“We’re here today because we all understand that in dealing with violent extremism, that we need answers that go beyond a military answer. We need answers that go beyond force.”
— Vice President Biden at the Summit on Countering
Violent Extremism , Feb. 17
The Obama administration’s semantic somersaults to avoid attaching the adjective “Islamic” to the noun “extremism” are as indicative as they are entertaining. Progressives who believe that dialogues, conversations, engagements, conferences and summits are keys to pacifying the world have a peculiar solemnity about using certain words that are potentially insensitive. This mentality is perhaps especially acute in digitally drenched people who believe that Twitter and other social media have the power to tame turbulent reality.
The New York Times reports that the Obama administration is preparing to go toe-to-toe with the Islamic State using, among other munitions, “more than 350 State Department Twitter accounts.” According to Richard Stengel , undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, “We’re getting beaten on volume, so the only way to compete is by aggregating, curating and amplifying existing content.”
Stengel, the Times reported, “said the new campaign against the Islamic State would carry out strategies now routinely employed by many businesses and individuals to elevate their digital footprints.” As managing editor of Time, Stengel’s messaging included the 2006 Person of the Year cover featuring a mirror-like panel, with the word “YOU” written on it, the message being that everyone was Person of the Year.
U.S. “countermessaging” against the Islamic State will use up to 140 characters to persuade people tempted to join in its barbarism — beheadings, crucifixions, burning people alive, etc. — that these behaviors are not nice. Stengel is upbeat about beating the Islamic State: “These guys aren’t Buzzfeed; they’re not invincible in social media.”
Beyond a coming fusillade of tweets, the administration’s arsenal against the Islamic State includes the Atrocities Prevention Board (APB). Its pedigree is better than its accomplishments.
After genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia, and a 2008 government task force on the prevention of atrocities, in 2009 President Obama brought into his administration Samantha Power, the author of a book on the policy challenge of genocide, “A Problem from Hell.” She now is U.S. ambassador to the United Nations , where she speaks with a notable absence of the administration’s usual mushiness. She propelled Obama’s 2012 announcement, at Washington’s Holocaust Memorial Museum, of the APB. Obama’s words were harbingers of what was to come:
“Remembrance without resolve is a hollow gesture. Awareness without action changes nothing. In this sense, ‘never again’ is a challenge to us all — to pause and to look within.”
To what ? Launched by this summons to introspection, the APB was therefore from inception in danger of being a hollow gesture, an exercise in right-minded awareness. In addition to the incurable mismatch between the APB’s negligible means and its ambitious goals, the board has been wounded by two U.S. atrocity-related decisions. One resulted in what can be called a calamitous success, the other is an ongoing refutation of the APB’s relevance.
Having declared the prevention of mass atrocities “a core national security interest,” in 2011 Obama acted on the “R2P” principle — responsibility to protect. He would protect Libyans, particularly the people of Benghazi, from the government of Moammar Gaddafi. This quickly became a protracted attempt to achieve regime change by assassinating him with NATO fighter bombers. Today Libya is a failed state that imports and exports Islamic extremism, and no one accepts responsibility for protecting the nation’s remnants.
Never mind. In 2012, a White House news release proclaimed that the administration “has amassed an unprecedented record of actions taken to protect civilians and hold perpetrators of atrocities accountable,” specifically citing “leadership of a successful international military effort to protect civilians in Libya.”
When the APB was created, the Syrian civil war had resulted in approximately 9,000 deaths, one-23rd of the total that chemical weapons, barrel bombs and conventional weapons have caused, so far. Decent people differ about what the administration could or should do about this. But surely it should bring its language into conformity with its capabilities and intentions. Specifically, it should stop saying things it does not mean, such as the prevention of atrocities being “a core national security interest.” And it should stop the gaseous rhetoric about countering terrorism by elevating digital footprints, and about going “beyond force” by matching the messaging prowess of Buzzfeed. The APB does not even have a Twitter account. Perhaps this is the problem.