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The Paradox of an “Atrocity Prevention” Doctrine

A version of this post originally appeared on the author’s blog.

Philip Gourevitch writes in this week’s New Yorker about President Obama’s careful avoidance of a “rigid foreign-policy doctrine,” and one of the points that emerges from the piece is that an “atrocity prevention” doctrine really isn’t much of a doctrine at all. Taking a stance against atrocities per se is the morally right thing to do, of course, but it’s also a negligible strategic move: no major western power would ever take a pro-atrocity stance on foreign policy, and moreover, political disagreements over how to conduct foreign policy tend to settle out to differences of opinion about how to define atrocities and which ones ought to take precedence. This is true on the domestic stage, as evidenced by McCain, Lieberman and the other hawks’ loud lobbying for more decisive action in Syria. It’s even more true on the international stage, where Israel’s interests are notably at odds with those of China and Russia.

A doctrine of any sort, but particularly one of foreign policy, needs to have some kind of goal-oriented driver in order to be a doctrine. This was the perversely appealing quality of the Bush Doctrine, which said that countries harboring terrorists and posing some kind of security threat to the U.S. amounted to an atrocity worthy of prevention, often via preemptive military action. Reasonable people can disagree over whether that was a justifiable stance by the standards of international law and basic morality, but there can’t be any disagreement over whether it was a doctrine. In the case of Bush’s foreign policy, there were a litany of mishaps, undesirable outcomes, and downright failures, and on that front it might be argued that Obama’s foreign policy has had a better overall track record: the wrapping up of two wars, the removal of America’s top enemy and many of its lesser ones, and effective support roles in Libya, Uganda and elsewhere. But operational success and strategic clarity are not the same thing, nor do they strictly imply each other, and enduring truth about American foreign policy is that solid strategy doesn’t always produce operational success, nor does operational success lead to strategic clarity.

On the doctrine front, Elie Wiesel has his preferences about which atrocities we ought to try to prevent, Dick Cheney and George Bush have theirs, and President Obama, I would suppose, doesn’t fully see eye to eye with any of them. But I don’t see how that supports a conclusion that President Obama and/or Elie Wiesel are atrocity preventionists while Cheney and Bush are not. It’s just that the disparity in operational success between Obama and Bush-Cheney, which is significant, must be brought to bear on judgments about the strategic clarity of their foreign policy doctrines with a greater degree of nuance. It’s possible, that is, to have a hazy strategy about atrocities, wars, terrorists, uprisings, rebellions, and so on, but to still have a reasonably high rate of operational success. That would be true of Obama’s foreign policy, and the inverse would be true of Bush’s.

This might have all turned out to be semantics under a different set of circumstances, but the case of Syria has turned out to pose a terribly real predicament for the Obama administration. Atrocities have surely taken place in Syria — Gourevitch writes that “The United Nations estimates that Assad’s men have now killed some ten thousand Syrians and tortured or imprisoned many more” — but if Obama’s foreign policy doctrine were really one of pure atrocity prevention, he would have already launched an air war against Syria, at the least. Quite possibly, the reason the U.S. has yet to act decisively in any respect is that shorting out the Annan-Assad negotiation, angering China and/or Russia, and stoking the flames of the Iran-Israel standoff could lead to a far more atrocious situation than what is currently gripping the region, and that would be on our hands to clean up.

Working to establish legal and humanitarian sanctions and accepting that the U.S. “cannot control every event” may not give the president, who has proven himself to be quite objective-oriented in foreign policy, much of a sense of satisfaction; certainly, it can’t compare to the feeling of killing Osama bin Laden and ending two wars. But such is the paradox of trying to prevent atrocities on the international stage; sometimes the greatest atrocities are prevented by measured inaction.

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