The Many Follies of Samantha Power
Former Obama adviser Samantha Power's blunders are a lesson in what happens when the book-writing, cocktail party crowd take on real-life politics, writes Lee Smith.
March 11, 2008 - 4:03 am
Maybe calling Senator Hillary Clinton a monster really is what flushed Samantha Power out of the Obama campaign.
But that incident was just the last straw in the negative attention the Harvard college professor and author of a Pulitzer-Prize winning book on genocide managed to draw to a campaign that is all about positive vibes by blundering through just about every mine-field imaginable.
Her bizarre meanderings on the US’s strategic alliance with Israel was her most controversial foreign policy gaffe, but Israel is just one part of the US’s Middle East portfolio, an especially significant concern given the manpower and resources we have now invested in that part of the world.
Among other things, she misunderstood the reception of the National Intelligence Estimate on the Iranian nuclear program, claiming that the international community was using it “to fend off Bush,” when in fact our regional allies were worried that the document signaled the US had lost its nerve. Hence, the President’s 9-day tour of the Middle East in January — to inform everyone from Jerusalem to Riyadh that the White House was still serious in spite of the NIE.
She boasted of Obama’s desire to sit down with dictators like Syrian president Bashar al-Asad, even after the Treasury Department designated elements of Al-Qaeda in Iraq with ties to the Syrian regime. It seems never to have occurred to Power that a candidate’s willingness to “engage” bin Laden’s peers is neither in the national interest, nor a character trait obviously appealing to US voters.
In complaining how the Bush administration had made the US not “credible” at the UN, while lackluster diplomacy had alienated us from the rest of the world, she showed herself ignorant that the White House’s Lebanon policy is a textbook case of multilateral consensus, working with regional and international allies like France and Saudi Arabia and the UN, including several Security Council resolutions condemning foreign interference in Lebanon’s political process. The culprits? Two states led by the kind of dictators Obama wants to engage, Iran and Syria, the latter of which would love to chat with the US in order to worm out of the international tribunal handing down indictments in the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri.
None of that seemed to matter to the junior Senator from Illinois, who presumably shares Power’s opinions — except when it comes to Senator Clinton’s personality. And hence I suspect that the real reason for the severing of ties was the interview she gave Thursday to BBC’s Hard Talk, when her candid comments about Obama’s plan to withdraw troops from Iraq explicitly contradicted the one substantive message the campaign has mustered to date.
“You can’t make a commitment in March 2008 about what circumstances will be like in January of 2009,” Power told Hard Talk. “[Obama] will, of course, not rely on some plan that he’s crafted as a presidential candidate or a U.S. Senator. He will rely upon a plan — an operational plan — that he pulls together in consultation with people who are on the ground to whom he doesn’t have daily access now, as a result of not being the president. So to think — it would be the height of ideology to sort of say, ‘Well, I said it, therefore I’m going to impose it on whatever reality greets me.’”
That’s exactly right, and it’s the reason Washington policymakers and our international allies are not totally traumatized by the prospect of an Obama presidency. Responsible officials across the world assume that no matter what Obama’s saying now, if he actually gets to sit in the Oval Office he will know and understand certain things that will compel him too see it differently. All Power did was tell the truth.
However, the problem is that the truth does not comport well with a movement that has substituted mantra for message, a mantra that refers to nothing specific at all — except for one issue. “Change”? Change what? Well, there’s this: Come hell or high-water, Obama is going to get US troops out of Iraq in 16 months.
With what are the most insightful words she has spoken during the course of this election year, Power bequeathed the Senator’s opponents an opening. Senator Obama, as the anti-Iraq candidate your one clear campaign theme is that you promise to withdraw US troops within a specified time period. And yet your senior foreign policy adviser — your former senior policy adviser — who claims you are so close that you text message her late at night, says that we shouldn’t take your vow seriously, that it is just a promise made during the heat of a campaign by a Senator who doesn’t know enough now to make such a judgment. So, which is it? Are we staying or are we going? Will you withdraw troops no matter what just to stick to a campaign promise now exposed as a ruse and in the process endanger US troops, threaten regional allies and risk civil war throughout the Middle East? Or should we just ignore everything you say until you’re sitting in the Oval Office and it’s time to make a decision?
Regardless of whether or not the Obama campaign winds up paying for her error, what’s more interesting is the significance of her own meltdown.
I was struck during that same Hard Talk interview when she referred to the current inhabitant of the White House by his last name. If you are an academic, maybe you are expected to embellish the name “Bush” with a sneer; but if as a foreign policy adviser you have to be told that when you appear on television, it is appropriate to use the title that Americans have bestowed on the President of the United States, then you should not presume to lecture anyone about the niceties of American diplomacy abroad.
Power’s career is a perfect cameo of the irreconcilability of the two centers of American intellectual life: Washington and Boston/New York, including the prestige intelligentsia, the academy, publishing, media and literary circles, where the pursuit of American interests is a vulgar concept, and the primary aim of US foreign policy is to make the world look more favorably towards Americans, especially American intellectuals touring Europe.
“When you travel abroad,” Power told the 2006 Santa Clara University Law School graduating class, “you will repeatedly have to answer the question posed by strangers, sometimes with hostility, but often with sheer bewilderment: “What was the United States thinking?!”
The rift that started to open during the Vietnam years became a yawning gulf in the aftermath of 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq and Power’s rapid demise shows that it will not soon be bridged.
The fact is that the knives were out for Power long before anyone knew it was she who was destined to step out on to center stage. Over the last seven years all of Washington, and not just the Bush administration, has been ridiculed by amateurs whose highest qualification to discourse on such matters is the easy access to the media that celebrity, networking and geographical proximity affords them. Power, an attractive young woman, award-winning author, and a fluent (obviously too fluent) public speaker, was the ideal blood sacrifice for a city peopled by bureaucrats who put in twelve hours a day with the single professional goal of someday getting to work in the White House, but are satisfied in any event to have served their country. And all of you, says the nation’s capital to its critics, all of you think this is easy, that anyone with half a brain can do better.
If Washington is Hollywood for ugly people, then the Boston/New York axis is Washington for ugly ideas. Yes, ideas matter in Washington for there is a lot riding on them. The difference after all between the prestige intelligentsia and policymakers is that the former are very rarely held accountable for their words or deeds. You can predict, like this petition signed by academic Middle East experts , that Israel will ethnically cleanse the Palestinians during the Iraq war and you will not lose your job or your credibility. If you are a popular novelist like Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer you can reduce US post-9/11 strategy to the President’s unresolved Oedipus complex or a Spaghetti Western teleplay, and no one will even laugh you out of a cocktail party. You can raise the roof for a “million Mogadishus” and no Iraqi war vets or their mothers will camp out on your front lawn. You can report stories handed to you as part of a disinformation campaign managed by the pillars of a murderous police state and no one will ever shout, “Seymour Hersh lied and Lebanese died.”
What’s most odd about this episode is that Samantha Power, a serious person by all accounts, is patently more experienced in her field of expertise than the half-term Senator she had served is in his own.
Lee Smith is a Washington, DC-based writer and visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute. He’s a frequent contributor to the Weekly Standard on Middle East issues.