessed by the patronage of high officials. If this is the case, even very obscure bodies can be platforms for impressive political action. Creepy and cloying old Joe Kennedy parlayed a minor post on a maritime commission and his vast fortune to become successively FDR’s SEC Chairman and the Ambassador to the Court of St. James, where he dispensed bad geopolitical advice and pushed the future careers of his sons, netting a president and two senators. The role of the Defense Policy Board in the run-up to the Iraq War is well known and I am told that one can even launch a constellation of careers and a powerhouse think tank from something as mundane and thankless as writing a COIN manual 😉
It is safe to say that the new Atrocity Prevention Board is not going to be window decoration.
Many people who are seeing what I am seeing in this move are now uneasily prefacing their critical comments with “Well, who can be against stopping atrocities, right?”. Let me say with complete candor: I can. The Atrocity Prevention Board is a great sounding bad idea that represents an impossible task in terms of Ways, unaffordable in terms of Means and unacheivable in relation to Ends. Worse, by holding the national security community hostage to the serendipity of governmental cruelty on a global scale, the intelligent pursuit of national interests are effectively foreclosed and the initiative ceded to random, unconnected, events. This worst kind of institutionalized crisis management time horizon also comes weighted with implicit theoretical assumptions about the end of national sovereignty that would, I expect, surprise most Americans and which we will soon regret embracing.
Given the ambitions and missionary zeal of some R2P advocates and their ADHD approach to military intervention, it is unsurprising that this new entity was not titled “The Genocide Prevention Board”. Genocide, which the United States has definitive treaty obligations to recognize and seek to curtail, is too narrowly defined and too rare an event for such a purpose. “Atrocities” can be almost any scale of lethal violence and could possibly include “non-lethal” violence as well. This is a bureaucratic brief for global micromanagement by the United States that makes the Bush Doctrine appear isolationist and parsimonious in comparison.
A while back, while commenting on R2P, I wrote:
…As Containment required an NSC-68 to put policy flesh on the bones of doctrine, R2P will require the imposition of policy mechanisms that will change the political community of the United States, moving it away from democratic accountability to the electorate toward “legal”, administrative, accountability under international law; a process of harmonizing US policies to an amorphous, transnational, elite consensus, manifested in supranational and international bodies. Or decided privately and quietly, ratifying decisions later as a mere formality in a rubber-stamping process that is opaque to everyone outside of the ruling group.
The president is entitled to arrange the deck chairs as he sees fit, and in truth, this anti-strategic agenda can be executed just as easily through the NSC or offices in the West Wing, but the creation of a formal board is the first step to institutionalizing and “operationalizing a R2P foreign policy” under the cover of emotionalist stagecraft and networking machinations. A doctrine of which the American electorate is generally unaware and the Congress would not support legislatively (if there was a hope in Hell of passage, the administration would have submitted a wish-list bill).
This will not be a matter of just going abroad looking for monsters to slay but of a policy machine that can spew out straw monsters at need even when they don’t exist.
What others are saying about the APB:
Foreign Policy (Walt) –Is the ‘Atrocity Prevention Board‘ a good idea?
Duck of Minerva (Western) –Institutionalizing Atrocity Prevention