Syria? Iran? Kony? Let's face down atrocities before they occur.

Obama sets a model for the world with an alert system to prevent potential mass atrocities. But will it also prevent foreign military intervention in trouble spots?

Rodney Muhumuza/AP Photo
Two American soldiers assist in advising Ugandan troops hunting for Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army rebels in the Central African Republic.

Twice since taking office, President Obama has sent troops overseas to prevent mass atrocities. In Libya, it worked. In central Africa, catching warlord Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army is still a work in progress.

Now Mr. Obama has decided the United States needs a better way to be alert to potential atrocities – in hopes of preventing them and, most of all, to avoid those types of forceful humanitarian interventions.

On Monday, the White House convened the first meeting of a new Atrocities Prevention Board. The purpose of this interagency body is to make the US more nimble in foreseeing events that might lead to genocide, war crimes, and other such atrocities.

It has a mighty task, one that must battle against the lassitude of Americans toward foreign intervention as well as the world’s sorry record over the past century in not preventing the killing of innocents on a massive scale.

“It can be tempting,” Obama said in a speech at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum on Monday, “to throw up our hands and resign ourselves to man’s endless capacity for cruelty.” But he added, we must “insist there is a future ... to say yes to life, to believe in the possibility of justice.”

Setting up an alert system for mass atrocities has been a long time coming. In 2005, the United Nations first endorsed the concept that nations have a “responsibility to protect” their own people or else their sovereignty can be violated by a foreign force. This doctrine, however, is meant to be preventive. It came out of the UN’s collective guilt over the failure to prevent the 1994 Rwandan genocide and the 1995 massacre in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica.

But the UN has so far done little to set up an alert system, although its quick diplomacy in Kenya in 2008 may have prevented mass slaughter during a tribal and political dispute. The diplomat in that case, former UN chief Kofi Annan, is now trying to prevent ongoing slaughter in Syria where more than 9,000 have already died.

The US could be setting a model for the UN and for other countries by institutionalizing its own focus on this issue.

US agencies will share real-time intelligence about world trouble spots and issue reports on the “global risk of mass atrocities and genocide.” The State Department will prepare to “surge” its diplomats and experts in a crisis. Treasury will equip itself to more quickly block the flow of money to abusive regimes. And the new board will work with private activist groups to coordinate anti-atrocity efforts.

Acting fast in a crisis can deter atrocities and prevent the often-messy response of military intervention. Each crisis is different, however, a fact that calls for a ready but flexible response by all parts of government to identify any situation that might demand a “responsibility to protect.”

Last year, Obama declared that “preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility.” Now he’s creating the bureaucracy to achieve that goal, much like alert systems for preventing terrorism or famine around the world.

“Preventing genocide is an achievable goal,” Obama said. Now he must match practice to promise.

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