Inside the U.S. government’s head, a tragic monologue about mass killings echoes. It goes something like this: “Genocide is evil. It must be prevented before it starts, and, if it starts, it must be stopped. But it is not really my problem. I will do something significant only if the alternatives become even more costly than taking action.” And since the risks of acting appear immediate while the full costs of inaction accrue over time—even as tens or hundreds of thousands are killed in the interim—U.S. efforts to halt genocide have been embarrassingly rare.

Still, much has changed since Raphael Lemkin launched a one-man effort to fix a problem that no one had even named yet. A twentieth-century immigrant from Eastern Europe, Lemkin coined the word “genocide” in 1944 to describe “a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.” After World War II his relentless advocacy led to the United Nations’ 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. It was a startling achievement. Yet its promise essentially lay dormant through six decades of state-sponsored violence against persecuted groups. An artifact of aspiration, the Genocide Convention’s main function was to chastise the 140 nations that signed it for their hypocritical promise to prevent and punish mass extermination.

With the end of the Cold War, it seemed that the Convention’s moment might have arrived. The United States and its Western allies suddenly enjoyed a security surplus. Internationalism was in vogue. And in fits and starts, an unprecedented series of events unfolded, as if a moral impulse had begun to reawaken.

After the first Gulf War, the United States installed no-fly zones to protect threatened minorities in northern and ultimately southern Iraq. Yet the United States and United Nations stood by in 1994 as 800,000 were slaughtered in Rwanda. A feckless peacekeeping mission in Bosnia in the early 1990s failed to prevent genocide, but military coercion ultimately led to a political settlement. In 1998 President Clinton offered a public apology for the U.S. failure to intervene in Rwanda. That same year, 120 nations agreed to create an International Criminal Court to prosecute those accused of genocide, among other crimes. While most states viewed NATO’s 1999 bombing campaign to stop Serbian persecution of Kosovars as illegal under international law, that breach of state sovereignty was nonetheless forgiven, or at least tolerated, largely on moral grounds. Together, these acts of commission and omission helped forge consensus around a new “responsibility to protect” that extended across state boundaries.

This was historical heresy. Since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, states had granted one another freedom of action within their borders. Their goal was to safeguard existing regimes and promote international stability. But in 2001 a star-studded, Western government-backed commission proclaimed that sovereignty was no longer a given. R2P, as the concept of “responsibility to protect” became known, held that sovereignty had become a conditional state right. The right to control inside state boundaries was now paired with the responsibility to respect citizens’ most fundamental human right—to exist. When people are systematically abused by their governments, the international community has a responsibility to protect these victims, despite the norm of state sovereignty. Only four years later, the concept of R2P was endorsed by UN member states at the World Summit.

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What began as Lemkin’s lonely crusade evolved into a mass movement, with its own acronym, interest groups, and celebrity sponsors. Advocates across the globe promote the R2P norm, particularly in reference to Sudan’s genocide in Darfur. A 2006 Washington, D.C. rally brought together over 10,000 people, including then-Senator Barack Obama, to demand action. But for all its fury, sincerity, and visibility, the R2P effort has had little effect inside national governments, where the tough business of halting genocide must be undertaken.

The Genocide Prevention Task Force is the latest high-profile attempt to address this dilemma by advocating for U.S. leadership to prevent mass killings. Chaired by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Secretary of Defense William Cohen, the 2007 effort was sponsored by three quasi-official institutions: the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the American Academy of Diplomacy, and the U.S. Institute of Peace. Its mission was to provide the next president of the United States with a blueprint for action to address genocide before it occurs. (Full disclosure: the principal financial backing for the Task Force came from the Humanity United Foundation, which also supports my mass atrocity research; I participated in the Task Force as an expert working group member.)

The fourteen-member Task Force consciously sought to avoid the debates associated with the legal definition of the word genocide, which requires sophisticated judgments about the intention of murderers and the effect of their actions upon the identity of groups. Instead, the Task Force concerned itself with genocide as “large-scale and deliberate attacks on civilians.” Despite the introduction of new definitional questions, this is a sensible approach since the fundamental problem is extensive violence against innocents, regardless of its purpose.

The analysis and recommendations were assembled with guidance from expert groups focused on five different topics: assessing risks and providing warning of potential atrocities, pre-crisis engagement in countries at risk, halting and reversing the actual escalation toward mass violence, military options to prevent or stop atrocities, and shaping the international system to prevent genocide. The final report was released in late 2008 in hopes of influencing the next administration.

