The overriding theme of Obama's announcement was a pro-Israel message, both in terms of rhetoric and policy. The President was introduced by Ellie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor and strident backer of Israeli militarism, and spent the first half of his speech recounting his visits with Wiesel to Nazi concentration camps, taking up the "never again" motto, and recounting his pledge to "always be there for Israel." With this stage set, the President took the opportunity to lay out a number of new policy goals, including the inaugural meeting of the APB and the declaration of new sanctions against Iran and Syria that targeted technology companies doing business with the pariah states.
The hypocrisy of this announcement was rampant. Most obviously, the pro-Israeli spin made clear than only atrocities committed by so called "rouge" states would be considered as worthy of a government response. If an ally like Israel committed atrocities, a situation many thought occurred during the 2009 bombing of Gaza, there is no doubt that the new APB structure would offer more than a tepid shrug in response. Such is the situation in all U.S. allies, from Columbia to Uzbekistan.
Moreover, Obama's speech conveniently left out all mention of "atrocities" committed by the U.S., both historically and today. Do the mass drone strikes killing civilians in Pakistan and Yemen fall under the purview of the APB? I think not. The war in Afghanistan, and the counterinsurgency strategy employed, is an "atrocity generating situation," to steal a phrase from Daniel Ellsberg. Army Infantry are sent to occupy and patrol areas with no strategic importance to the U.S., and when the locals fight back, it creates a vicious cycle that culminates in the type of behavior exhibited by Sergeant Bales in his killing raid earlier this year. As Stephen Walt writes, "this new initiative still looks hypocritical to a lot of people whose familiarity with the sharp end of American power is extensive, intimate, and unpleasant. It would be easier to take this initiative seriously if we seemed as concerned by the atrocities that we commit as we are by the crimes of others."