Tuesday, December 9, 2008

More Thoughts on the Genocide Prevention Report

In my initial response to the Genocide Prevention Report, I made some hay out of the refusal by Albright and Cohen, the co-chairs of the commission, to acknowledge what happened to the Armenians by its rightful name. That wasn't just churlishness on my part. The fact that the Commission's co-chairs felt so constrained reflects the underlying challenge facing anyone who wants the U.S. to take a more active role against mass atrocities: political logic almost always militates against intervention. Their refusal was, to borrow a word, symptomatic. Calling what happened to the Armenians a "genocide" costs more than not calling it one does--or so it seems to the officials tasked with making these decisions. The same was true, in their time, for bombing the Nazi rail lines, condemning the Cambodian killers, supporting beleaguered peacekeepers in Rwanda, or muscling in on Bashir. These go against our national interests, conceived in economic or security terms, and they offer political leaders far more downside potential than up. In the end, the only good reason to act against genocide is because it's the right thing to do.

Activists like to argue that this isn't so, that the costs of not acting invariably redound, with interest: in mounting regional insecurity, in the cost of sheltering and feeding refugees. Hence their frequent appeals to our enlightened self-interest. The Commission's report often seems to buy into that logic. Summarize. But even if this were true in strict dollar terms, those costs are minor to policymakers. No one ever lost an election because they sent grain to refugee camps. But every politician can imagine losing an election if soldiers start coming home in body bags. This can hardly be a surprise: it would be a strange world if doing the right thing always happened to be in our best interests.

The Commission's problem is that it cannot admit that political calculation and morality sometimes lead to different conclusions. And so our consistent failure to respond to episodes of mass murder becomes a mystery, best not probed too closely:
The world agrees that genocide is unacceptable and yet genocide and mass killings continue. Our challenge is to match words to deeds and stop allowing the unacceptable. That task, simple on the surface, is in fact one of the most persistent puzzles of our times.
If it must be done but it's not getting done, if it's a puzzle rather than an affront, then the problem must be technical--a matter of establishing the right committees, processes, reviews, and guidelines. And that, in fact, is what the Commission spends most of its time proposing.

summarize them. (this is a work in progress.)

all fine ideas, I suppose, many proposed variations before. I don't have the expertise to evaluate them on their merits; but I do know that the U.S. could have had every one of these institutions in place yet done nothing differently. In Rwanda, for example.

In truth, the problem has never been a lack of foreknowledge or institutional capacity. The problem is that moral considerations are not only given little weight, but actively anathematized by institutions like the state and defense departments. As Samantha Power argued in Problem from Hell, her masterly account of U.S. responses to genocide, the culture at these institutions views moral appeals as weak, soft, emotional, and irrelevant. A hard realism pervades U.S. foreign policy, legitimizing that contempt. If, in recent years, the only issue that could provoke all eight living previous secretaries of state to speak as one was Congress's proposal to recognize the Armenian genocide, that is because it alone threatened the worldview on which these policymakers had staked their careers. An insignificant, purely symbolic act, unlikely to have serious consequences despite Turkey's grumblings, the proposal struck at their vision of statecraft in a way that, to take just one example, U.S. policy sanctioning torture did not.

Until that changes, until a new, more enlightened vision of statecraft prevails, one prepared to grapple with the conflicting claims of morality and self-interest, we will do, next time, what we have always done: watch until the bodies stop piling up, and then promise that that we will not, ever again, stand idly by. And we will really, really mean it.

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