Overall, the Report’s novelty lies less in its analysis and recommendations than in harnessing credible security figures to the product.

The “Report of the Genocide Prevention Task Force” has become the go-to guide for genocide prevention, capturing and in some cases expanding the conventional wisdom that has accrued in activist circles. Some recommendations appear self-evident, such as the need to demonstrate the priority of genocide prevention and strengthen the international community’s commitment to the issue. Regrettably, these bromides remain necessary. Other recommendations are bureaucratic and highly specific, such as proposing the amount of increased annual funding for a particular genre of prevention program and naming the bodies that should focus on genocide in Congress and the executive branch. The emphasis on mechanistic and procedural approaches to force activist policy outcomes reflects the experience of Task Force members frustrated by official bureaucratic and political obfuscation in the face of incipient mass killings.

Among the Report’s more significant proposals is the use of positive incentives in dealing with potential or actual perpetrators of genocide. This controversial, but pragmatic, recommendation is balanced by a simultaneous demand to end impunity for perpetrators, although it is not entirely clear how the two approaches would be compatible. The Report also includes an innovative discussion on the range of options for using military force for prevention, coupled with a call for the United States to address genocide prevention as a unique military mission.

Overall, though, the Report’s novelty lies less in its analysis and recommendations than in harnessing credible security figures (e.g., Albright, Cohen, and retired General Anthony Zinni, formerly Commander in Chief of Central Command) to the product. As such, it is a welcome effort to push genocide-prevention measures into the respectable mainstream of national security policy.

Yet the Task Force’s overall vision and message seem to have been powerfully shaped by calculations of political feasibility. Accordingly, the Report details a very limited range of military options and largely avoids the possibility that U.S. leadership will be required in order to galvanize international will.

This political pragmatism is both a blessing and a curse. On the positive side, even the Report’s moderate recommendations offer important steps forward given how assiduously genocide is ignored during national security decision-making processes. Strengthening the ability to identify the potential for mass atrocities and developing bureaucratic procedures to ensure debate about appropriate policy responses would begin to change the way the U.S. government thinks and acts. Moreover, if the recommendations are viewed as unncontroversial—as those of a diverse, bipartisan consensus may be—they will more easily find purchase in the White House. By endorsing less ambitious steps, the Task Force refused to let the perfect become the enemy of the good.

On the other hand, political pragmatism limits the scope of any U.S. response to genocide in critical respects and risks leaving the international community without a leader when that response is most urgent and demanding.

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One of the principle and most problematic concessions to pragmatism in the Report is the decision to focus on prevention rather than response to mass killings. Prevention is an amorphous concept, simultaneously ill-defined and all-encompassing. The Task Force admits that “there is no consensus as to the causes of genocide and mass atrocities, nor is there one commonly agreed-upon theory that sufficiently explains the key catalysts, motivations, or mechanisms that lead to them.” If the causes are unclear, how does one prevent their effects?

Addressing root causes instead of treating symptoms is a sensible approach to public policy in general (as preventative health care illustrates). But we do not understand why so many states with severe differences and conflicts have managed to avoid mass violence. Without the ability to prioritize need, the United States could in the name of genocide prevention spend billions on economic development or political reconciliation in places that are not at real risk. While such assistance might well be useful for development or political stability, it will certainly divert attention or drain resources from efforts to stop genocide. If the United States had unlimited resources to devote to global challenges, an ecumenical approach to genocide prevention would make sense. But since the difficulty of addressing mass atrocities lies in galvanizing action when it is most needed, a generic prevention solution may prove counterproductive.

Furthermore, like counter-terrorism on the “hard” side of security, prevention offers a one-size-fits-all banner under which all manner of interests and organizations can gather. The Report’s ultimate solution to mass atrocity is stable, economically viable states that respect the human rights of all citizens. What problem wouldn’t this solve? It is a tautology, not a solution.

Narrowly interpreting a prevention mandate allows the Task Force to sidestep the most controversial and challenging aspect of dealing with genocide: the use of military power to halt or contain mass killings once they have begun. The Task Force acknowledges that prevention may fail, but nonetheless devotes relatively little attention to the use of military force and refrains from discussing the requirements of large-scale interventions. The Report does recommend that the Department of Defense map out the full range of options to halt or defeat perpetrators of genocide and prepare for counter-genocide intervention. This is critically important. But the call is nested within extensive discussion of lesser military options and helping the United Nations, NATO, the African Union, and the Economic Community of West African States take on a full-fledged genocide.

