Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

A Post About Genocide

Posted in U.S. Foreign and Defense Policy by Dan on March 10, 2010

These days, the White House’s docket is full of foreign-policy problems.  Iraq is creeping up on President Obama’s “to do list,” with Iraqi elections taking place on March 7 and U.S. troops withdrawing in mass this summer.  Afghanistan is priority number one for the Obama White House, with American and NATO troops wrapping up the biggest offensive in the country since 2001.  And of course, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is traveling across the world to muster up support for a sanctions package aimed at Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps.

So with all of these concerns giving Obama’s main men and women headaches, it’s not shocking to hear that other problems, like genocide, are on the back-burner.  You hardly see news reports on U.S. efforts to combat genocide and the mass killing of civilians, apart from a few glimpses of Sudan.

But courtesy of human rights activists and well respected people inside Washington, the issue of genocide appears to be making a comeback.  Michael Abramowitz and Lawrence Woocher are two such individuals who are rejuvenating the entire debate, most recently in a web-exclusive article they both published at FP.com.

To sum up their findings, Abramowitz and Woocher are worried that the United States is not living up to their expectations when it comes to preventing large scale genocide.  The solution?  A brand new cabinet-level agency exclusively devoted to genocide should be placed within the National Security Council.

Preventing genocide and mass-killing before the problems surface is certainly a worthwhile goal. As the world’s last remaining superpower, the United States has a moral responsibility to make sure genocide (like the one that took place in Rwanda and the Congo, and the one currently taking place in Darfur) does not occur. And even if mass-killing does occur, the United States and its European allies should make sure that the violence does not spread to other areas, thereby destabilizing an entire region.

My only fear with creating an executive-level task force is the precedent it would create for the U.S.  With hundreds of thousands of American troops still in Iraq and Afghanistan, and with thousands stationed in Europe and South Korea, does Washington have the resources needed to actually stop conflict before it happens? And what if a task force was created? Does this mean that the U.S. is required to stop each and every civilian conflict from breaking out? If so, that is a heck of a hill to climb, even with the world’s strongest and efficient military.

Tackling genocide is a complex problem. You cannot simply look at genocides as a universal problem, hoping that a single remedy will somehow tame the killing. While the mass slaughtering of civilians is especially gruesome, genocide does not start out in such a violent form. All conflicts stem from a specific grievance. The reason that Sudan has been in a civil war for close to fifty years is because of ethnic differences (of course, an autocrat as President does not help the situation either). Sometimes, genocide stems from the rise of a single leader, like Adolf Hitler in Germany or Pol-Pot in Cambodia, in which case regime-change may be the best option.

If indeed the President creates a genocidal task-force, I hope he understands that the U.S. cannot do everything. In some cases (when a conflict is already ongoing) making sure it doesn’t expand territorially is a better geopolitical strategy. In instances where genocide has yet to surface, the U.S. and its allies are right to step-in and negotiate between the parties. Sometimes it will work, and sometimes it won’t.

Idealism is great. Everyone in this world wants to prevent the mass killing of civilians before they happen, for the sake of both humanity and peace.  No one likes to witness bloody and horrendous pictures on television (remember the awful images of the Rwandan genocide in 1994?).  But we have to remember that idealism is not always achievable. Too much idealism often makes resentment more profound, and more often than not an intervening force has to take sides.  Sometimes, too much idealism can lead to costly mistakes (a.k.a. Iraq).

-Daniel R. DePetris

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**Comments courtesy of Michael Abramowitz and Lawrence Woocher at FP.com**


3 Responses

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  1. Ryddle said, on March 10, 2010 at 6:07 pm

    In theory, you are correct. However, agreeing with Dan DePetris, the task is, as of now, almost impossible. US politics have shifted through the years between overextension and isolation; as of now, they are spread thin, and Americans turn more and more against war and intervention. To pick one more area for the US to intervene will make matters worse; plus, personally, I am kind of sick of the US handling most the crisis and situations abroad while the rest of the world takes the advantage of this, and gives little, if any, help.

  2. AJK said, on March 14, 2010 at 1:15 am

    I’ve been meaning to drop a line on your blog for a while now, but here’s as good a time as any.

    Sudan is one of the fastest growing economies and fastest growing middle-classes in the world. And not on a “10 times $100 = $1,000” level, but on a real, serious, level of being up there with the Kazakhstans, Polands, and Vietnams of the world (not places you want your 10-year-old going, but still actual countries). The time to actually do something about Sudan has passed, there’s really not much the US can do at this point.

    I have the feeling a Genocide Seat is just going to be a Make a Big Fuss and Sit There Seat.

    • Dan said, on March 14, 2010 at 2:38 am

      I tend to agree with you. For the past year, President Obama has tried to coax Omar al-Bashir and his government on a variety of issues. Whether the issue being discussed is Darfur, regional stability, or rapproachment with the west, Khartoum has not been that receptive. The Enough Project- possibly the biggest “Save Darfur” group in Washington today- is lobbying the White House to stop giving the Sudanese Government incentives that they simply do not deserve. In fact, Sudan is so divisive that members of the Obama administration are split on what to do; Special Envoy Scott Gration still believes that bribing is the best course of action, whereas others like Secretary Clinton are not so sure (http://thecable.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2010/03/02/gration_on_darfur_inside_a_meeting_gone_wrong).

      Like you said, the time may not be right for engagement right now. The Sudanese Government is too preoccupied with the referendum that will take place in 2011, which could split the country in half entirely. And I think it is safe to say that Khartoum will do anything possible to disrupt the referendum, even if this means drumming up more violence in the South (http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/03/11/sudan_is_still_up_to_no_good).

      Genocide needs to be tackled on a case-by-case basis, not lumped into some single conglomerate. While all genocide is especially gruesome, the United States may need to pick and choose which genocide it wants to stop…in line with our national-interests. It’s not a pretty way of dealing with the terror, but it sure beats sitting on the sidelines.

      Thanks for the comment and check back in soon! Spread the word!

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