Policymakers and advocates agree that each case is specific; there are no cookie cutter approaches to be applied with rote precision, and the use of military force should always be an option of last resort. Through its Mass Atrocity Response Operations handbook, the U.S. Army has recently recognized that “the failure to act in the face of mass killings of civilians is not simply a function of political will or legal authority; the failure also reflects a lack of thinking about how military forces might respond.” Understanding how to respond is an important first step, but the seeming randomness surrounding questions of when and where to respond are what impede an effective response and even undermine the potential deterrent effect that the threat of an intervention could impose on would-be perpetrators.
Such is the lament of the genocide prevention community these days. Countless signatures and speeches, grassroots campaigns, and high-level summits failed over four years to generate much international action to save the millions of Syrians living under constant threat of death—or to save the more than 150,000 who have already died—and yet, the Yazidi have been able to rally such action seemingly overnight. It’s reasonable to ask what’s different.
If there has emerged an Obama Doctrine for genocide prevention it probably would no longer be what his speechwriters crafted for him two years ago when he announced the creation of a first-ever Atrocities Prevention Board, intended to anticipate and guide “whole-of-government” responses to incipient conflicts. In it Obama called genocide prevention “a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States.” But if it truly is, how are we to explain the inconsistency of response to the plight of Iraqi minorities and Syrian majorities?