It makes little sense to suggest that the world’s leading military power can abjure a leadership role and expect others to take on a mission that it finds too daunting.

The Task Force is right to argue against an “all-or-nothing choice between taking no military action and launching a major intervention.” The Report points to “a wide range of military strategies that can be employed in support of diplomatic and political efforts” and outlines “operations to halt violence against civilians.” It implies that U.S. policymakers can do more without becoming more engaged.

But less forceful options may not succeed without national will to escalate. This is a common flaw in civilian logic when trying to develop a military approach. Some actions have concrete value in and of themselves (e.g., interdicting arms), but “signaling” actions, such as moving an aircraft carrier, are likely to be effective only if they reflect a credible threat. Bluffing is a strategy, but not a sound one.

A related problem is the implication that the United Nations, NATO, or a regional African body will be the one to act in extremis, if it comes to that. It makes little sense to suggest that the world’s leading military power can abjure a leadership role and expect others to take on a military mission that it finds too daunting.

That the Report downplays the potential role of the U.S. military in large-scale interventions is not surprising. After all, the goal of genocide prevention is widely supported, whereas humanitarian intervention is a politically divisive issue, the third rail of genocide politics. Oddly, the Report takes refuge in historical patterns of inaction:

although the United States employed robust military options in northern Iraq and the Balkans to halt mass atrocities, in general the United States has not led such efforts. More traditionally, the United States provides support to operations led by other nations and multinational organizations.

Surely this is part of the pattern of U.S. ambivalence that the Task Force seeks to change, yet it is referenced as a justification for disengagement.

Even if the United States were to accept the role of intercessor, it would not be ready to do so. Effective military intervention in the face of a large-scale, ongoing genocide requires more than effective military capability; it requires preparation for the unique challenges of ending a genocide. National forces are currently unprepared even for civilian protection tasks assigned in UN peacekeeping operations. Stopping a Rwanda-type scenario would be far more challenging. Because such situations involve many parties (perpetrators, victims, intervening parties, bystanders) and can escalate rapidly, interventions require advance planning and training.

The U.S. military does not even recognize genocide response as a contingency requirement. The Task Force nudges it significantly in that direction, but stops short of suggesting that U.S. forces might actually be the first to respond in a significant military operation. Preparing for the full range of options means just that.

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Another limitation borne of political realities is the Task Force’s deference to a multilateral impulse that has already proven ineffective. While multilateralism sounds good, and is often desirable, it should not become an excuse for inaction when moral outrages emerge and U.S. national interests are at stake.

It is easy to understand the Task Force’s unease discussing the most difficult forms of anti-genocide action given the vociferous nature of domestic opposition to such initiatives. The international community, too, is divided in its opinion of R2P, as both Kosovo and Darfur have illustrated. Political sensitivities may turn the concept into just another platform for development assistance, and the UN Secretary General’s desire to strengthen political support for R2P may unwittingly erode its meaning, pushing tough action, including military force, out of the equation entirely. The U.S. invasion of Iraq—which the Bush administration justified on humanitarian grounds once it became clear that no weapons of mass destruction would be found—has made other countries particularly suspicious of American claims to humanitarian intervention. The non-aligned nations’ concern with sovereignty dovetails neatly with American reticence to contemplate acting when no one else can or will. The conundrum is how to strengthen R2P with diplomatic, economic, and military options, yet sustain the support of countries that fear R2P merely masks modern imperialist ambition. By making multilateralism a seeming prerequisite for action, the Task Force appears to grant defenders of state sovereignty an effective veto over action.

Ironically, constraining U.S. military options regarding genocide may actually undermine prospects for a preventative and multilateral approach. At present, international organizations and most states are ill-equipped to take on genocide prevention, particularly if the use of force, rather than simply the presence of troops, is required. The United States is one of only a handful of nations that can lead a significant intervention requiring combined land and air forces. American advantages in high-technology capabilities such as surveillance and communications and in logistical support (including the ability to quickly deploy forces to a crisis area) render the United States both an enabler and security blanket for other nations’ forces. Leadership is easiest when the United States is acting on behalf of others as well as its own interests.

The Report’s subtext is that genocide deserves U.S. attention only when the rest of the world says so and before it gets too hard.

