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Interventionism Run Amok

Obama has just declared preventing mass atrocities to be a "core national security interest" of the United States. Americans, watch your wallets.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

August is already shaping up to be a historically bad month for America’s global standing. After barely avoiding an international economic crisis over its unsustainable debt, the United States had its credit rating downgraded for the first time in history. On Aug. 6, 30 U.S. troops were killed when their helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan, the single largest loss of American life during the longest war in U.S. history. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama has taken steps to wind down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the course of the conflict in Libya suggests little appetite for the use of ground forces in foreign interventions. Thus a recent announcement by the administration, which added yet another item to America’s national security to-do list, seemed odd.

Last Thursday, Aug. 4, the White House released the Presidential Study Directive (PSD) on Mass Atrocities (PSDs are used to initiate policy reviews and direct organizational and other activities by government agencies). The new directive’s opening line declares, "Preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States." Ornamented with the obligatory Beltway platitudes (another "whole of government" approach is needed here, naturally), the directive establishes an interagency "Atrocities Prevention Board" and directs an interagency study to, among other things, help define and develop the board.

No one would dispute the desirability of averting genocide. But the release of this directive, its ambitious opener, and the broader initiative are all strangely discordant with current realities. It appears to be part of a larger trend to make humanitarian intervention a national security priority. Such a move at this moment in history, while perhaps morally commendable, seems strategically quixotic.

Not only is the timing strange, but there are at least three more specific problems with the administration’s initiative.

First, it raises questions about how to properly describe conflicts and whether senior leaders can or should develop policy prescriptions in the abstract by conflict type. The directive declares, "Sixty six years since the Holocaust and 17 years after Rwanda, the United States still lacks a comprehensive policy framework and a corresponding interagency mechanism for preventing and responding to mass atrocities and genocide." But this would seem to apply equally to other forms of internal conflict, such as civil wars, to say nothing of a host of other global problems that Washington is unprepared to combat. Does the United States need to develop a specific "comprehensive policy framework" (whatever that is) and "interagency mechanism" for preventing and responding to all varieties of conflict?

Categorizing conflict is a useful way of studying the past; it allows for the development of doctrine, and because each conflict is not totally unique, history has much to tell us. But classifying conflict can also obscure more than it reveals. Often, classification schemes are the product of reflexive historical analogies, intellectual fads (remember "peace operations"?) and, above all, political considerations. These categories can be woefully misleading for a present or future reality that resists simple labels. Often, as in Iraq, multiple conflicts are occurring simultaneously. And history shows that most genocide is an outgrowth of civil war.  

To name a phenomenon is not necessarily to understand it. Naming can narrow the lens through which a conflict is understood, drain away its political complexity and historical particulars, and lead to cookbook answers. This is a particular risk when one cookbook exists (e.g., for mass atrocities) and another does not (say, for civil war). The old cliché is apt: When you have a hammer, all problems start to look like a nail. In 2006, respected analysts concluded that Iraq was not experiencing a classic insurgency but rather a communal war. It is more than a happy coincidence that the consensus on this question utterly reversed after the publication of the Army/Marine Corps counterinsurgency manual at the end of that year.

More troubling, Obama’s proposed approach to conflict prevention and resolution risks putting technique before strategy. The focus on "how" the United States will respond to a particular type of conflict could obscure the questions that should come first: whether, to what ends, and at what cost the United States should act. Should not America’s strategic interests, which would inevitably depend on the situation, first and foremost determine policy?

This leads to the second problem with the administration’s new initiative: It risks becoming little more than the latest justification for continual U.S. interventionism. The country is entering a difficult period of austerity, and the president has called for a focus on "nation-building here at home." America’s real and enduring financial woes are obvious; even China is taking this moment to lecture the United States on its "addiction to debts." A vanishingly small segment of the population has been deployed to two wars for nearly a decade at a cost of more than 6,000 dead, more than 42,000 wounded, and somewhere north of $2 trillion spent. The results of this investment are, at best, mixed. Now seems like a good time for "bringing our foreign policy home."

The third problem with the initiative is that it is likely to produce very little. Interagency study groups, reviews, and boards are a stock in trade of Washington bureaucracy, but increasingly a luxury in light of the government’s booming deficits and debt. Taxpayer dollars will be consumed on staff time attending meetings and likely on paying for conferences, outside consultants, and think-tank reports. At a time when there is real talk of cutting benefits to war veterans, it is questionable that this initiative will produce a tangible return on investment.

At best, the likely result of this activity is the appearance that the administration is "doing something" about mass atrocities. At worst, it could become a justification for perpetual American activism, all at the expense of the public, the tiny minority of military service members and their families, and the country’s strategic welfare. Here the administration might best heed the advice of historian Walter McDougall, "To preach a crusade is a dangerous thing, for you may just succeed in launching one."

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