Take the Politics out of Genocide

by Rafael Medoff

In the days to come, the Obama administration will officially launch its Atrocities Prevention Board, a new federal agency whose declared purpose is to coordinate various government departments to respond quickly and effectively to signs of “mass atrocities and genocide” around the world.

Noble in its intentions and ambitious in its scope, the Atrocities Prevention Board makes responding to genocide an official part of U.S. foreign policy. This would represent an achievement for any administration. But it is especially noteworthy coming from a president who has grappled uncertainly with the political considerations that can affect U.S. responses to human rights abuses abroad.

The Armenian question has proven to be particularly awkward. Barack Obama, as a candidate, vowed to publicly affirm that the Turks perpetrated genocide against the Armenians. But as president, Obama has been so reluctant to offend Turkey that he has used the Armenian term “Meds Yeghern” rather than the g-word to describe the mass murder.

Will the new Atrocities Prevention Board be hamstrung by these kinds of political considerations?

A similar question arose in 1944, after President Franklin Roosevelt, under pressure from Jewish activists and Treasury Department officials, reluctantly established the War Refugee Board to rescue Jews from the Nazis. Who would run the new agency? Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. told FDR they needed “a young Herbert Hoover” –recalling Hoover’s remarkable campaign to bring food to devastated areas of Europe during World War I. Morgenthau preferred Wendell Willkie, the unsuccessful 1940 Republican presidential nominee. An internationally-respected, take-charge lawyer and business executive, Willkie had the clout to ensure the Board would be taken seriously, especially in its dealings with foreign governments.

The White House quickly shot down Willkie’s candidacy. Roosevelt didn’t want to provide an opportunity that would give any “build-up” to one of his Republican rivals. Political considerations took precedence over fighting genocide.

In the end, an unknown 29 year-old Treasury staffer, John Pehle, was chosen as the Board’s director. Pehle was deeply devoted to the cause and, together with the Board’s general counsel, Josiah DuBois, performed near-miracles to help rescue an estimated 200,000 Jewish refugees during the waning months of the war. But a director with international renown would have been able to open doors and eliminate obstacles in ways that young Pehle could not.

If the new Atrocities Prevention Board is really going to prevent atrocities, it will need a leader with the clout and courage to get through the swamp of conflicting political interests that could interfere with its work.

A troubling episode last year offers the Board an important lesson in the politics of genocide. In September 2010, President Obama delivered a long-awaited speech about Sudan and Darfur to a ministerial meeting at the United Nations. Advocates for Darfur, who had criticized the previous administration for not taking a more forceful stand, understandably hoped the new president would chart a different course. Instead, Mr. Obama’s at the UN remarks focused mostly on the secession of South Sudan, with a few boilerplate platitudes about Darfur thrown in.

Someone in the White House –so I am reliably informed– was worried that the speech, on its merits, might not elicit many accolades from Darfur advocacy groups, and so decided to “suggest” a particular spin. The result speaks for itself. On September 27, a coalition of Darfur groups issued a press release headlined “Advocacy Groups Praise Administration’s Stepped-Up Leadership on Sudan.” The next day, a press release from the Jewish Council for Public Affairs announced: “JCPA Praises President Obama’s Renewed Leadership on Sudan.” Two days later, the American Jewish World Service sent out a press release of its own, headlined “AJWS President Cheers Obama’s Leadership on Sudan.” And two days after that, it was the turn of Reform Judaism’s Religious Action Center: “Reform Movement Applauds Obama’s Leadership on Sudan.”

Four press releases in five days from different organizations, all of them not only making the same point, but using strikingly similar language? It was either quite a coincidence, or exactly the kind of political manipulation the Atrocities Prevention Board will need to root out, if it expects to be taken seriously.

An early test for the new board concerns Sudanese president Omar Bashir, who was indicted by the International Criminal Court for his role in the Darfur genocide, yet has freely traveled abroad. Major recipients of U.S. aid, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have hosted Bashir without any U.S. criticism.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration has given Bashir permission to hire Washington attorney Bart Fisher to seek the lifting of U.S. sanctions on Sudan and removal of Sudan from the list of terrorist states. With one hand, the administration creates an Atrocities Prevention Board; with the other, it lends the perpetrators of atrocities a helping hand. Congressman Frank Wolf commented, “I don’t know how Mr. Fisher sleeps at night.” Will Darfur advocates soon be saying the same thing about President Obama?

(As published in Ha’aretz – December 16, 2011)

December 2011