That’s an especially good question given this administration’s approach to date to atrocities (as I’d define them) on its watch. In Libya, the U.S. led from behind to remove Gaddafi — who was a vile tyrant, but not in recent years a prime threat to the U.S. But in the case of Iran, where the regime runs global terrorist networks, is pursuing nuclear weapons, and has been threatening for years to obliterate the U.S. ally and democratic state of Israel, the Obama administration confined itself to bearing “witness” and looked to the long “arc of history,” while Iranian protesters were beaten and shot in the streets. In Syria, where the regime is in bed with Iran, the death toll now tops 10,000, after more than a year of rebellion against Assad’s brutal rule — and the U.S. looks on. And in North Korea, where the entire system of government qualifies as an atrocity, the same old Pyongyang shakedown routine has carried on, with North Korea’s 2009 nuclear test and 2012 ballistic missile test (excuse me, “satellite launch”) punctuated by U.S. offers of talks, and food aid for North Koreans whose chief obstacle to feeding themselves is that they are hostage to their country’s murderous government.
The biggest problem with the unveiling of the Atrocities Prevention Board is that it is not actually the core responsibility of the United States government to prevent atrocities elsewhere in the world. It is the core responsibility of the U.S. government to defend the United States and uphold its constitution. That may well entail taking action to prevent atrocities abroad; there can be enormous justification for doing exactly that, and America has often done so. But it is alarming when the same players who protest the idea of America leading from in front, and who revile America for behaving as a superpower in the defense of its own interests, are eager to mold America as a philanthropic emergency squad on call for the planet. That’s a setup in which America has all the responsibility for others, but no rights to look out for itself. In deciding what constitutes an atrocity, and if, when, and how America in the service of its own interests and values should do something about it, what’s badly needed is not another committee. What’s needed is good judgment at the top.