Just one month after Libyan strongman Muammar Gadhafi began firing on his country’s civilians, the United States sent planes to help establish a U.N.-authorized no-fly zone.  While many questions remain about short-term upheaval and long-term outcome, one thing is certain: Early action by the United States and international allies has saved lives – lots of them. The president made the right decision.

Sadly, this act of leadership follows many lessons learned over and over about what happens when we don’t act quickly enough. Almost 16 years ago, as post-Tito Yugoslavia disintegrated, Serb militia gunned down more than 7,000 unarmed Muslim men and boys, and then threw their bodies into mass graves.

This massacre in the mountain village of Srebrenica didn’t take the United States by surprise. For years beforehand, we watched as Slobodan Milosevic’s political power grab escalated from regional tension into a full-blown genocide. The result was more than 150,000 deaths in Bosnia, a state of only four million, before American-led intervention stopped the killing.

There are parallels with the current situation: our country seeking coalition partners and political cover from the U.N.; labyrinthine internal decision making within NATO; various players wanting to take credit or hide from responsibility, or both, depending on the day. And full awareness of the mortal danger for others if we failed to act.

It is fitting that during Genocide Prevention Month we call on President Obama and other national policymakers to demonstrate their sustained commitment to ending attempts to extinguish whole groups from the earth. That doesn’t just mean reacting militarily, as we witnessed in Libya. It also means putting in place the tools, the structures and the resources to give us a chance to prevent the escalation of turmoil into violence and violence into something much worse.

We should have learned from the Holocaust, we should have learned from Bosnia, from Rwanda, Darfur. By now we should know the lessons cold.
First, acting early to prevent mass atrocities allows for greater options. It’s far more efficient than waiting. The expensive and largely ineffective U.N. peacekeeping force in Darfur exemplifies the human and economic costs of waiting too long to act. Military options must be avoided when possible, but we must act decisively as we did in Libya when sanctions and other threats did not slow Gadhafi’s attacks on his people.

Second, we must have structures in place within the U.S. government that facilitate timely and potent decision-making. President Obama has appointed individuals to coordinate and support our government’s response to and prevention of mass atrocities around the globe. Congress should preserve and augment this valuable function for subsequent administrations.
Third, we need to maintain a flexible crisis fund that will enable the State Department and other civilian agencies to implement urgent responses that might preclude the need for military intervention to prevent atrocities.

And finally, our ability and willingness to act, despite apparent inconsistencies, must be sustained in times of crisis as well as when threats to civilians are less imminent. We must not wait until we discover where the next crisis is unfolding. If history is a predictor, the resurgence of violence against civilians is inevitable, and we must be prepared.

In recent years, genocide in Darfur evoked an unprecedented global response. Millions in this country and around the world pressed for intervention. Behind the scenes, it took years to mobilize, coordinate, and empower advocates to grab the attention of our leaders and hold their focus. Let’s not cede the progress we’ve made. We know policies and practices that can prevent or end genocide. When we relax our efforts, we become passively complicit.

School books today describe history in terms of death and destruction perpetrated. Let’s fill tomorrow’s texts with death and destruction averted.

Mark Hanis is co-founder and president of the recently merged Genocide Intervention Network/Save Darfur Coalition. Glenn Nye is a former member of Congress and foreign service officer. He is a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the U.S.