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Is This the Obama Doctrine?

The president has set a very high bar for preventing genocide

Ahmad AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images

Until last week, most people had never heard of the Yazidi, a small non-Abrahamic faith with barely a half million adherents scattered across northern Iraq and Syria. But their prayers were answered when President Barack Obama announced, “Today, America is coming to help.” 

It all seems so capricious. In a world replete with cases where state and non-state actors alike are threatening the lives—and in many cases even the fundamental existence—of minority groups, the question of who lives and who dies is increasingly central to the calculus of national security decisions. But there has been very little in the way of a formal or even informal Obama Doctrine to suggest when force can, and should, be used to save civilian lives. But with airstrikes underway in northern Iraq, his doctrine is coming into view.

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?

Both populations have been targeted for destruction in terms that could neatly fit the UN’s definition of genocide as the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” According to Ambassador Fred Hof, until recently the State Department’s lead Syria official, “Whether or not genocidal acts have already occurred [in Syria] is debatable. What is certain, however, is that such acts have become a very real possibility, and that this danger will only increase for as long as the conflict continues along its current trajectory.”

Hof’s words, written in March of last year, appear now almost prophetic. The situation for Syrian civilians continues to deteriorate and more is known of the regime’s relentless and brutal torture of opponents and innocent civilians alike. Thanks to the heroic efforts of people like “Caesar,” a government photographer who spent the last three years documenting his governments barbarity until his conscience could no longer brook the indifference, we all have a better sense of the depths of Assad’s depravity.

In northern Iraq, now largely under the control of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS), the situation facing religious minorities is even more stark. Beyond the immediate threat to the Yazidi minority, IS has subjected all varieties of Iraqi civilians who do not adhere to its particular strain of extremist Sunni Islam to persecution, abduction, ethnic cleansing, and widespread massacres; many carried out on the group’s YouTube channel and through Twitter feeds and making it impossible to confuse the group’s true intent: The wholesale destruction of those deemed to be non-believers.

In July, the 1,700-year-old Christian community of Mosul fled the city after IS demanded its members immediately convert, pay a tax, leave, or be slaughtered. That community remains under serious and imminent threat of destruction. IS has also summarily executed members of groups it considers apostate; these groups, including Shi’a Muslims, Shabaks, Turkmen, and the Yazidi, remain under constant siege.

Despite what on their surface seem like glaringly similar situations, U.S. action over the past two years suggests that we still remain deeply ambivalent about the use of American force in preventing genocide and widespread mass atrocities. Reflecting this wider ambivalence, Obama asked this magazine in January, 2013, “How do I weigh tens of thousands who've been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?”

But with his decision this week to come to the rescue of the Yazidi minority staring down near certain death—and possible genocide—by the hands of Islamist terrorists, we may now divine a new doctrine for genocide prevention. In an interview Friday with Tom Friedman of The New York Times, Obama remarked, “When you have a unique circumstance in which genocide is threatened, and a country is willing to have us in there, you have a strong international consensus that these people need to be protected and we have a capacity to do so, then we have an obligation to do so.”

Some would argue that this explanation walks back from the high-minded justification for the forceful response to the potential massacre in Benghazi, Libya, in late 2011 when Obama asserted that a failure to act “would have stained the conscience of the world.” More importantly, it sets a new and seemingly higher bar for taking action to prevent genocide—one that is unlikely to be replicated very often.

If that’s the intent, it is not necessarily a bad thing.

Genocide prevention, as a community of practice, is in need of bookending. In a world full of nails—or potential nails—the U.S. military is the literal hammer. Absent a clear understanding of the circumstances when force could be used to save lives, advocates and communities at risk hold out false hope that the cavalry is coming, when it so rarely is. Understanding when a military response is on the table and when it is not will focus our attention on the cheaper, more politically palatable non-military options that should always constitute the heart of genocide prevention.