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Wishful Thinking Will Not Stop Genocide: Suggestions for a More Realistic Strategy

From: Genocide Studies and Prevention
Volume 4, Number 2, Summer 2009
pp. 191-199 | 10.1353/gsp.0.0024

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Good intentions may be necessary, but they are not sufficient, to prevent genocide. Unfortunately, this renders the recent report of the Genocide Prevention Task Force, Preventing Genocide: A Blueprint for U.S. Policymakers (the Albright-Cohen Report), a recipe for failure.1 The co-chairs, former US secretaries of state and defense Madeleine Albright and William Cohen, obviously have good intentions, and they do offer several constructive reforms. Overall, however, the report ignores the most profound lessons of past failures, declines to make the hard choices on policy dilemmas, and neglects to call for the costly military reforms that could enable intervention to prevent future genocides. A more realistic assessment of these challenges gives rise to a very different set of recommendations than that found in the report.

The root of the problem is that the Albright-Cohen Report rests on six faulty, but largely unstated, assumptions: first, that the only substantial obstacle to stopping genocide is a lack of political will; second, that humanitarian intervention could be significantly improved by increased military planning and coordination with multilateral institutions; third, that the United States is often inhibited from intervening by financial considerations and by the belief that intervention must be all or nothing; fourth, that the political will for intervention can be fabricated by establishing new domestic and international institutions; fifth, that existing US diplomatic strategies to reduce genocidal violence are well conceived and thus could reduce genocidal violence if only they were backed by more funding and political will; and, sixth, that codifying humanitarian intervention as the automatic policy response to atrocities would reduce the amount of genocidal violence in the world.2 These faulty assumptions give rise to prescriptions that either are inadequate or could backfire.

Flawed Assumptions

Obviously, insufficient political will can be an obstacle to effective intervention. But it is not the only, or even the major, hindrance in many cases. Genocidal violence often is perpetrated too quickly for military intervention to prevent it, at least given the current make-up and positioning of potential intervention forces. In Rwanda, for example, most Tutsi victims of the 1994 genocide were killed in less than three weeks; in Croatia in 1995, the army ethnically cleansed the entire Serb population of the Krajina region in less than a week; in Kosovo in 1999, Serb forces ethnically cleansed nearly half of the ethnic Albanian population in two weeks; and in East Timor in 1999, Indonesian-backed militias destroyed the majority of infrastructure and displaced most of the population in about a week. The Albright-Cohen Report calls for a new genocide early-warning system, but that probably would not have made a difference in these cases because US forces typically require several weeks to deploy to such hot spots, even by air, owing to their enormous equipment needs. Moreover, the United States already has early-warning systems, but such systems have difficulty in differentiating quickly between civil war and genocide.

The report's main military proposals to improve humanitarian intervention—increased Pentagon planning and coordination with multilateral institutions—are insufficient and potentially counterproductive. Although the report does a good job of delineating the potential military options to suppress genocidal violence (83), its main Pentagon reform proposal is merely to draft a new doctrine focused on counter-genocide operations (87). The report neglects to call for a substantial overhaul of the equipping and basing of US forces, which would be politically divisive but necessary for any new doctrine to improve significantly the effectiveness of intervention. Rather than reconfiguring domestic forces, the report fancifully suggests that the lack of "rapid reinforcement capacity . . . for UN forces could be remedied by creating a strategic reserve that would be drawn from countries contributing to UN missions" (91). Unfortunately, history demonstrates that advance international commitments of force to UN interventions—whether peacekeepers and armored vehicles for Rwanda or helicopters for Darfur—are not worth the paper they are written on. Moreover, by passing the buck to the United Nations, such initiatives undercut the prospects for quicker, more effective unilateral action.

In another vain attempt to conjure alternative intervention forces, the report embraces a US policy, initiated in the 1990s, to train indigenous African troops for peace...