While the Task Force is right to suggest that the United States can play a supporting role for other actors, this is not always going to be enough. If the effort is, or risks becoming, large and violent, success requires an effective lead nation. And if the crisis unfolds quickly, or if demands escalate beyond expectation, the world’s most capable military power may be the only force able to act in time. Taking initiative—unilaterally at the start, if necessary—may be the only way to realize the Responsibility to Protect. There is an inevitable slippery-slope problem in justifying intervention in the name of humanity, but we need only think back to Rwanda in 1994 to see that unilateral military intervention—while complex and costly—may have its place.

Cocooning Task Force recommendations within a largely multilateral and preventative agenda, then, limits the range of potential responses to the most challenging exigencies. The Report’s subtext is that genocide deserves U.S. attention only when the rest of the world says so and before it gets too hard—a demonstrably small subset of mass violence cases.

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These three points—that the Report focuses on an ill-defined prevention agenda, that it stresses limited military options but downplays potential demands for large-scale ground operations, and that it recommends only multilateral engagement—may seem like quibbles given the enormous need for change and the potential for the Task Force Report to help catalyze it. A more fundamental weakness of the Report’s approach, though, is its assumption that mass killing of foreign civilians deserves U.S. attention. This view is not uniformly shared. Even in the more narrow case of genocide (as defined by the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, to which the United States is a party signatory), there is little consensus about a requirement for U.S. action, particularly one engaging military forces.

The U.S. national security establishment—from big security thinkers to the Washington bureaucracy—still defines U.S. interests in terms of oil and allies and sea lanes. Some, perhaps most, experts do not agree that mass killing of foreign civilians matters.

The Task Force makes this case using the language and logic of national interest in addition to values and morality. Genocide fuels instability, which can enable terrorism, push violence beyond borders, and otherwise threaten neighbors and potentially the United States. The Task Force also notes the long-lasting consequences of mass killing: refugees, humanitarian assistance, and societal dissolution, with significant costs for the international community as it seeks to ameliorate those effects. Finally, the Task Force argues, failure of the world’s leading power to respond to mass atrocity undermines American standing and leadership. The effort is reminiscent of earlier, private initiatives to change national security calculations, such as the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict. But it remains easy to disassociate a particular country from systemic effects that play out over the longer term or claims of lost standing or credibility that are virtually impossible to measure. In the end, beliefs matter. The most formidable challenge, therefore, remains convincing officials to think about security in unfamiliar ways and to take actions that do not appear to be in their traditional or immediate self-interest. Here, the solution offered is “leadership.” But leadership is a solution only if leaders already accept what the Report terms the “great calling” of genocide prevention. Perhaps it is too much to expect the Task Force to have called outright for the election and appointment of those who are already convinced.

The Task Force released its Report in the auspicious moment of Barack Obama’s election. As a presidential candidate, Obama spoke of his openness to intervention in genocide, and several of his like-minded advisors—including Susan Rice, Samantha Power, and Gayle Smith—now occupy senior government positions. Yet gaining implementation of the Report’s consensus recommendations is certain to remain an uphill battle.

The same weak seams of the Task Force Report are beginning to show in the new administration. The President is sympathetic, but how will he rank the objective of preventing mass atrocity in the context of other foreign policy goals? Does the majority of the U.S. national security apparatus—the political appointees, the legions of civil servants whose careers were forged during the Cold War—agree that mass atrocity prevention is ipso facto in the national interest?

The contretemps about whether genocide continues in Darfur reflects disagreement about legitimate genocide prevention strategies: shame and sanction, or engage and induce? The military options that many once endorsed as interim steps (such as a no-fly zone) now seem more difficult to implement without clarity about American willingness to force an endgame.

The deeper dysfunction haunting both the Report and U.S. policy remains the relationship between two critical requirements: the need for strong early action to prevent mass atrocities and the political imperative to delay controversial decisions until the last possible moment. In the case of mass atrocities, the prevention curve and the political calculation curves are inversely related.

We know that acting early is likely to be more effective and efficient. Yet time and time again, states and leaders will avoid acting, delay choosing among uncertain and costly options, and wait until the costs of not acting become higher than those of acting. This phenomenon is not unique to genocide. But it helps explain why, even as the United States has begun to acknowledge past failures and a new generation has awakened to a fresh set of possibilities, doing the right thing remains difficult.