Barack Obama announced a new war on atrocity and genocide at the Holocaust Museum in Washington this week. There, he declared a renewed American dedication to act decisively and in a timely fashion wherever the threat of either might raise its head. An ambitious package of pledges, policies and programs will be directed by an Atrocities Prevention Board, a high-level panel within the National Security Council. The initiative is broadcast as a historic step in the United States' long-standing commitment to fight against evil on the world scene. Is it?
It is always easier to come up with gimmicks than for a mind to inform itself deeply and to think rigorously. Gimmickry in foreign affairs is especially dangerous since its damaging consequences cannot be remedied by later adjustments of the United States government alone. The reactions of others become part of an intractable reality. Moreover, the resort to gimmickry creates the illusion of having done something significant when, in fact, tough judgments and decisions have just been kicked down the road.
This latest public relations ploy will be no more effective in achieving objectives than has been the use of computer viruses to attack Iranian targets, or was the much-touted 'civilian surge' in Iraq. In truth, it is obscure exactly what the objectives of this announced strategy are. To punish regimes that suppress their people? There is a lot of suppression of human rights in the world -- selecting those that should be addressed by external parties (the U.S. and whomever else it can mobilize) is a delicate matter. The gimmick of focusing on interference with social media contributes nothing to the making of those determinations. What the Obama White House is simply saying is that Washington will be more aggressive in acting against places like Syria and Iran, which it has declared enemies. It will decide unilaterally when an unspecified threshold is crossed, by whom, and under what conditions.**
The terms 'genocide' and 'crimes against humanity' are deployed so as to create an aura of high-mindedness. 'Never again' was Obama's message. A moral breakthrough? Credible? The United States committed itself to doing all within its means to stop genocide when it signed the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948. Article 1 explicitly states that, "The Contracting Parties confirm that genocide, whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish."
Yet Washington stood by when Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge murdered a million Cambodians. Bill Clinton instructed Madeleine Albright, then his UN Ambassador, not to use the word 'genocide' since that would require him to do something about the Rwanda genocide of 1995. Maybe Obama is more noble and made of sterner stuff. Maybe.
All the bold talk on atrocity and genocide plays well in some quarters; but no state acts in accordance with moral imperatives -- America included. It will always balance realist considerations of self-interest (variously set in more or less enlightened terms) with the idealism that is a critical part of our national self-identity. Thus, we have floundered since the outbreak of the Arab Spring without a fixed compass -- because there cannot be one. The pretense that we are guided by definitive ethical standards is a self-defeating gesture. It opens us to charges of self-serving hypocrisy, thereby compounding the costs of inconsistency as we address Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and now Syria. Further afield, powerful countries like China and Russia use state of the art electronic technology to block their citizens from fully accessing social media along with 'subversive' news sources. Atrocities have been committed in Tibet and Xinjian; systematic suppression of anti-Putin political groups is well established. Local IT companies are employed for this purpose; so too are some of the most renowned American companies. Yet the former are not penalized and the latter are not punished.
Cisco Systems, for one, "aggressively sought contracts to provide substantial assistance in helping the Chinese government implement the Golden Shield Project" -- an ambitious new surveillance system. "Cisco was brought in to the Chongqing project by Chinese security company Hikvision Digital Technology Co., the project's main contractor," the Wall Street Journal reports. Hewlett Packard and Intergraph Corp also were involved. Other American companies have assisted the Beijing government to establish Internet controls. Microsoft, for example, signed a deal with Baidu, the biggest search engine in China to provide English-language search results -- which will be routinely censored to meet the Chinese government's demands.
Back in the USA, American IT companies have participated in illegal surveillance of American citizens, continued intrusions of dubious constitutionality and 'volunteered' to deny their public services to WikiLeaks without any judicial determination of wrongdoing. They are praised for their patriotism.
This medley of incongruous actions etches more deeply the image of country that arrogates to itself the right to judge and punish everyone according to its own lights while placing itself above the judgments of others. The hole we have dug ourselves throughout the greater Middle East, in particular, will only be deepened by the type of rhetorical exercise we are witnessing now re: IT repression. It makes some people at home feel good, it may garner a few hundred votes come November. It ensconces the position of the administration's intervention hawks. It also extends the recent tradition of amateurish American foreign policy.
**Technically speaking, there is no direct way for the United States to deny to any repressive government the power to disrupt social media. What they are talking about, it seems, is the imposition of sanctions on those local companies that serve Tehran or Damascus -- and preventing Western countries from providing equipment or know-how to them. If that is the case, then the proposed sanctions are yet another empty gesture since we cannot cripple the capabilities of a willful government by squeezing corporate interests.
A related point: were we in fact able and willing to intervene directly, then that would amount to an intrusion into the sovereign space of another country. One could argue that we should do so if able; but let's not fool ourselves into thinking that it would be a sanitized humanitarian cum political action. The other sovereign party would have every right to retaliate by means of their choosing. Are we ready for that? I don't think Obama has reached that judgment. Therefore, the ballyhooed IT initiative is just more gimmickry.